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A California palate tastes Burgundy


The World of Pinor Noir is my best opportunity every year to taste Burgundy, so I try to go to the seminars that feature it. (Not all of them do.) This year I went to the Vintage Burgundy tasting hosted by the great, funny M.S., Fred Dame, who also is President of the Guild of Sommeliers (and had the pleasure of Larry Stone M.S. at my table, so I could pick his brains, which I did, even though it meant he spent so much time answering questions he was hardly able to enjoy his lunch!). I also went to Allen “Burghound” Meadows’ Featured Burgundy Tasting. (I loved Allen’s line, “Pinot Noir is not the message. It’s the messenger.”)

I’ll just briefly mention a few of the Burgundies that knocked me out:

Domaine Marc Roy 2008 Cuvee Alexandrine (Gevrey-Chambertin)
Domaine Jean-Marc Bouley 2008 Clos des Chênes (Volnay)
a trio of 1993s:
-Camille Giroud Corton-Perrieres
-Louis Jadot Bonne Mares
-Jean Grivot Clos de Vougeot
1997 Fourrier Vielle Vignes Griotte-Chambertin

Whenever I have the chance to taste great Burgundy my brain and soul are delighted. This isn’t meant to be a treatise on what makes Burgundy great; it’s to describe the way a California critic (me) reacts to Burgundy and then, as a followup, how I react to California Pinot Noir after tasting great Burgundy.

What is so enjoyable about Burgundy for me (who tastes maybe 800 California Pinots a year, ranging from 100 pointers to execrable) is that we get away from the fruit that characterizes 99% of California Pinot and venture in a land of acidity, tannins and earthy, mushroomy, funky things. (Speaking of funk, I asked Larry if he agreed that some people play “the Brett police,” a sort of Gotcha! game to puff themselves up. He did.) These Burgundy wines taste so much drier. They are of course the polar opposites of California Pinot Noir, and clearly are very great. So tasting them, for me, is sort of like taking a vacation to a tropical paradise, when you spend almost all your time in the frozen north. It just feels really different and special.

So the Burgundies I mentioned above dazzled me (and it was amusing for Larry Stone to point out that Parker had basically trashed the 1993s that I, and everyone else I think who was present, so enjoyed. And when I repeated this story to The Burghound, the next day, he told me how he, Allen Meadows, had rated the 1993 Burgundy vintage highly. So I guess Parker got that one wrong.)

Following the Burgundy tastings, which were in the late mornings, WOPN opens their big white tents on the bluffs above Shell Beach for the walkaround tastings. I tried quite a few wines and, to tell you the truth, was disquieted, after all those Burgundies, by how overt the California Pinots were. All fruit. Not as complex, elegant or intellectual as the Burgundies. Not as challenging. I could almost begin to see why so many Master Sommeliers disparage–well, that’s too strong a word, but something along those lines–California Pinot Noir.

Then I started thinking. Wait a minute, it would be pretty weird if I turned against California Pinot Noir just because, on the 5 or 6 occasions a year I get to try good Burgundy, I’m blown away. Not only do I have a lot invested in California Pinot Noir (not monetarily; I mean emotionally and reputationally), it would plainly be unfair to criticize it for being something it’s not, or not being something else. California Pinot Noir is what it is. And then, after slapping myself across the head a few times, I came to my senses, and starting thinking even more about California Pinot Noir.

Yes, it can be very fruity. But once I was de-ensorceled (a word I learned from Gore Vidal) from Burgundy, I was able to return to an appreciation of California Pinot Noir in and of itself; and understood, once again, why my appreciation of it is so great.

There were many Cali Pinots served up this year at WOPN, but two provided, for me, a framework to more finely demarcate their evolving styles. There was Evening Land’s Sonoma Coast (which Larry Stone, being company president, was pouring), a big, dark, rich, heady wine that defines the riper, more full-bodied style. And there was (among many others) the Copain 2009 Monument Tree, from Anderson Valley, made in a silkier, drier, more delicate but nonetheless equally powerful way you might almost call Burgundian. Both wines are magnificent, each according to its own nature. There is a time for each (see Ecclesiastes 3:1). I suspect a palate attuned to Burgundy might find the Evening Land too “Syrah-like” and prefer the Copain; but, as I’ve written here before, it’s not right to put down a wine just because it doesn’t meet your expectations of what it should be like, even though it may in fact be a very good wine.

