‘Welcome to Pinot Noir Nirvana,’ said Leslie Sbrocco, master of ceremonies at the 14th International Pinot Noir Celebration in McMinnville, Oregon. Her opening remarks, addressed to a roomful of eager Pinotphiles, prompted fervent nods of agreement. If you love Pinot Noir, that most fickle, but beguiling of grape varieties, then McMinnville is a celestial spot. ‘I’d like to die with a glass of Pinot Noir in my hand,’ one IPNC veteran told me between mouthfuls of smoked salmon.
There is nothing quite like the IPNC. Every summer, Pinot envy draws 600 people to Linfield College, a verdant campus on the outskirts of McMinnville. They come from all over the world – New Zealand, Australia, the UK, Canada and France – to swap opinions and bottles of wine, to taste, to chat and to listen. Above all, they come to have a good time. ‘This is not a conference, and it’s certainly not a competition,’ Ron Kaplan, one of the directors of IPNC pointed out on the first morning. ‘It’s a celebration.’ It certainly is. Most of the delegates spend the whole weekend in shorts and T-shirts; ties and bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon are anathema.
The weekend begins with a parade of participating winemakers. They file into a wood-panelled lecture theatre, assembling beneath a giant pipe organ. Oregon winemakers stand shoulder to shoulder with Burgundians, Californians and assorted Aussies and Kiwis, accepting the applause of consumers, restaurateurs, retailers and wine hacks. Frank Prial of the New York Times suggested there might be a connection between knobbly knees and good Pinot Noir; beards are another common theme.
The subject of this year’s IPNC was the ageability of Pinot Noir, a contentious topic if ever there was one. The first panel, brilliantly chaired by auctioneer Ursula Hermacinski and entitled ‘Cracking The Pinot Time Capsule’, was Franco-Oregonian in composition. Jean Pierre de Smet from Domaine de l’Arlot, Etienne de Montille from Domaine de Montille and Martine Saunier representing Domaine Leroy lined up alongside David Lett, Dick Erath and Dick Ponzi, the pioneers of the Oregon wine industry and three of the very few local winemakers who have stocks of venerable bottles.
Each winemaker served one wine, poured to 600 aficionados by a team of volunteers. That’s a lot of Riedel glasses, not to mention old bottles. ‘Why did we present this wine?’ asked Dick Erath with a grin. ‘To be honest, it’s the only one we had enough of.’ The youngest wine on show was a 1989 Nuits-Saint-Georges Premier Cru from Domaine de l’Arlot; the oldest a 1976 Southblock Reserve from The Eyrie Vineyards. In other words, this was quite a tasting: Oregon going mano a mano with Burgundy in the most daring fashion.
The winemakers took it in turn to discuss how their wines had aged, talking about vintage conditions, vinification techniques and the contribution of terroir. They also commented, somewhat guardedly, on each other’s wines. ‘Remember where you’re staying,’ Dick Ponzi warned Jean-Pierre de Smet as he prepared to give his verdict on a 1980 Ponzi Reserve. ‘OK, you’ve still got a room,’ he told him when he’d finished.
Why do some wines age better than others? ‘I don’t really know,’ was de Smet’s honest response, pointing to his 1989 Nuits-Saint-Georges. ‘I changed my mind about this wine three years ago. Its evolution has been much slower than I expected.’ Dick Erath identified acidity as the key to ageability. ‘Great wines hit the street running, but go on developing in bottle. With Pinot Noir, acidity is a major contributor to that process; with Cabernet Sauvignon, it’s tannin.’ David Lett said that balance was the answer. ‘You can add sacks of this or sacks of that in the winery, but you won’t achieve real balance unless it’s in the grapes to start with.’
And terroir? The Oregonians and their French counterparts are much closer on this one than they used to be. ‘In 1976,’ Lett pointed out, ‘terroir was defined as dirt. We were all influenced by the ideas of the University of California, Davis.’ Now, they agree that site and macro-climate are crucial, but not necessarily soil type. ‘We don’t have any limestone in Oregon,’ added Erath, ‘but I don’t think you need it to make great Pinot Noir.’
The Oregonian wines held their own against the burgundies, partly, one suspects, because the latter were from lesser vintages (1989, 1983 and 1979). Etienne de Montille was certainly impressed, and he wasn’t even staying chez Ponzi. ‘If this tasting were done blind,’ he said, ‘I’d find it difficult to tell the difference between the Old and New World wines. It’s time to end this fight between the New and the Old Worlds; the real fight is between good and mediocre wines.’
