Allen Meadows: Why I love Pinot

  • Monday 22 February 2010

She can be fickle, and she’s certainly high maintenance, but her transcendent beauty, focused authority and soulful passion has captivated allen meadows for more than
30 years. He tells us why

It has been said that those who love Pinot Noir are the most passionate of all wine lovers. Pinot enthusiasts will spend hours trying to find a few bottles of exceptionally rare wines and freely spend considerable sums on criss-crossing the globe to commune with others who share their passion. It’s even possible to attend a conference celebrating the Pinot Noir grape every month of the year.

Most Pinot enthusiasts cut their wine drinking teeth on other varieties for the first five to 10 years. By the end of this training, they have become relatively sophisticated in their tastes, understand what they like and generally know their way around a wine store. More prosaically, this is also often the point when young wine lovers can begin to more comfortably afford their evolving tastes. It is a sad fact that inexpensive, high-quality Pinot Noir is almost non-existent. While it is possible to buy good-quality, reasonably priced, entry-level Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay, alas this is not the case with Pinot.

While increasing sophistication and available funds can explain much about the transformation of taste in favour of Pinot Noir, there is something more fundamental at work. This tipping point often coincides with the moment when the typical wine lover begins searching to add an intellectual component to their wine appreciation. Dare I describe it as the point where mere hedonism is no longer sufficient?

However the transformation occurs, it almost always involves amazement and appreciation over how a wine that seems so light in the mouth can pack so much focused flavour authority. It is what I call the ‘power without weight’ palate impression that a fine Pinot delivers better than any other red wine. Add to that Pinot’s unmatched ability to offer a chameleonesque range of drinking experiences and it’s no wonder the Pinot neophyte is rapidly seduced by the grape’s siren call. Few of us can resist.

The road less travelled

In contrast to the more typical wine-learning path, I have been interested in Pinot-based wines almost from the moment I started ‘chasing the grape’ in 1976. After a year-long dalliance with Bordeaux, by happenstance I tried a bottle of 1967 Richebourg from the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti that completely changed my wine horizons. That Richebourg moved me so profoundly that I became fascinated with all things Pinot Noir.

Moreover, it lit a burning desire to see for myself the land and the people that had created the most beautiful wine that I had ever experienced. That desire was gratified in 1979 when I spent almost two months in Burgundy, walking the vineyards and chatting with anyone and everyone who would deign to educate this by-then obsessed American.

It has been 30 years since that first visit and while I have occasionally poked around the rest of the wine world, I have always held Pinot-based wines in the highest esteem. As someone who has seen a few periods where even the best Burgundies languished on retailers’ shelves, it is with wry amusement that I look at the explosion of interest in Pinot Noir since Rex Pickett’s 2004 novel (later made into a film) Sideways. Interest in the grape, and the wines created from it, has never been higher.

While a social happening, such as a wildly popular novel or movie, can create interest in something, it cannot sustain that interest if there is no intrinsic substance beyond novelty. If this observation is true, then we should be able to establish the substance behind Pinot Noir as well. But first, a few basics are in order…

Pinot Noir is among the most ancient grape varieties, and is estimated to be only one to two generations removed from the original single plant species called Vitis Vinifera. There is still debate as to whether Pinot’s cultivation in Burgundy is the result of it having been brought by the region’s early invaders, specifically the Greeks and Romans, or whether it is a domesticated version of wild vines that were previously growing in the forests.

Recent archeological work has established beyond doubt that vines were already being cultivated in Gevrey-Chambertin by the end of the first century. It is not known with certainty if these vines were necessarily Pinot Noir, but it is certainly plausible.

Whatever the roots of Pinot in Burgundy might be, it is indisputable that the history of the grape is closely aligned with that of the region itself. By the 12th century, it had already become the dominant variety in the Côte d’Or. This is all the more surprising given Pinot’s well-deserved reputation for being difficult to grow and, in a region this far north, notoriously difficult to ripen. That the grape was capable of creating sublime wines was not in question, but it often didn’t – much to the chagrin of the peasantry who depended on the wine produced for income, as well as a potable liquid that was safer than water.

Not illogically, some peasants were tempted to plant the more productive Gamay, which had also shown an affinity for Burgundy’s soils and climate. It was easier to grow and ripened earlier, yet, despite these significant benefits, the Gamay-based wines were rarely as good. The lower prices paid for Gamay-based wines eventually began to compromise the tax revenues of the ruling classes and ultimately led to Duc Philip le Hardi’s famous 1395 edict, banning the ‘disloyal Gamay’.

Quality improvements in both the vineyards and the wines during the Middle Ages were driven primarily by the Benedictines and their successors, the Cistercians. The church-owned vineyards were considered to be the finest in Burgundy and their ceaseless efforts drove quality inexorably upward, adding to the region’s reputation. However, as significant as these contributions were, they are not the most consequential of them. Instead, the most lasting and important of the monks’ contributions was the notion of terroir, that ubiquitous concept celebrated by some and loathed by others.

