Was there ever a grape so exasperating as Pinot Noir? No other variety is able to veer from the sublime to the ridiculous from one year to the next. Or even from one vineyard to the next in the same vintage. The arty freethinker of the grape world, Pinot Noir is the hardest grape to pin down, as capable of providing jaw-clenching disappointment as it is jaw-dropping amazement.
Where the other ‘big’ red grapes – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz – are tolerant to a degree and will allow winemakers to cover up, or at least work around, shortcomings in the year’s weather, Pinot allows no such luxuries. Give it a year with the wrong amount of sun, too much rain or a slightly clumsy winemaker, and the toys go out the pram. It is the harshest of critics, with a hair-trigger temper.
The challenge of taming the untameable is one of the reasons why winemakers from Chile to New Zealand all want to make it. But it’s not the only reason. At its best, Pinot Noir is more than wine; it’s a kind of liquid poetry.
Taste-wise, great Pinot delivers a host of complex, appealing flavours – from red fruits to bitter chocolate, leather and (in older wines) a kind of savoury leaf-mulch. But it’s the way it delivers them that makes it so sensual, tying them up with the silkiest of tannins and a wisp of languid acidity. Some wines stamp across your palate; Pinot Noir skips like Darcey Bussell.
It’s this combination of power, flavour and almost weightless grace that makes Burgundy so beguiling and that gives it that special ‘hairs on the back of the neck’ quality that, once experienced, has devotees coming back for more.
All red Burgundies (bar Beaujolais) are Pinot Noir, and the region is home to nearly all the world’s best and certainly all the most expensive examples of the grape. Burgundy’s great advantage is that, while it might be warmer than, say, Birmingham, in wine-growing terms, it’s still fairly cool, which allows the thin-skinned Pinot Noir to ripen slowly and develop complex flavours.
Grow Pinot somewhere too hot and, at best, you get strawberry jam; at worst, something utterly anonymous, which is why all the world’s best Pinot Noir sites are in relatively cool places. No surprise then, that New Zealand has established itself as the best place outside the grape’s French heartland: Central Otago, Martinborough and Marlborough all make good examples. But Australia’s Yarra Valley, Leyda in Chile, Walker Bay in South Africa, Russian River in California and Oregon in the Pacific Northwest all make good examples, too.
Burgundy’s most famous Pinot Noir villages are the likes of Vosne-Romanée, Echezeaux, Vougeot and Gevrey-Chambertin – but it’s never that simple with Pinot. Not all the growers who make wine in these areas are great, and even for the real genius growers, quality varies from year to year, making it possible to spend big money and still end up with something indifferent.
No one ever said Pinot was easy, but that’s part of its charm – and of course, there’s always the chance of experiencing that moment of magic…