“Maya, Indian goddess of illusions, siren of shipwrecked sailors; if only you lactated Pinot Noir, you’d be perfect.” Miles to Maya in the movie ‘Sideways’.
Pinot Noir is the ultimate Diva of the wine world: alluring, sensual, erotic, complex, temperamental, infuriating, demanding and bewitching.
For everyone involved in the chain -from grower to maker to consumer- Pinot Noir can be an absolute heartbreaker, careers and financial reputations have been wrecked on the rocky coastline of her fickle nature.
I first got an inkling of this many years ago, when one of Australia’s most renowned exponents with the variety confided to me that really it was ‘a complete bastard of a grape’, yet one that had seduced him into committing his entire professional reputation.
It is apparent that every aspect of nature and science has a profound effect on the outcomes when producing Pinot Noir: site selection, aspect of the vineyard, altitude, soils, water regime, clonal selection, pruning, canopy management, fermentation techniques, maturation techniques, filtration techniques, every step in the process does more than merely lend an accent to the outcome –it has the potential to change everything.
Another whispered legend amongst the winemaking fraternity goes something like ‘if you can make great pinot noir then you have passed the ultimate test of a truly great winemaker’, you need to be part oenologist, part alchemist and part Hougan or Manbo, (Voodoo priest or priestess) able to divine in the crucible whilst plunging naked into the cap of a wild, hot fermentation.
I am at a food and wine festival held by a five star hotel chain, the event incorporates many diverse wine tasting events and classes. I am there to be part of a panel hosting a Burgundy Grand Cru master class, when I sit down on the stage and take in the audience, I am only mildly surprised to note that a vast number of the paying guest in the room are winemakers, principally there to host other tastings and classes. This is the only master class that will draw such a fraternity throughout the weekend.
Burgundy remains the Marquis of the variety, its finest high priests offering up wines of such intensity, finesse, complexity and sensorial seduction that they have become elusive myths and legends to all but those with the strongest convictions, connections and bank accounts. For most of the world’s wine drinkers, they are unattainable, a matter of faith rather than taste, an ethereal rather than empirical experience. Unfortunately, most of the ‘affordable’ Pinot Noir coming out of the region isn’t even worthy of loitering in the shadows of such greatness.
I remember confiding to a young audience of industry professionals that the allure and frustration of the variety meant that I am somewhat disappointed in about one in every five bottles of the stuff that I consume however, the sensory sorcery wielded over me by that one magical ‘good one’ has me devoutly continuing the quest for my next great glass of ‘Noir’.
New Zealand is producing some of the world’s very finest and yet still relatively affordable Pinot Noir, Australia and the U.S.A. also produce some very good examples but a bit of local knowledge is required to divine the good from the plain bland. There are now some very promising and very affordable examples coming out of Chile, particularly in the Bio Bio Valley.
On a primary level the great Pinot Noirs run a fruit spectrum of flavours from plum to cherry and wild strawberry; to these add undertones of damp forest floor in all its glory with truffle, spice, umber, leaf, wood and more carnal, flesh like nuances. The texture is silky the acidity is fine, this keeps the wine’s curves and voluptuous nature in check, the wines are deeply complex but medium bodied, never lush and flabby.
There are also the all too sensual elements of umami and pheromones. Umami is part of the palate or taste spectrum picked up by the receptors of L-glutamate. Identified by Kikunae Ikeda in 1908, Umami can be described as a ‘pleasant savoury taste’ but perhaps the best description ever offered up was by Tim Hanni MW, who told me that to understand umami you should look at the face of a new born child as it hovered close to its mother’s nipple. The sweaty, pheromone aromas and characters in the wine need less explanation, they excite the most primal and deepest recesses of our existence -of our very soul.
I think I need a glass right now.