Pinot noir is a very … difficult … grape. It’s difficult to grow. It’s difficult to make wine with. It’s difficult to write about. It pouts. It flirts. It hurts. Its wines evoke more passion and more poetry than all others. It inspires and infuriates infatuated winemakers in every corner of the world. And why do people forgive it all its inconstancy and waywardness? Simply this – because when it is good, it is very … very … good.
And when it is bad it is horrid and, until 10 years ago, most of it was, but at least it was easy to avoid. All the red wine of Burgundy, unless you included Beaujolais (and you wouldn’t have wanted to do that) was – and is – made from it and was best given a wide berth unless you had the Obi-Wan Kenobi of wine along with you for the ride. Less scarily, it was one of the three Champagne grapes (making the fullest-bodied style which – with or without some of the region’s other black grape, pinot meunier – is called “Blanc de Noirs.”) Apart from that, there were a few misguided souls experimenting with it in places which were thankfully flung as far as their wines would inevitably be in, for example, Oregon and New Zealand.
The picture today is unrecognisable. My rule-of-thumb used to be that no bargepole was long enough for any pinot under a tenner. Now, with minimal research, it’s possible to buy wines, even from some of the biggest producers, that provide some of the best value in the £5-10 slot and blow me down if even some of the supermarket own-brands aren’t now worth a go.
The success of the wine-buddy film “Sideways” was as good for pinot’s PR as it was bad for marketing merlot and the former has been riding the wave of its reputation for making the most “ethereal” of red wines ever since. It’s true, pinot – like nebbiolo- is different, and most of the vocabulary that cabernet and shiraz and the like have taught us doesn’t usefully apply. Its most general characteristics can be described in terms of its pale and interesting looks (which often belie a quite full body), its softness and its perfume and comparators are often about sweetness and ripeness and redness – raspberries and strawberries and boiled betroot. But they don’t get up close and personal enough and people go down to the woods for terms like gamey and smokey and earthy and comparators like mushrooms and the things of the forest floor. You’re sure of a big surprise when things go entirely abstract and words like feminine and animal emerge but there is something to it all and I have lost my head with specifically feminine animal things, and intimate things mingling with perfumed things and, well, just lots of sweaty sex, really.
Pinot doesn’t like it hot – it doesn’t really work in Iberia, for example, except for Cava – but then it doesn’t like its tiny hand to be frozen, either. It’s happiest flirting at the edges of the cool climate regions of every country it’s grown in. Of the more widely available, moderately priced pinots (and I do find it hard to believe I’m writing this sentence) it’s now possible to buy the basic wines from the major Burgundy négociants (Jadot, Latour and Bouchard) with some confidence. In the southern hemisphere Chile (Cono Sur, Casillero del Diablo) leads the way with Argentina’s higher altitude vineyards showing promise while nobody would fling those New Zealand wines (Villa Maria) any more. In Australia the Yarra Valley (De Bortoli) provides value while the coolest areas in the Mornington Peninsula and, especially, Tasmania are flexing their muscles.
There are few mainstream bargains (Chalone) – but some serious quality – from producers in California and those crackpots in Oregon, it turns out, were right. Back in Europe, but more off the beaten track, overall quality for reds from Alsace and reds and rosés from Sancerre is on the up while Germany’s spätburgunders (Ernst Loosen’s Villa Wolf) are a mixed bag but the best are superb. Italy’s cooler north-east is starting to providing some of the cheapest, but quaffable examples to the supermarkets.
Pinot wouldn’t be pinot if it didn’t still tread on your dreams now and then so it should always be approached with a cool heart.