Nothing new about today’s Pinot Noir debate
That our notion of what constitutes “the good” in wine is connected to a particular zeitgeist seems undeniable and unavoidable. One hundred and fifty years ago Pinot Blanc and/or Chardonnay were added to the best red wines of Burgundy “for superior finesse.” Nor were the red wine grapes of the region mostly Pinot Noir, as they are today. “Even along the Cote d’Or, Gamay [Beaujolais] occupied almost a third of plantings” in the 1850s for such vineyards as Clos de Vougeot, already by then one of the most famous wines in the world and one that helped send Burgundy’s reputation to the top of the heap. The reason vignerons used these varieties was because they knew that Pinot Noir, by ltself, made a wine that was too light, in both color and body (often little more than a rosé), to satisfy the consumer’s taste. “We have abandoned the production of pale-colored wines to conform with the taste of foreigners,” a head of Vougeot recorded, as early as 1763. Nearly a century later, when this practice of adding other grapes to Pinot Noir was at its peak, a certain Dr. Lavalle wondered if it came “at the expense of finesse and bouquet, and perhaps aging?”.
If this sounds eerily familiar, it’s because it’s pretty much the same debate we see happening today with respect to Pinot Noir (and, to some extent, with Cabernet Sauvignon). There’s a school of thought that the “California” style of Pinot Noir–which is to say, fairly high in alcohol, dark in color, robust in body and fruit-forward–does not properly represent “classic” Pinot Noir, as it has been produced in Burgundy for centuries. But, as the above suggests, the notion of “classic Pinot Noir” is a myth, existing only in the heads of certain romantics who do not know their history.
In fact, “The trend towards darker, heavier [Pinot Noir] intensified during the first part of the nineteenth century,” writes the author of the fine new book from which the above quotes and information were taken, In Search of Pinot Noir, by Benjamin Lewin, a Master of Wine. One cannot read it without realizing that there’s nothing new about today’s debate. It’s been going on for centuries, and should force us all to pause and consider. Those who argue that Pinot’s true “character” is expressed, say, only below 14%, and only through being 100% unblended, really need to answer how it is that Burgundy’s historic legend rests largely on Pinot Noirs that were blended with other, full-bodied varieties, simply because the people who bought it wanted a wine that actually tasted good, rather than one that conformed with some pre-formed concept in their heads. Nor was the debate in Burgundy confined to the 18th and 19th centuries. Lewin quotes a French expert who said, as recently as 1949, that “The finesse of wine made from Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris is superior to that made of Pinot Noir alone”; and he [Lewin] even cites first-hand gossip that the practice of blending a little Pinot Gris into red Burgundy (by “mistake”) continues unabated today.
So we are left with but one conclusion: that at any given moment in time, there is a zeitgeist that determines what we consider quality in wine. Today, in Pinot Noir, the zeitgeist is schizophrenic: a small cadre of experts and elitists insists that Pinot has to be low in alcohol and rather frail in body, in order to be considered high quality. On the other hand, a sizable number of consumers–the people who actually buy the stuff–joined by a sizable number of critics (including me) holds that Pinot Noir can express its essence when made across a spectrum of styles. Who knows whether or not some well-known California Pinot might have been “boosted” by the addition of a little red or white wine? If someone gave you a Pinot Noir you thought was fantastic, and then told you it had 5% Pinot Gris, would you decide you didn’t like it? This is not to say that a low alcohol Pinot Noir (which we will presume to be unblended) cannot stun. Nor is it to say that a high alcohol Pinot Noir has necessarily been blended. Most, I trust, have not. But I wouldn’t care, either way. Only a purist would object, based, not on the impact the wine made on his palate, but on the knowledge of how it was made. Purists are thus revealed to be ideologues; and ideology is just what this old world doesn’t need, in wine, politics, religion or anything else.