The first taste of a great Pinot Noir can turn a wine lover into a Pinot Noir fanatic.
For me, it was a then-25-year-old Burgundy—Richebourg 1966 from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. The bouquet was sensational, complex and fleeting, with sweet fruit, rich earth, truffle and decadent notes of fading flowers and autumn leaves. The texture was silky, delicate on the palate yet with an intensity that continued for what seemed like minutes.
Pinot Noir makes sensuous wines. It wears its heart on its sleeve. By contrast, Cabernet Sauvignon is more direct, with a recognizable character that appeals to the intellect more than the soul. Although made in a wide range of styles, the wines from Pinot Noir, relatively speaking, are generally softer and of the earth. They are wines with curves rather than edges.
The most popular regions for Pinot Noir are Burgundy and Champagne (see "The Double Life of Pinot Noir," page 91) in France, and California and Oregon in the United States. The grape's star is rising in New Zealand, where it's the third most widely planted grape variety after Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay (and gaining on the latter). It is also grown in France's Alsace and Loire regions, Germany, Austria, Italy, Switzerland, Eastern Europe, Canada, Australia, South Africa and South America.
Pinot Noir complements a wide range of cuisines, but goes particularly well with game birds and dishes with mushrooms, truffles or other earthy flavors. Some versions are light enough to match well with fish; in Oregon, Pinot Noir is a favorite pairing with the region's abundant salmon. Young, fruity styles can even stand up to Asian dishes—but go easy on the heat.
Although inexpensive bottlings exist, Pinot Noir tends to be expensive. I have found very good Burgundies in the $20 to $25 range, particularly from less-famous appellations. However, excellent single-vineyard bottles from California, Oregon and Burgundy's premiers crus are more likely to fall in the $50 to $100 range. The top New World labels rarely exceed $100, but grand cru red Burgundy can easily reach several hundred dollars. The highly esteemed DRC Romanée-Conti 2003 sells for $2,400 a bottle.
At its best, Pinot Noir boasts a core of juicy fruit flavors. Red, black and wild cherry, strawberry (including the delicate wild strawberry fraises de bois), raspberry, blackberry and black currant notes abound. Floral aromas, especially violet in young bottles and rose in mature examples, are common.
Pinot Noir from Burgundy is rife with mineral notes, particularly when from vineyards where limestone is close to the surface. The wine can evoke spice flavors, stemming either from its terroir or the use of new oak and certain fermentation techniques. I often find aromas of sandalwood in Burgundies where whole-cluster fermentation, which includes the stems, is used.
The primary fruit flavors fade with age, generally receding after 10 to 20 years in the case of top-quality Burgundy and after five to 10 years with California and Oregon Pinots. The fruit gives way to secondary flavors of rich, decadent earth and forest underbrush notes—what the French call sous-bois—as well as spice. These earth and spice flavors really emerge after 20 years in the best Burgundies, and after 10 years in the best wines from the United States.
For many wine lovers, it is these mature flavors that define Pinot Noir. Perhaps appealing to our primitive instincts, the wild, earthy, animal side of Pinot Noir is distinctive and alluring.
Although each region produces a range of styles, generally speaking, Pinot Noir from Burgundy is lighter in body and more structured (the extremely ripe 2003s are an exception), with more earth and mineral notes accenting the fresh and wild cherry and berry flavors. California makes the fruitiest versions, fleshy and big-boned, with plenty of plum, blackberry and cherry flavors and more weight. Oregon, still fine-tuning its styles as new vineyards enter production, is capable of both Burgundian and California styles. New Zealand is an emerging region whose cool-climate Pinots show bright red and black fruit flavors but can also be herbaceous.
Yet Pinot Noir is so transparent in its ability to transmit a sense of site that it's difficult to match styles to entire regions. This transparency reaches its apogee in Burgundy, where the grape expresses the varying geological makeup of the limestone and clay soils of the Côte d'Or. It explains why Gevrey-Chambertin produces muscular reds, Chambolle-Musignys tend to be more refined and elegant and the wines of Nuits-St.-Georges can be rustic and wild.
