Pinot Noir – the red Grape of Burgundy, is nowhere near as widely cultivated as its white counterpart: Chardonnay. There is, almost exactly, only half as much Pinot Noir in the World as Chardonnay.

Pinot Noir is concentrated in two countries: France and the USA; which account for 31% and 21% of the World’s PN, respectively. In France the highest proportion is actually in Champagne (nearly 40% of French PN) and only 36% is from Burgundy. Over in the USA about ¾ is in California – including some sparkling wine – and ¼ in Oregon.

The next biggest PN country is Germany with 12½% of the world’s production. Then there are significant plantings (between 7% – 3.5%, in order) in Moldova; New Zealand; Australia; Switzerland and Italy. However Pinot Noir is planted in smaller quantities in most significant wine countries, about 15 have around 1%.

Pinot Noir is perhaps the most difficult of all grape varieties. It is particularly sensitive at the start of the growing season, being susceptible to late frosts and, in “marginal” climates such as its home in Burgundy, often suffering rot and malformation of the berries. At the end of the growing season it is also very sensitive to weather conditions and ripeness levels. The window between under-ripe offerings, which produce wines that can be hard and lacking in charm, and over-ripe, when one gets “shapeless” jammy wines – is particularly narrow. To complicate the issues further, very minor changes in soil conditions, aspect or treatment of the vines can produce different qualities in grapes grown even a few yards apart. In all these respects Pinot Noir is the fussiest grape of all.

At most levels the wines are either: fruity, open and gentle; or structured, age-worthy and tough. At higher levels one can – bewilderingly and pleasurably – get both. The wine tends to have sweet fruit, often raspberry and cherries, with a farmyard, vegetal component, sometimes a herbal or mineral undertone and lighter perfumes. The palate echoes this range, with varying degrees of acidity, tannin, sometimes truffle and earth notes… but usually typified by a “velvety” texture.

However when just right it can produce a wine which seems to combine more of the vinous pleasures than any other grape. Fragrance, delicacy and complexity can sometimes be combined with fruit, length and power… as costs rise from high to astronomical.

In Burgundy, the home of this grape, the local structure of wine production is actually responsive to minute variations in conditions. Very, very small vineyards make up the production of a host of individual villages. Furthermore each vineyard may have dozens of growers with a few rows of vines each – nowhere else is the idea that the place a wine comes from affects the final product so important. As well as very small variations of place being significant, the specific weather in each year is important. So the classic obsession with vintages found in Bordeaux is repeated in Burgundy.

I think the – very real – differences between vintages are, however, less about overall quality, and more about stylistic nuances and longevity. In any case it is the style and expertise of the grower makes more difference to the finished wine than most variations between vintages. If ever a grape style needs “hand-crafting” Pinot Noir is it, and wines (at any level) from a good wine-maker are likely to out-perform anything mass-produced in Burgundy or elsewhere.

There are examples of Pinot from all over the New World. In the past, they tended to come down firmly on the soft fruity side, a consequence of going for guaranteed ripeness in warmer climates. Although these offerings are sometimes reasonable, they often disappoint, going over into “jammy” strawberry fruit, and having little backbone. Even when they avoid that pitfall there are mainly typical of a warm climate style.

Now cooler areas are gaining the ascendancy. Oregon (rather than California), where smaller wineries abound anyway, has shown the way in the USA. However, one of the most promising areas is probably New Zealand. The climate in Burgundy is quite similar to that in Sancerre. So if New Zealand can develop interesting Sauvignon Blanc it probably has the basic climatic conditions to tackle Pinot. Of course that’s only the start of the problems: soil conditions, good vineyard management and a sensitivity to this, most frustrating and rewarding of grapes, are required too. Notably the, rather Southern, area of Otago has come to the prominence for NZ Pinot in the last 10 years.

Even Chile, Australia, Argentina and South Africa are producing cheaper and less jammy examples from cooler sites. It was only about 20 years ago when the first Chilean Pinot – Cono Sur – appeared; now a wider range of styles is appearing, focusing on cooler areas. However with this temperamental grape, it is no less true in the New World, the skill of the grower is decisive.

This month the ICC Group will taste 6 wines: a Burgundy against a New World example at three price points (£12, £17 and £22). I hope we can uncover stylistic or value trends and – of course – see which our tastes prefer. Notes from the tasting will be posted on or about 8th June.

Until then…

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