Later, I had an interesting exchange with Larry Hyde‘s young son, Peter, who, with this brother and dad, have started a new brand, “Larry Hyde & Sons.” (They don’t yet have a website.)  Thomas Bouley, the young scion of Domaine Jean-Marc Bouley, had earlier said, in replying to a question about quality, “For me, the natural is well done.” Peter was criticizing adding water to reduce the alcohol level in wine, which is sometimes done here in California (and is not unknown in France, by the way). I said to him, “Well, the French add sugar; some people here add water. What’s the difference, as far as “natural” is concerned?” I’m not certain I got an answer.

I doubt if California will ever make Pinot Noirs like the six I listed above. But why should it? Burgundy will never make a Pinot Noir like the Evening Land. And besides, California is just at the start of its long adventure with Pinot Noir while Burgundy, as The Burghound reminded us, has been at this for 2,000 years, if not longer. So, while I’m hardly prepared to say Burgundy’s best days are behind it, or that Burgundy can only replicate what it’s already done, I can guarantee you that California’s best Pinot days are ahead.

  1. In 1978, not lng after I started Connoisseurs’ Guide, I took a long trip to France to build a stronger base for my role as California critic. Even today, now almost four decades later, we still, as your essay proves, tend to look to France for a model of what so many of our grapes can produce.

    In Burgundy, I visited, among other places, Domaine Dujac, and was told by its owner and visionary creator, Jacques Seysses, that he wanted to make Burgundy that tasted of the grape, not just of the funk and complexity. His wines are still Burgundy, and they certainly have their share of local character, but they have fruit. And not just his.

    They are not Californian and ours are not Burgundian, but they are both expressions of the grape and if Burgundies all tasted fruity and California PN all tasted funky, we would still be in the same place–with a different set of parameters against which to measure.

    Besides, I remember Alan Meadows on the old AOL discussion boards having to admit that he mistook Dehlinger for Burgundy in a blind tasting. There may be a differences generally between Burgundy and CA, but there are similarities that make them part of the same family. And you are right. We ought be able to celebrate them both rather than sticking our noses in the air and saying, “Well, it’s not Burgundy so it is a non-starter”.

  2. Charlie, I’ve been shocked over the last year or so to see how dismissive so many MSs are of California Pinot Noir. Not publicly…privately.

  3. Hi Steve,

    whatever about Californian Pinot Noir, what about those from Oregon?

    They (in my limited experience of Oregon PN) are more akin to that Burgundian style, so much so that Drouhin, a successful Burgundy producer, has a major property there.


  4. Lar, I don’t get to taste as many Oregon Pinots as I would like. In the past, the best (to me) have been Californian: ripe, juicy and full of fruit.

  5. Morten Hallgren says:


    There actually is a wine region in the US producing balanced wines with fresh fruit aromas( not cooked or jammy), earthy and spicy tones and, yes, vibrant acidity. That region is the Finger Lakes region, where Pinot Noir has been grown since the 50’s!

  6. Well, look at the history of Burgundy. There is a long tradition there of doing well with the PN grape. I think it was a Monk by the name of Bernard who actually was concerned that the grapes he was cultivating and planting and nurturing actually produced a quality wine for the area it was grown in.

    Now a long time later in the New World with advanced technology we make wine from the same grape types that became famous for quality wine long ago. From my perspective it is unfair to compare. There are poor quality wines from Burgundy just as there are in CA.

    A sore point for me would be artificial pricing that one may find.

    Just because a wineries production is limited does not automatically mean a higher price, particularly for a younger winery whose product is newer and the demand for it is artificially manifested.

  7. Steve the flow of your discourse here confuses me. First you say it is a focus on fruit that defines California Pinot, then acknowledge – apparently favorably – that there is a continuum of sensory profiles among the Pinots produced in the State. Which is it?

    California Pinot does not have to be fruit-driven, and I feel that it is intellectual laziness that manifests when gatekeepers pigeonhole wines in that way.

    To my palate the consistent differences between Burgundy and California Pinot – across vintages and quality levels – have more to do with richness and minerality, rather than expression of fruit character.

  8. As a Canadian and a Pinot Lover I find this debate fascinating. I thought for years I was a tiny minority on the outside of the outer pimple of someone’s behind.

    To hear American’s talking about the challenges of growing the heartbreak grape in their homeland is heartening indeed. American Pinot is too often a one trick pony relying on nice fruit shame about the legs.

    No it is not that Americans cannot make great Pinot you have ABC, Calera and St Innocent among many others who knock it our of the park.

    The problem is not the minority it is th majority.

    Compare and contrast your Pinot Noirs to the Pinot Noirs from Otago and Martinborough in New Zealand if you want to see how far you need to go. The kiwis have leap frogged ahead of you.

    And they are not the only ones.

    The wine lover in me loves to see such a debate as it will result in higher goals being set and dreams coming true.

    Good luck to my American friends and long live Pinot Noir.

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