The notion of terroir is a difficult one to grasp. I'm not convinced that there is a direct transmission of certain flavors from the soil. Rather, the composition of the soil, in Burgundy for example, affects the character of the wine. The higher the clay content, the more weight and flesh; a stony soil tends to lend elegance and a more mineral character. The wines' textures are different. The amount of water available to the vines can also make a difference, as can the effect of wind and temperature in the microclimate of the vineyard. It's a complex concept.
Terroir also creates a hierarchy of quality. This concept is the basis for the Burgundy appellation system. A site possessing better environmental conditions generally has a competitive advantage. This is not always the case; in the extreme heat and drought of 2003, for example, some lesser sites, with richer soils and higher water retention, were more successful.
Other factors come into play, too. Vine age, clonal selection, viticultural practices, yields and winemaking styles can amplify or obscure the influence of terroir. So, while I can detect different terroirs among a range of wines from one producer, faced with a flight of Pinot Noirs from around the world, determining the origin of each in a blind tasting would not be an easy feat.
Given Pinot's lack of color and tannins, its delicate flavors and lighter body, some critics and consumers feel that it doesn't age well. Some Pinots tend to lose color quickly, turning a brickish or orange hue at an early stage, but then hold this color for decades. In my experience with Pinot Noir, however, a dark color does not necessarily guarantee higher quality any more than a light color indicates inferior quality.
Here, too, terroir is a factor: The better a site's pedigree, the better the wine's potential for aging. Combine that with a great vintage and conscientious farming and winemaking and you have the ingredients for a long-lived Pinot Noir.
I have had bottles from Burgundy dating to 1919 and many from the 1960s and '70s. I have also drunk my 1990s too young. If made well and stored properly, wines from Pinot Noir are capable of aging as well as any other varietal or blend.
Pinot Noir from newly developed areas may not have this track record yet, but much has changed in the past 20 years in California, Oregon and New Zealand. The wines are continually improving. Remember, Burgundy has almost 2,000 years of experience growing vines and making wine.
That said, few grapes are as fickle as Pinot Noir. Notoriously difficult to grow, thin-skinned, low in color and light in tannins, it also requires patience and nurturing in the cellar.
Part of Pinot Noir's fickleness is that it doesn't grow just anywhere. It is thin-skinned, but likes the margins of cultivation. The cool climate of Burgundy provides enough light and warmth. Much of California is too hot, but the cooler areas, especially where coastal breezes temper the heat, are suitable.
In the cellar, it requires gentle handling. The grapes are often destemmed but not crushed; some winemakers even prefer to use whole clusters, stems included. It is typically fermented in small, open-top vats or tanks, with the cap of the skin punched down rather than the juice being pumped over. It is racked once, maybe twice, in contrast to Cabernet, which is racked four or five times in its first year. Pinot is particularly fragile at bottling and takes longer to recover after the fact than other grape varieties.
No wine changes more from grape to bottle. Thin and awful when yields are too high or the grapes have been poorly handled, sublime and sensuous when everything goes right, Pinot Noir is made in frustratingly small quantities from small plots of land.
Yet its charisma is so strong, many consumers, growers and winemakers refer to it as the Holy Grail of the wine world. Those of us who have enjoyed a magical bottle of Pinot Noir are irresistibly compelled to seek out others. Despite the many disappointments, the pleasures always seem to justify the search.
PINOT NOIR ACREAGE as of 2004
|Region||Total Acres of Vineyard Land||Acres Planted to Pinot Noir|
Burgundy is the historical and spiritual home of Pinot Noir. It is one of the oldest wine regions in existence. Perhaps its greatest legacy beyond its wines is the notion of terroir. Walk through the vineyards today and you plunge more than 1,000 years into history.
