Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Ode to Pinot

Pinot Noir is both minx and manure. A supreme psychological manipulator, she will cagoule you with haunting aromas and silky textures. Once she touches your lips you are Samson with short back and sides and qualify for a complimentary life membership to Pinot Noir Anonymous (PNAS, or bínáis).

Or not, for some of her synonyms include widow maker and heartbreaker. Her schizo side can reveal an acidic, shallow vixen sans backbone or colour. But she will beguile you and you will forever seek her once she indulges you with her ethereal, ancient charms.

After some bottle age, the Pinot X-factor emerges, that something that makes you want to go back to the glass again and again to pin down those elusive characters. That ever-so-faint whiff of forest floor, farmyard or mushroomy aromas that - with some cherry or black berry notes - appeals to higher and base instincts, hijacking at once both the primordial amygdala and the evolved frontal cortex. You are now truly under her spell; you pass orgasm and go directly to post-coital bliss.

bit shy

Pinot Noir is a fragile, thin skinned variety but commercially has proved to have a far tougher skin. Although PNAS members have driven up prices worldwide, the best examples are often Burgundian, where prices can be so stratospheric that families can make a living from a few rows of vines – literally.

And prices - like the terroir* in Burgundy – can vary dramatically from one vineyard and even one row to the next. Combined with the vagaries of Burgundy’s more continental weather and convoluted AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) rules it all makes for prime manipulation of prices and markets.

It’s the Champagne syndrome – giddiness and gloss all rolled into one. Just as you get nasty, yet over-priced examples of Champagne because only Champagne from Champagne may be called Champagne, so too you may pay a considerable sum of money for a Burgundy - expecting Ella Fitzgerald but ending up with PJ Powers.

Also – despite some 800 years of practice in Burgundy – nobody really knows quite how to keep Pinot on her best behaviour although quality in the Old world has increased since the 90’s, thanks perhaps to a little help from technology and a warmer climate.

But her skittishness is in her genes. As one of the oldest cultivated vines in existence she suffers extreme genetic instability (as do other Vitis Viniferas). The dysfunctional Pinot family (Noir, Blanc and Gris) are - down to their DNA - the same grape but prone to constant genetic mutation. Not scared yet?

It also means that Pinot can adapt well to local conditions and new world wine makers who have stepped out of Burgundy’s shadow are making some delicious Pinot. Trial and error have enabled growers worldwide to workout which clones best suit their particular site.

This is where they start to sound like über models on a runway. The most productive clones, which have large-berried bunches, are described as Pinot Droit for the vine’s upright growth, while Pinot Fin, Pinot Tordu or Pinot Classique grow much less regularly but have smaller berries with thicker skin. The latter often leads to more flavours, colour and aromas in wine.

But you still have to treat her right. Her sensitive traits make her vulnerable to pests and disease. Her precocious nature makes for early budding which is prone to frost and poor fruit set or coulure – not very haute.  Pinot is also more prone to rot and viruses than other varieties.

She is also particular about where she lives, her preferred terroir* is limestone soil in a cool climate. And Pinot is far more difficult to vinify than her other famous Burgundian sibling Chardonnay, requiring constant monitoring and fine tuning of technique.

Pinot Noir’s other home is Champagne – where else? Here she is required to go au naturale, whole bunch pressed to strip her of any colour but she manages to display her characteristic red berry aromas and lushness of palate.

Another of her hidden charms is resveratrol – the phenolic compound found in red wine with proven health benefits (for the heart, of course) and which is 3 to 4 times higher in Pinot Noir than most other red varieties. This fortification of the heart is just the medicine required to deal with Pinot's capricious nature.

Pinot Noir can range from deeply coloured, tannic, oak-aged mouthfuls worthy of cellaring – no whips or chains please – to acidic dark rosés that should be drunk, drunk. The best expressions of the grape are intense, vibrant, fruity wines with elegant structure (fine tannin, lively acidity) and subtle oak influence.

I made an exciting discovery in Jonkershoek last weekend – I found a Pinot Noir at Stark-Conde for under R100 that knocks the broeks off many a villages level Pinot. It’s the 2010 Pepin Conde made by Jose Conde from Elgin fruit. It was bottled recently so if you have the discipline try give it some time for improved oak integration, just make sure you get some its fantastic value for money.
*Terroir – the total natural environment, for e.g. how the combination of soil, topography and climate influences wine quality and style. See http://huntergatherervintner.blogspot.com/2010/08/saignee-spinning-cones-and-terroirists.html   

Jonathan Snashall

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