By coincidence, the first three presentations at the California Wine Experience in New York gave us a quick world tour of Pinot Noir. My colleague Bruce Sanderson started with a Burgundy tasting, followed by columnist Matt Kramer offering tastes of three Pinots from New Zealand, Oregon and the Santa Cruz Mountains of California. Finally, Jim Laube and I started off with three Pinots in our tasting of wines from Rising Stars in California and the Pacific Northwest.
I liked them all, but the panoply of styles vividly demonstrated how different Pinot can be. They ranged from the fragile delicacy of Louis Jadot Clos Vougeot 2005 to the mouthfilling intensity of Londer Estate Grown Pinot Noir 2005 from California's Anderson Valley, the blast of acidity and minerality in Pyramid Valley Pinot Noir Earth Smoke 2006 from New Zealand to the suppleness and gentleness of Penner-Ash Shea Vineyard 2006 from Oregon.
That, of course, is part of the magic of wine, this reflection of place, which Pinot seems to express more clearly than other grapes. But in the end, what matters most to me is how much pleasure the wine can deliver. Part of that pleasure derives from the intellectual appreciation of where it comes from and what that means. But it still must be a complete wine, one that delivers delicious primary fruit and complex secondary flavors in a frame that caresses rather than scrapes away with too much tannins, alcohol or acidity.
And in that regard, the New World Pinots can meet Burgundy on an equal footing. That's my opinion, but the French have been very successful over the years at convincing us that their terroir trumps everything. By now, however, it has become abundantly clear that France has no exclusivity on terroir. The differences—between New Zealand's Central Otago and Marlborough, between Oregon's Yamhill-Carlton and Dundee Hills districts, between California's Russian River Valley and Santa Rita Hills—are palpable to everyone's palate now.
So it amused me when Pierre-Henri Gagey of Jadot felt compelled to up the ante on the terroir discussion when he invoked Burgundy's history. They have been growing Pinot 2,000 years, at least since the Romans planted it there. "The grape became adapted to the individual appellations within Burgundy over the centuries," he argued.
Brilliant. Take that, New World, with your several decades of history with Pinot. You'll never catch up!
The four red Burgundies in Sanderson's tasting were all from the highly touted 2005 vintage. Of the four, my favorite was Chandon de Briailles Corton Les Bressandes. I loved its refinement, its silkiness and its delicate balance of raspberry and wet earth character mixed with hints of pomegranates and flowers. I was less enthralled with the prickly tannins in Bouchard Père et Fils Beaune Grèves Vigne d l'Enfant Jésus, though I liked the meaty undertone to its red plum flavor. The tough tannins and overt oak character of Faiveley Gevrey-Chambertin Les Cazetiers mystified me. The delicacy of Jadot Clos Vougeot matched well with its spicy tartness, but where was the flesh?
All of this set me up perfectly for Kramer's first wine, the Pyramid Valley from New Zealand. Although he said its region, Canterbury, and specifically the northern part, was not very well known for Pinot, I remember being impressed with wines such as Mountford and Giesen in the past, which are made there. But not in this style, which featured racy acidity, minerality and vivid red fruit flavors. I loved the nerve of the wine. And its ripe fruit, a characteristic which featured in the Domaine Drouhin Laurène 2005 from Oregon and the Rhys Santa Cruz Mountains Alpine Vineyard 2006.
As we listened to Kramer and tasted the wines, Laube passed me a note. "Grapes like sunshine!" he wrote. "Duh," I noted.
The three Pinots we presented in our Rising Stars tasting also featured seductive fruit character, but you wouldn't characterize any of them as fruit bombs. They were more like fruit rapiers, slipping their essence of cherry, berry or plum easily into their wrappings of silk and elegance. The two Oregon wines, both from the ripe 2006 vintage, found what I consider an ideal balance of fruit and other stuff. The California wine, from 2005, comes from a vineyard at the cool end of Anderson Valley but high above the fog, so the vineyard gets lots of sunshine and the grapes ripen beautifully. You can taste it in the wine's generous but not overripe flavors.
All the Burgundies cost more than $100 a bottle, the New World wines around $55 to $65. You pay a premium for those 2,000 years.