Clearly, red Burgundy is the prototype for those around the world who pursue Pinot Noir. Yet Burgundy has witnessed its share of struggles over the centuries, and has changed its styles and techniques for Pinot Noir in response. However, the quality and consistency of red Burgundy has never been better than today. For this, we can thank a dedicated generation of growers and the advances in viticulture and winemaking of the past 20 years.
At its best, red Burgundy exhibits a purity of flavor, be it fruit, floral, spice or mineral. These flavors take on complex nuances from the soil, a mix of limestone and clay that dates back more than 135 million years to the Mesozoic era.
Burgundy lies in central eastern France, roughly between the cities of Dijon and Lyon. There are five major subregions: Chablis in the north, Côte Chalonnaise, Mâcon and Beaujolais in the south, and the Côte d'Or, in the middle, the traditional home of Pinot Noir.
The geology of the region, in the valley of the Saône river, is complex, created by the downward movement of two faults. This action exposed several layers of rock along the western flank, creating bands of soil that are crucial to the terroir of Burgundy. At its heart, the Côte d'Or is an almost continuous escarpment of vines, with more than three-quarters of its 14,150 acres planted to Pinot Noir. "Pinot Noir is able to digest the maximum of the minerality, the life of the rock," expounds Jacques Lardière, longtime winemaker at Maison Louis Jadot in Beaune.
The climate in Burgundy is continental. Its northern location is at the margins of cultivation of red grapes. In Chablis, Chardonnay supplants Pinot Noir because the red grape is difficult to fully ripen there.
This combination of bedrock and marginal climate sets the stage in Burgundy for Pinot Noir to reach its apogee. More than 1,500 years of cultivation has advanced its production.
In 1395, in an attempt to encourage better wine quality in the Côte d'Or, Philip the Bold outlawed the high-yielding Gamay grape in favor of the "Noirien" grape. And vines were being cultivated there much earlier than that. From its outpost in Autun, an early Gallic tribe under Roman rule is reputed to have established vines in Burgundy's Côte d'Or in the fourth century.
Near the end of the 11th century, a community of monks set up headquarters at Cîteaux, between Beaune and Nuits-St.-Georges. They applied themselves to the land, particularly grapegrowing and winemaking. These Cistercians began selecting plant material, pruning and training and, most importantly for Burgundy, developing the system of individual vineyards, or crus, based on tasting similar characteristics in the wines. They were given land, which eventually became the Clos de Vougeot, and were responsible for the quality of wine at a time when Burgundy was an independent duchy under the Valois dukes and as powerful as neighboring France.
The monks established the beginnings of the appellation model almost 800 years before it was formalized, in 1935. Their demarcation of small plots of land based on quality and character resulted in the most complex system in France. The hierarchy for Pinot Noir, from the top down, consists of 25 grands crus, with each vineyard as its own appellation. The next level is premier cru. There are 26 premier cru appellations, comprising hundreds of vineyards eligible to append their names to that of an appellation.
The more than 30 village appellations simply carry the name of the commune where the vines are located, but often include the individual vineyard, or climat, where they grow. At the basic level and the highest volume of production are the regional wines, which may be as general as Bourgogne Rouge or more specific, such as Côte de Beaune or Haute Côte de Nuits.
This hierarchy of appellations broadly matches where on the hillside the vines are situated. Grands crus, often found midslope, have the best exposure, slope, drainage and soil mix, as well as protection from wind and frost. The premiers crus tend to be located below, or sometimes above the grands crus. Upper slopes are cooler and therefore ripen later. Village-level vineyards most often occupy the lower portions of the slope, where the soil is deeper, more fertile and less well-drained. These conditions make full maturity difficult except in the best years or in cases where the grower works meticulously to get the most from his vines.
This hierarchy gives the grand cru wines the potential for the most depth, flavor complexity, structure and longevity—what some call pedigree. Whether they actually realize that potential depends on the winemaking and, more so, the work in the vineyard.