De Montille argued that great Pinots come to resemble one another as they age. ‘They are all converging towards the same point. The influence of terroir is more apparent in a young wine. As the wine ages, it is the hierarchy of the terroir – be it grand, premier or village level – that reveals itself.’ Jean-Pierre de Smets agreed: ‘Musigny and Chambertin are very different when they’re young, but far less so at 20 years of age. Ageing makes terroir far less important.’
Lunch and the attractions
As the glasses were cleared away, delegates headed off for the first of a series of great meals prepared by top Oregonian chefs. The opening lunch was held in the Oak Grove and was a hint of things to come. Wines were passed liberally from table to table. Pinots. Jim Clendenen, the voluble, fun-loving owner of Au Bon Climat in California appeared to have brought half his cellar with him from Santa Barbara. The man is generosity personified.
After lunch, there were three, or possibly four, attractions. Some went to a fascinating scientific lecture on ‘The Chemistry of Ageability’ given by Barney Watson of Oregon State University and Tyee Wine Cellars, some went to a ‘Pinot Chat Table’, some went to ‘Sips From The Past’, a tasting of more old wines, and others fell asleep on the lawn. Despite what you might think, I chose the first option.
The evening tasting, conducted al fresco in one corner of the campus, was our chance to taste a wide range of young Pinots, and to get to grips with the 1998 vintage in Oregon, billed as one of the best of the last decade. I’ve never been Oregon Pinot Noir’s greatest fan, but I’m starting to change my mind. The 1998s from Brick House, Bethel Heights, Chehalem, Domaine Serene, Broadley Vineyards, Evesham Wood, Adelsheim, Domaine Drouhin, Argyle, Archery Summit and Erath are extremely impressive. Some locals may argue that the vintage was atypical, even ‘Californian’, but I couldn’t care less. Like 1994, 1998 was a year in which, for once, Oregonian Pinots achieved real concentration. There was also a greater degree of consistency than I’ve noted in the past. As David Adelsheim put it: ‘If you didn’t make great wine in 1998, you should consider another career.’
Oregon was not the only star turn at the IPNC. There were some excellent wines from Burgundy (Domaines Jean Boillot, de Montille, de l’Arlot and Fougeray de Beauclaire), Alsace (René Muré), New Zealand (Felton Road and Wither Hills), California (Au Bon Climat, Flowers, Saintsbury and Etude) and Australia (Coldstream Hills). All of these wines were poured – and poured liberally – at the two evening tastings. Believe me, if you love great Pinot, two hours are insufficient to try everything. I suppose there’s always next year.
The second large panel discussion, chaired by the boyishly provocative Jasper Morris MW, of Morris & Verdin, looked at younger Pinots and considered how they might age. Morris was joined on the stage by Véronique Drouhin of Domaine Drouhin, Frédéric Mugnier of Domaine Jacques-Frédéric Mugnier, Harry Peterson-Nedry of Chehalem and Bertrand Ambroise of Maison Ambroise.
The key factors for bottle age, according to Véronique Drouhin, are ‘yield, yield and yield’. She also said that to get the best out of your grapes in a cool climate, ‘you have to know what style of wine you want to produce and what sort of vintage you have on your hands. If you try to extract too much in a lighter vintage like 1997 in Oregon, it will always be at the expense of finesse.’ Like Dick Erath the previous day, she argued that the best wines always taste good. ‘If a wine doesn’t have length on the palate to start with, it will never age.’
Frédéric Mugnier, who showed a 1997 and 1996 Chambolle-Musigny, raised the heat of the debate by declaring that 1998 was his favourite vintage of the last decade. This in front of Pierre Rovani of the Wine Advocate, who had trashed the vintage in print. David Lett claimed, as impishly as ever, that ‘there’s no such thing as a bad vintage, only misperception in the press’. He hasn’t tasted many 1984 burgundies.
Ageability, rather like criticism, is a subjective business. Tastes vary from country to country. As Véronique Drouhin put it when asked about one particular vintage of Domaine Drouhin: ‘If you’re French drink the wine today, if you’re British in 10 years’ time. And if you’re American, you really should have drunk it five years ago.’
By the time we sat down for the Salmon Bake, the gastronomic high point of the IPNC, the nerdier points of winemaking and vineyard management had been left far behind. The bake, held under silvery stars to the sound of mellifluous modern jazz, encapsulates all that is best about the event. People wander tipsily from table to table, eager to share rare bottles with total strangers. ‘Hey, man, have you tried the Volnay?’ ‘Who wants some Au Bon Climat?’
This, you find yourself thinking, is how wine should be drunk – accompanied by great food and company, but with the minimum of fuss and pretension. No black ties, no verticals of this or that, no pompous collectors and label worshippers, just pure, full-throttle enjoyment. It is entirely appropriate that Pinot Noir, the greatest variety of them all, should attract such a warm, eccentric, pleasure-loving audience.