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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.

  1. These debates always leave me scratching my head a bit, high vs. low, oak vs. unoaked, Nikon vs. Cannon, etc.

    I always summed it up with, “a sizable number of consumers–the people who actually buy the stuff,” reasoning. It doesn’t matter what the Critics say, or what influential Sommeliers say, or winemakers for that matter. What speaks the loudest is where consumers spend their dollar. One might claim they have been misguided, but that is a pretty weak argument. People generally spend hard earned money on things they like.

    When I drink Pinot, I am looking for a range of style based on the 50-70 Pinot’s I have had over the few years I have been learning about wine. A few have fallen out of that pack, too extracted, too jammy, producing a wine more on par with Syrah. I did not like these. I have also had a few that fell short, too light, too thin, a ghost of a wine. I did not like these either.

    But amongst the ones I did like, there was no perfect Pinot, they covered many styles and I liked them for different reasons, as I am sure you Steve would agree.

    I think a winemaker’s first priority is honesty in winemaking. If you are of the opinion that great wine is a reflection of a place and a specific varietal, and that those expressions should be as pure as possible, great! Say so, tell us that’s how you approached your wine. If you are of the opinion that great wine is a wine that tastes good, even if you have to intervene in someway, great! Say so, tell us that you compiled your wine from various components available to you to make a product your customers would enjoy drinking.

    But don’t tell me that you are a purist because you make two estate wines that total 35% of your overall volume while you also produce two or three bulk wines sourced from many vineyards that allow you to keep your doors open.

  2. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

  3. In the end, if you like the Pinot in your glass, then it is a good wine regardless of the “style.” It remains challenging for winemakers, critics and consumers to be open and receptive to all “styles” of Pinot Noir as it is human nature to want to defend a personal preference and demean the alternatives. Steve, your last sentence is right on.

  4. Rhone Wines with a dash of Viognier… Its been going on forever across the globe…Poyr the wine in the glass.. Like it? Have another glass… or not : )

  5. It should say “Pour” not “Poyr” … < < < now that is a subject… Spellng and Grammar….whoa

  6. Steve I like your style and approach to wine. Celebrate the differences and not getting hung up on “rules” or division. If it tastes good I’ll lap it up out of a dog bowl and refuse to allow a cork, screw-cap, fruit forward, old world/new world, over/under 14%, blended, not blended to get in the way of me liking a wine, or buying it. I like coke, but have been seen drinking a Pepsi.

    I like Canon but have seen amazing photos from Nikon. I really dig a Pinot clone 115 and 2A, but have purchased some killer 667/777 Pinots too….I just get out the steak for those.

    God did not provide a rule book to grapes grown in a field. So to the elitist I say, have fun sitting in your box. Great post Steve!

  7. If a wine was labeled as 93% pinot noir, 5% syrah and 2% pinot gris, I doubt people would care. It is the fact that people are (maybe) not getting what they think they are getting. If you bought a diamond, you’d be upset if you found out it was cubic zirconium. Who cares if it is the prettiest damn stone ever. Now, if you knew it was cz before you bought it, then that is a different story…

  8. Shawn, I wouldn’t lap it out of a dog bowl, but I take your point!

  9. Colorado Wine Press, I agree but also think all ingredients should be listed. Having 76% Pinot and 24% Syrah and calling it Pinot is legal, but not fair to the consumer. I would buy a blended Pinot if the producer said “I added 5% of ___ to boost ___”

  10. Steve,
    Your story is interesting, and your message is clear up until your conclusion: the schizophrenia you describe appears to have been as evident in the 17-1800s as it is today, thereby undermining the formation of a zeitgeist in the collective consciousness of the wine world throughout the centuries.

    Also, I would agree with your final sentence if you replaced “ideology” with “dogma” by definition.

    The perception of wine balance seems to be the most valued quality to most professional wine critics like yourself whether is is stated or not. Thus, it is the perceived lack of balance due to alcoholic heat, excess extraction, harsh tannins, angular mouthfeel, etc that seems to turn off most critics, and that is what I read in between the lines when I see a wine with redeemable qualities panned by the media.

    @Steve: (1) a commercial winemaker’s first priority is to make wine that sell; (2) a huge majority of winemakers are quite transparent about their approach to making wine; (3) all winemakers intervene — it’s just a matter of degree; (4) producing two artisan wines and the remainder as cash cows is just sound economics because winemakers can’t always function as artiste’s in the real world.

    Many wine producers seem to rally around and promote production ideologies that suit there unique situations. For example, you hear a lot of litany about how much better estate, organic, biodynamic, or sustainable wines are compared to the alternatives, but the reality is that good/great wines can be made via many approaches, including ones that may be considered anti-artisanal. In many ways, it comes down to value (a $10 fighting varietal may be a better value than a $100 estate wine from a pedigree AVA aged in French oak). Still, there are winemakers who are only willing to make artisan wines whether they sell or not, but I have to wonder what happens to those lonely bottles sitting somewhere on a palette.

    Finally, Winemaker Bob Cabral (now at Williams-Selyem) told me a story in the mid-1990s when he was at Alderbrook about his days of making bulk wine in the Central Valley. I’m paraphrasing, of course, but it went something like this: “Try keeping a farm of 300,000 tanks from not getting stuck fermentations. Tell me that’s not winemaking!” His point is as valid today as it was then. There’s a wine and an approach for every winemaker and consumer; you just have to find your niche.

    Joe G
    Cotati, Calif

  11. Joe –

    “@Steve: (1) a commercial winemaker’s first priority is to make wine that sell; (2) a huge majority of winemakers are quite transparent about their approach to making wine; (3) all winemakers intervene — it’s just a matter of degree; (4) producing two artisan wines and the remainder as cash cows is just sound economics because winemakers can’t always function as artiste’s in the real world.”

    Joe, I agree with all of these points. My main point was that I have met several winemakers who preach one thing, but do another in order to make a living. There is nothing wrong with that, just be honest about it. Say you have a few wines that express their terroir and tatse great, and your other wines were made to taste great and offer a good value but are not a pure reflection of a specific location.

  12. @Wayne: Thanks for acknowledging my comments.

    … and sorry about by spelling faux pas: ‘palette” should have been “pallet”.

  13. … and that should have been “farm of 300,000-gallon tanks” in the last paragraph.

  14. A true Burgundian, and those “experts and elitists”, would argue that it isn’t the 100% pinot noir or 100% chardonnay that makes their “fragile” wines great. Their wine isn’t “pinot noir” at all – it’s “Clos Vougeot”, “Echezeaux”, and “Cros Parantoux”. It’s just become Burgundian tradition that mono-varietal chardonnay and pinot noir wines serve as the best catalyst for expressing their vineyard’s terroir.

    Also, we don’t need to tackle the whole effect of climate on ripening, do we? I don’t think Clos Vougeot has struggled to properly ripen pinot noir beyond a rose color in many moons.

  15. Steve, what are the sources in the first graph? I’d like to read them (en francais, maybe).

  16. Stan Doric says:

    However the style when pinot noir is presented as a wine for those that have interest in reds it would be classified as a royal by most,the rest is defined by individual care and upbringing of which is interpreted to one’s experience for judgment.

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