NIB: After my bout of writer’s block I’m resuming what I hope to be weekly posts here, and after many suggestions I’m taking a fun yet slightly more educational and in-depth look into the various wine making regions of the world. This is going to be part one of an on-going series exploring my favorite red grape.
Pinot Noir, to steal a quote from Jacques Cousteau, is a strange mistress. It is one of the traditional grape varietals that is the most difficult to produce good wine from- harvest too early and your wine is watery and, well, pink. Not red. Pink. Harvest too late, and you end up with bloated overripe grapes with no acidity and very little character. And unlike other varietals, there isn’t too much you can do to Pinot in order to fix these problems without destroying its delicate flavor and balance. Aging it in oak for too long produces what I like to call Chateau Two by Four- all oak, no wine flavor. Add another grape or two to it in order to “bump” up the flavor and you end up not with Pinot Noir but with a wine that tastes like the additional grapes added. Syrah or Shiraz has been heavily utilized for this effect. After the notorious boom in the grape’s popularity due in part the the movie Sideways bad Pinot started flooding the market like a pink tide. What was a Pinot Noir lover to do? The answer: go back to the source. Well, sort of.
The Burgundy region in France has long been heralded as the birthplace of Pinot Noir. Other than Gamay (found in Beaujolais to the south) it is the only other red grape found in the region. Fortunes and reputations have been made and lost here over the centuries thanks to this fickle little grape. It is here that the idea of terroir (loosely translated, the climate, soil, and overall environment of an area) truly reaches its apex; unlike other viticultural areas of the world, here a wine’s merit is often determined by where it is grown, not who produced it.
Much of this has to do with Pinot Noir’s ability to express the flavors of its terroir very readily- slate in your soil? You get a slightly slately flavor to the wine. Chalky soil is also always another terroir style that loves showing up in the wine itself. With over 400 different soil types in Burgundy, their passion for location, location location can be understood.
Where did all of this sub-par Pinot Noir come from you ask? It would be easy to blame California, the state that bastardized the name Burgundy in the first place (yes, E & J Gallo, I’m talking to you). Many of the Syrah-laden Pinot Noirs have indeed come from the Sunshine State. However, nipping right on their heels helping to push the tidal wave along was France. Many large wine producing conglomerates based in the US and elsewhere quickly realized that there was not nearly enough inexpensive Pinot to be found in California so they took to sourcing it from wherever they could get it. Vin de Pays d’Oc and Corsica quickly became important players in feeding the wave.
So back to our question: where does one find good Pinot Noir these days? Burgundy is still a given- there has been some impact in the increased popularity of Pinot Noir here, but many people still don’t equate Burgundy itself with the grape. See again the curse of E & J Gallo and their jugs of Hearty Red Burgundy. It’s a tasty and quaffable beverage and makes great Sangria, but I’d challenge you to find a drop of Pinot Noir anywhere in that jug. Another fantastic option? head back to the US. Not to California (which still makes some lovely Pinot Noir) but to its neighbor to the north Oregon. Part 2 of this series will delve more deeply into the history of wine growing in this state and some fantastic examples of their wines. But for now, on to Burgundy!
2007 Albert Bichot Bourgogne $15.99
To call this wine a Burgundy with training wheels would be misleading and an insult to this fantastic producer. Bourgogne (the French name for Burgundy) refers to wine that has wither been sourced from several different communes or from an area that is not designated. This means that there are often some fantastic deals to be found under this classification and this wine is no exception. Look for lovely rich flavors of freshly baked cherry pie with a lush earthy finish.
2007 Domaine du Prieure Hautes Côtes de Beaune $17.99
Hautes Côtes de Beaune is a small appellation perched above Côtes de Beaune proper. Most of the grapes grown here are Chardonnay, and since it doesn’t carry the prestige of its more famous neighbor their are often some incredible values to be found here. This is especially true of this fantastic and somewhat rare red. It is somewhat fleshier and dense than many burgundies but it still has a beautiful core of tart cherries and wild mushrooms.
2007 Raquillet Mercurey 1er Cru Les Puillets $32.99
The village of Mercurey is within the sub-region Cotes de Challonais, and this particular wine is from the premier cru vineyard of Les Puillets. As mentioned before, Burgundy is all about location. This wine packs quite a bit more acidity than the Bourgogne or the Beaune, but the kick of beautiful raspberry fruit helps balance that out and makes for a very satisfying wine to have with your favorite roast bird.