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Thursday, August 7, 2014

Pinot Noir: Revisited

“These California wines are all so good...”
“What did you expect?  Thunderbird?”

I still chuckle at this quote every time I watch Bottle Shock, which is very often - probably much more often than I’d care to admit.

Old World Pinot Noir
I haven’t had very much time for blogging with all that’s been going on lately, and what I really wanted to tell you about was the outrageously good GuildSomm Alto Adige master class I attended recently, because I really have lots to say about it - but today I need to focus on something else, because it seems I just learned a bit of a hard lesson over the past couple of days.

It has to do with Pinot Noir.

You’re probably wondering, then, why I led off with a quote from Bottle Shock which revolves around Chardonnay, whereas Sideways is the movie that revolves around Pinot Noir.

About the Pinot Noir...I like telling people that I believe that due to the thin skin of the Pinot grapes, the grape has both the duty and the privilege to express terroir, the climate, soil, etc., of where the particular Pinot Noir grapes grow.  I think Burgundy has been a prime example of that concept, as we can detect subtle differences (and sometimes not so subtle) among examples of Pinot Noir from vineyard to vineyard in Burgundy, the home of the Pinot.

New World Pinot Noir
I’ve been working among French people in the wine industry for some time.  I’ve come to embrace the concept of terroir the way I embrace my beliefs about just about anything else.  In a way, it’s made me feel like Pinot Noir is only Pinot Noir if it comes from Burgundy.  I know that probably sounds strange, but the Pinots I’ve been accustomed to for some time have had the telltale color of Burgundy, with the characteristics we’d generally expect of them.  And I felt like, anything other than that from a Pinot made it into something other than a real Pinot.

A couple of days ago, I attended a portfolio tasting in preparation of Madiran’s opening.  One of the areas where I wanted to focus was West Coast wines, as I’ve got rather a large hole in my proposed wine list where West Coast wines ought to be - in fact, I’ve got so few - just a few from Washington State, and a very good quality Zinfandel from California, and that’s it.  So at least I knew there was a bit of a problem there that needed to be addressed, even if I’ve still got plenty of time before opening.

Peter suggested that we taste through whites first, then Pinot Noirs, then other reds, and then dessert wines.  That proved to be a very good idea.

I got to taste through a bunch of Pinot, mostly from California.  Several of them I really liked.  Aside from liking them as much as I did, what I was realizing is that some of the winemakers were showing several Pinots on a table, all from the same winery and same winemaker, but different vineyards.  Cool, I thought.

After wrapping up the tasting, hitting a wine bar, eating plenty of oysters, and having lots of fun in the city with the rest of the night, coming back to Long Island, and waking up yesterday morning still thinking about Pinot Noir from California, it dawned on me.

Pinot Noir is still doing its job the same way it does in Burgundy, only in California.  Plenty of my former coworkers would have anyone believing that Pinot Noir is not free to express itself if it’s growing in a warmer climate, with what many perceive to be overzealous American winemakers.  Well, if the wines on the West Coast are just about the work of the winemaker and not the location, then why were wines from the same grape made by the same person showing such variation?  Because they’re from slightly different sites.

Sure, the Pinots from California have not much in common with their Burgundian counterparts - but isn’t that the point?  Shouldn’t Pinot tell us it’s from California or from Burgundy, and not that it’s an impostor if it’s West Coast?  Then I thought some more - I’ve had plenty of other Pinots from France outside of Burgundy, and I reflected on examples I’ve tasted from Sancerre and Menetou Salon.  And they’re quite different from Burgundy Pinot.  So why, then, shouldn’t a California Pinot speak to us in, for lack of a better term, a different accent than a Burgundian Pinot?  Pinot is the best example for that, in that it takes on its terroir and expresses itself to the wine drinker and tells us where it’s from.  Whether it’s Burgundy, Languedoc, Loire, Champagne, Northern Italy, Germany, New Zealand, Tasmania, Oregon, California, etc., it’s still Pinot.

This may come as a dumb and obvious observation to many, but for me, as open minded as I’ve been about wine, I’ve been very aloof when it comes to West Coast Pinot Noir.  Now I just want to find the best possible examples of California Pinots to bring to Madiran’s customers.  I want them to feel the terroir of different parts of California.  Sure, perhaps the intense sun of the West Coast makes it more challenging for Pinot to tell us exactly where in California it’s from, as opposed to Burgundy Pinot that plainly states it’s from Marsannay or Santenay or Mercurey, but at least it’s not trying to be French Pinot.  It seems rather proud to be California Pinot.  At least that’s how I perceived them at this week’s tasting.

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