February 07, 2005

Thinking about Pinot Noir

I’ve been reading a great new book called North American Pinot Noir by John Winthrop Haeger. This book offers lots of thought-provoking comments about, naturally, Pinot noir and the wines it makes not only here in north America, but in Burgundy as well. I can’t say I agree with Haeger’s opinions all the time. As one might expect, he defends North American Pinot noir from critics who claim the wines are too fruity or too alcoholic or not ageworthy compared to the great wines of Burgundy. Not to mention too oaky. These are valid arguments in the cases of some North American producers, who clearly show that Pinot noir here need not taste like Syrah or zinfandel. But for me, the wines of north American Pinot noir are too often just what the critics say – too fruity, too alcoholic, and, even if they are ageworthy, too boring to warrant the gamble that they will blossom into something worthwhile. So isn’t that a huge generalization? Sure, but it reflects my experience along with the growing number of exceptions, especially here in Oregon.

I could write volumes about the thoughts this book leaves me with (I’m still reading). But for now, I was struck by Haeger’s distinction of how Americans and Burgundians use a different vocabulary to describe their wines, something I believe exemplifies the differences in the wines themselves and, by extension, the differing intents of many old and new world producers that make the generalization above more true and hopefully less controversial. Haeger writes that Burgundians are more likely to talk about "elegance" and "finesse" in their wines, while Americans might refer to "opulence" and "fat." More significantly, he suggests that, while Burgundians might say pinot noir is essentially about "perfume," Americans more likely point to "mouthfeel." Haeger writes that his own tasting notes on Burgundies more commonly use terms like nuance and elegance than do his notes of north American Pinot noir. Yet he goes on to write, "It is not entirely clear why so-called elegance should be easier to achieve, or more often achieved, in Burgundy." He then suggests that perhaps the answer lies in the ability, due to Burgundy’s northerly climate, to get ripe flavors in the grapes at lower sugar levels (thus less alcohol). Perhaps more significantly, he suggests, the differences are due to the North American winemakers’ disinclination to tolerate the lower alcohols of Burgundy. Talk about provocative. Definitely check out this book.

For me, the distinction of Burgundy is…terrior, or the combination of soil, climate, and exposure that makes a particular vineyard, or even a part of a vineyard, unique. That’s hardly a unique opinion, but for some reason – likely that it can’t be explained by science, or at least not yet – terrior is still discounted far too easily by those who write about North American wine. Burgundy has something unique that makes its wines unique. Haeger makes the point well – winemakers around the world are using the same techniques, barrels, and other equipment as the Burgundians. What’s the one thing no one can match? Terrior.


Byron said...

Many thanks for the notes on the book-- does he discuss at all the many and varied Spaetburgunders of southern Germany? From Baden or Württemberg (or even Franken)? I'd be very curious-- they rarely register in the US, inasmuch Germans seen to drink them all--- many of the vineyards are ancient Cistercian sites the monks revered just as much as their Vougeot.

Many thanks for any info.

Vincent Fritzsche said...

Given the book title, North American Pinot Noir, it's understandable that there's little if any mention of Spatburgunder and other iterations of the grape beyond this continent. However, thanks for the comment about the Cisterns. I don't know anything about Cisterns making wine in what is now Germany, but can imagine there would be interesting terriors perhaps lost to history (at least here in the new world). One of the most interesting aspects of wine to me is the change over time in what is considered the best. We get very caught up in how certain appellations and certain expressions of any grape are "the best" today when things were very different in the past and likely different in the future. Shows to me the subjective nature of wine appreciation, and how we should all be a bit more humble before proclaiming greatness and, by extension, what else doesn't "obviously" measure up.