All Noir, All the Time
By Matt Kramer, columnist
For a while there--oh, from the early '70s to the late '80s--it looked like Cabernet Sauvignon ruled. It invaded every emerging wine nation. Every winemaker, no matter how newly minted, could handle it easily. It always tastes good, ships without spoilage and makes scads of money for everyone.
Yet something happened. While Cabernet won a decisive commercial victory, it lost intellectually. No wine today wants to grow up and be Cabernet. And few winemakers hold the old Cabernet model dear in their hearts. Instead, everybody's making Pinot Noir, never mind whether it's from Cabernet, Syrah, Zinfandel or Malbec.
Winemakers--and wine drinkers--everywhere seek red wines with Pinot Noir-ish traits: suppleness, silkiness and delicacy. Above all, there must be a fresh-tasting, berrylike scent and taste. In short, Pinot Noir.
You might call this the "Pinot Paradigm." It turns out that what we all wanted--including Cabernet lovers--was red wine with Pinot Noir's characteristics. While Cabernet won the shelves, it lost the hearts and minds. Pinot Noir, it turns out, inspired the populace.
This came home to me big-time while visiting Aldo Conterno. At 68, he is, in my opinion, Barolo's greatest winemaker. But he's no pushover. Although modern-minded, Aldo is deliberate.
Yet when Aldo presented me his not-yet-released 1995 Barolos, one taste told a revolutionary tale. I offered the wine critic's version of "Quick, Watson! Something's afoot."
"It's those new roto-fermenters, isn't it?" I demanded. Aldo agreed.
I knew that Aldo's three sons, Franco, Stefano and Giacomo, had been pushing Dad toward this not-so-newfangled device. It looks like a conventional wine-press. But while regular presses just sit around and squeeze, a roto-fermenter does the hokeypokey. It rotates, sloshing the grape skins and juice around like laundry in a front-loader.
The idea has been around for decades. Forward-thinking winemakers tried it and found it wanting. Roto-fermenters extracted deep color very quickly, but also too many harsh tannins. Wines emerged overextracted, with no subtlety.
Not anymore. Thanks to computerized controls, a deft winemaker can precisely control how much the laundry, er, the grape skins and juice, get tossed around. You can rotate for five minutes in one direction. Then let it rest for a predetermined time and rotate in the opposite direction for two minutes more. You can do this day and night, designing as many variations as you like. The computer never sleeps.
Now, you'd think that Nebbiolo, famous for its high tannin content, would be absolutely the last grape variety you'd want to subject to this device. But Aldo was convinced otherwise. He's not the first winemaker in the Langhe to use the machine. But he's the proof of the power of the Pinot Paradigm. Because what Aldo wants from Nebbiolo is what winegrowers in the Langhe have secretly suspected for generations: Inside their native Nebbiolo is a Pinot Noir screaming to get out.
"I've always known there was a connection between Nebbiolo and Pinot Noir," says Aldo. "But I've never been able to fully capture it until now. In my opinion, what I'm making now is the real Nebbiolo, filled with perfume and berries. Not the old dried-out wines that were nothing but tar and tannins."
What's important--and what makes Aldo Conterno's 1995 Barolos so significant--is that someone at the very height of his game is changing it. Lalou Bize-Leroy did the same thing with Pinot Noir itself in her revolutionary wines from Domaine Leroy. Neither of these sixty-somethings had any reason to change. The world declared them and their wines supreme. Yet the Pinot Paradigm pushed them on.
It's doing the same to winemakers everywhere. Look at today's best Cabernet, whether from Bordeaux, California or Italy. Look at today's best Zinfandel. Or the best Chianti, Australian Shiraz, Loire reds such as Chinon and Bourgueil, various Rhône reds, Barbera and so on. They're all pursuing the Pinot Paradigm.
It's turned out to be the taste of our time--never mind what's on the label.
This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a different Wine Spectator editor. This week we hear from columnist Matt Kramer, in a column also appearing in the current issue. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives.
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