Whether one agrees with the concept or not, it’s a critical idea – terroir is the basis for understanding Burgundy. It is the precept upon which the region’s wines are classified, conceptualised, discussed and marketed; one cannot penetrate the Burgundian mindset without acknowledging this reality. To Burgundians, the grape is no more than the vehicle through which the underlying terroir is expressed.

Terroir is also the basis upon which Burgundy’s celebrated hierarchy is constructed, which codifies in a four-tier system the underlying assumption that some vineyards are inherently more gifted than others. The monks attached special significance to the differences between the vineyards, interpreting them as divine messages. Hence they strove to refine these earth-based signals. This is particularly noteworthy because, unlike 95% of all the other wine regions in the world, they did not blend the differences away or blend grape varieties. Purity of expression was the goal.

Vinously speaking, the monks ruled Burgundy for more than 900 years. Their meticulous record-keeping and insights were legendary as they compared wines from ever-smaller parcels, noting the tiniest of distinctions over succeeding generations that resulted in a very effective mapping of the underlying voice of the land. So widespread were these views about vineyard quality that even when the monks were deposed and their properties seized in 1789, their influence and philosophical leanings lived on and, in fact, remain with us today.

Pinot as lie detector

Pinot’s exquisite sensitivity to where and how it is grown and the techniques used in its production do much to explain why Pinot-based wines continue to fascinate us today. The grape’s ability to so accurately reflect its origins also does much to make clear the widely accepted platitude among winemakers that Pinot cannot reach its full potential if it is treated like any other red wine variety. Alas all of this tenderness and careful handling tends to make good Pinot an expensive drink.

Though there are many reasons that contribute to the high prices, the primary explication is that good-quality Pinot does not come from high yields. There are always exceptions to any rule but in general, yields for Pinot are half those of Cabernet Sauvignon. Moreover, farming Pinot is always more expensive than growing the equivalent amount of Cabernet, primarily due to its heightened susceptibility to various vine maladies. Reasonably good Cabernet can be found for about $10 (£6), whereas it’s rare to find interesting Pinot below $25 (£15). Indeed, really good Pinot is a very rare animal below $40 (£25) or so.

Emotionally thrilling Pinot is the rarest animal of all; I can count on one hand the number I’ve had that would sell for less than $100 (£60) today. Indeed, I coined a phrase that captures the essence of the challenge: ‘In the search for great Pinot, you may not always get what you pay for, but you will never get what you don’t pay for.’ In short, great Pinot is never cheap.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons why wine lovers seem to consistently hold Pinot to a higher standard than other wines. A scandal in Bordeaux or some new winemaking gimmickry that further distorts the resulting wine in California or Australia is barely newsworthy. But there is something deeper going on with Pinot-based wines. People seem personally offended if the same distortions, legal or otherwise, occur in Burgundy. Serve a passable Syrah to your friends and there are few complaints, if no compliments.

But serve a passable Pinot to the same group and there’s almost inevitably someone who voices disappointment and speaks indignantly of unrealised potential and confidences abused. It’s worth asking why this is. Is it simply that the clear expression of place the label promised was not delivered?

Partially, but there’s more than that at work here. Wine distribution channels are awash in flashy and ultra-modern, fruit-driven wines that are technically perfect and easy to like but soulless. While there is nothing overt to dislike with such wines, the enthusiast in search of something profound can immediately sense the absence of distinction, the absence of any underlying terroir and the absence of soul. As a friend of mine once said, ‘Soulless wines exist because the winemaker intervened to provide what the vineyard either has not or could not.’

This is why, of all the grape varieties that exist, Pinot alone bears the brunt of our moral expectations. Pinot is the last bastion where that sense of place is not only expected but essential to creating a gratifying, even moving drinking experience. Pinotphiles understand that because Pinot is capable of delivering a captivating and unique drinking experience, that’s what it should do. In this sense, Pinot is the moral compass of the wine world. This, more than any other reason, is why we pay top dollar. And this explains why Pinots that fail to deliver – and there are unfortunately too many of them – evoke a much greater sense of disappointment.

We feel let down; indeed, we have been let down. It is, of course, possible that the site specified on the label has nothing interesting to say. It’s also possible that the winemaker didn’t believe in the site enough to allow it to speak. Either way, Pinots that are held in the highest regard are those which can consistently speak of their origins and which no amount of technological intervention or winemaking sophistry can replicate.

Which explains why a gifted terroir that is allowed to speak clearly through the vehicle of Pinot Noir is capable of giving us unique wines of transcendent beauty that no other variety can match.

Happily, there are more and more examples of great Pinots available, not only in Burgundy but in California, Oregon and New Zealand. Honourable mention should also go to a

number of wines coming from cool-climate Australia, in particular the Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsula.

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