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What’s so fascinating about the Pinot Noir?

Why indeed, is this vintage label so fascinating? Ooh… the Pinot Noir! Its very name is magical. This particular reserve is a myth among kings, at the pantheon of vintage reserves. It is the red pride of Burgundy, the inspiration of wines of otherworldly, dreamlike names such as “Musigny,” “La Tâche”, “La Romanée,” “Richebourg”… and many others.

Does the Pinot Noir owe its full potential and excellence to the land of the Burgundy region? For its very identity? The answer is a resounding yes for purists, who lay their claim loudly and proudly – even perhaps a bit too radically for my own taste. My own answer is, to the contrary, a resounding no.

First, a bit of history

The Pinot Noir has a very long history. Experts attribute its specifications to a description written by the agriculturist Columelle in the first century. It is supposed that in ancient times when the Gauls were conquered by the Romans, the Pinot Noir was already being brewed, and could even be fermented from wild grapes. It is considered generally to originate from Burgundy, a region which has remained its home until the present day.

In the Middle Ages, the Pinot Noir’s development was aided by local monasteries, crucial to the growing renown of Burgundy wineries through their financial contribution. Each village jealously guarded its own particular strain of pinot, breeding different , creating over the course of time a great variety of grapes throughout the region. The diverse specimen which appear in regions of Germanic influence (Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Alsatia, Romania) date from this period. Their introduction to new winemaking territories (such as Australia, the US) is also due to the Germanic immigration to these regions.

As a strain which takes particularly well to a continental climate and clay and limestone earth, these grapes produce high quality red wines, evoking finesse, power, intensity, and aromatic complexity.

So finally, where does its name come from? The grape of the Pinot Noir resembles a pineapple – which explains the pine in the pinot!

The Sideways Effect

Sideways, an american film directed by Alexander Payne, in fact profoundly affected the modern history of the Pinot Noir. Released in cinemas on September 13, 2004, the film tells the seemingly banal story of two friends at a bachelors party. Miles, a wine connoisseur, offers his friend Jack a tour of the wineries of California and introduces him to his fascination with the Pinot Noir – a label portrayed as incredibly enigmatic, yet seductive.

The film made such a case for the Pinot Noir’s seductiveness, that barely a month after its release in the United States, sales of Pinot Noir literally skyrocketed. The film’s impact was not only domestic, however. Other influential anglophone countries in the world of viticulture, such as England and Hong Kong, also fell under the seduction of the “New World” Pinot Noirs, and heavily increased their imports, putting them in direct competition with the Pinot Noirs of Burgundy.

A small, but nothing less of a revolution took place, which affirmed that Pinot is good not only in France!

Magnificent pinot noirs from four corners of the world

Let us turn our gaze out to the world, then, and venture outside of Burgundy. For indeed, it is possible to drink great Pinot Noir wines foreign to the region.

For example, in the first part of this journey, we have to travel no further than the domain of our German neighbors, who have been long recognized and admired for the elegance and extraordinary ability of their rieslings to age in time. They are also able to produce, though in little quantity, a mean Pinot noir, delicious and fine. If we center on the German village of Ahrweiler, in the heart of the Ahr valley, we will find talented vintners such as the Adeneuer brothers, whose bottles of No. 1 and 2 of “spätburgunder” (Pinot Noir in German) invite our contemplation.

Now let yourself be transported to the other side of the world, to the breathtakingly beautiful landscapes which inspired The Lord of the Rings films, in a country with eight times as many sheep as people! New Zealand also produces timeless Pinot Noirs – wines of a sturdy, lively, and spicy character, with an incredible freshness. One favorite winery is the Peregrine Estate in the region of central Otago, whose wine is served on the most beautiful tables, and which proudly adorns its creations… with a screw cap! This is as modern as they come.

Let us now cross the Pacific Ocean, and change into our best mountain shoes, because we have a few peaks to climb. We are in Chile, where the Pinot Noir only emerges in high altitudes. Despite the scorching sun, grapes grow in their ideal, cool, climate during nightfall. The resulting wines are generous and powerful, with a great, fruity complexity and elegance. The best of the crop possess a bold freshness. The grapes of the Casa Marine estate, at a 2000 meter altitude just in front of the ocean, produce the incredible Lo Abarca label. The 2003 release, with a 15.3% alcohol volume, remains to this day the object of one of my most emotional wine tasting experiences.

We cap off our trip with an escapade to the far west of the United States – the state of Oregon, to be precise. This is a region which specialises in the cultivation of the Pinot Noir, and indeed, the climate, which is cooler, more temperate and humid than California to the south, allows the most talented vintners to easily rival the greatest Burgundians, if not trump them completely! (Except in terms of price, for a premium label costs upwards of $70 a bottle!) And just in case you aren’t convinced – try opening a bottle from Beaux Frères Vineyard, Cooper Mountain Vineyards, or Shea Wine Cellars – their nectars speak for themselves.

In principal, the Pinot Noir is a unique variety – noble, delicate, and rare. Difficult to tame and generous in flavor, some are aged for over 30 years, as it is unable to offer its lively charm in the tenderness of early youth.

Without a doubt, the Pinot Noir is universal, and one could even add, timeless…

* For further information there are also some fantastic Pinot Noirs produced in Switzerland, Australia (Tasmania), South Africa, Canada and other French regions (Alsace, Savoie and Languedoc).

Jean-Baptiste Ancelot

Translation – Ritz Wu