Burgundians are farmers first and foremost. Their vineyards are planted at highest density, with either a selection of vines taken from their own plants or from the diversity of clones available today. At Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, codirector Aubert de Villaine has 60 different clones, all developed from the ungrafted vines of Romanée-Conti before they were pulled up in 1945.
Beginning in the mid-20th century, as knowledge and technological innovation progressed, viticulture in Burgundy swung from the traditional to a reliance on modern science and agro-industrial products. In the past 20 years, however, many vintners have returned to traditional methods, abandoning fertilizers and herbicides for plowing, sometimes by horse to avoid compacting the soil. Christophe Roumier of Domaine Georges Roumier explains that limiting fertility hastens the evolution of the vine and reduces yields by up to 20 percent.
Pressure placed on the vines by autumn rains used to result in good vintages just every third year or so. However, the past 20 years have been warmer and, since 2001, drier in Burgundy. "Here, in our latitude, Pinot Noir has always demanded 100 days from flowering to ripening," Roumier says. "That's the same today, but budbreak is earlier."
The warming trend has increased the odds of success for Burgundian vintners who choose to gamble for ripeness at the risk of inclement fall weather and its accompanying onset of botrytis, a grape fungus desirable only in the production of dessert-style whites. "In Oregon, we very rarely have to sort out fruit for grapes affected with botrytis," states Véronique Drouhin-Boss, enologist at Maison Joseph Drouhin in Burgundy and winemaker at Domaine Drouhin in Oregon. "If we sort in Oregon it would be for second-generation clusters picked by mistake. In Burgundy, we often sort out for grapes affected by botrytis."
Growing ripe grapes not only achieves the fruit purity Pinot Noir from Burgundy is known for, it translates to better density and tannin structure in the wines.
Vineyard practices have evolved, but a typical cellar in Burgundy looks like it hasn't changed much since the Middle Ages; usually beneath the domaine, its arched ceilings ooze with mold and the barrels are piled high in cramped spaces and under low ceilings.
Nor has the winemaking changed much. The traditions of using indigenous yeast for spontaneous fermentation and bacteria for the conversion of malic acid to lactic acid prevail in Burgundy, setting it apart from its New World counterparts. Burgundian grapegrowers feel the indigenous yeasts aid in the expression of terroir.
A few concessions to technology give the s more control. One key improvement is temperature-controlled tanks or vats. Another is the use of sorting tables to eliminate any berries that are unripe, tainted by rot or damaged in any way.
The biggest challenge facing Burgundy today is competition from New World wines. The top-quality Pinot Noirs from Burgundy are made in small quantities and sell out quickly. But at the village and regional levels, Burgundy is losing ground to fruit-driven reds from Australia, New Zealand, the United States and South America.
On one hand, the problem lies in the poor quality of many Burgundies at the village level. Drouhin-Boss and others feel this is changing. "The overall quality [in Burgundy] is better. The care in the vineyard has improved. World competition is forcing growers and producers to make wine with more concentration and more balance and color, without compromising terroir character," she says.
On the other hand, consumers have embraced the hedonistic, ripe, thick, fruity varietals over the lighter Burgundies with unrecognized regional labels. Jadot's Lardière is sanguine on this point: "We have to wait for customers. I'm sure they will come back to this kind of wine."
Improvements are being made in Burgundy, in some cases leading to riper, fleshier wines. But great, traditional, classic red Burgundy—distinctive and fascinating Pinots—will continue to inspire New World growers and winemakers. Even as new styles of Pinot Noir emerge and evolve in more regions around the world, Burgundy will remain the model for those on the quest for wine's holy grail.
In the past 20 years, California Pinot Noir has arrived in a grand, sweeping, luxurious way. But it has been far from an overnight success.
Pinot Noir has been grown in California since the early 1800s, about as long as Cabernet Sauvignon. But Cabernet quickly found its sweet spot, Napa Valley, where it has been making exceptional, distinctive wines for more than a century. It took much longer for vintners to match the right clones of Pinot Noir to the right climates and sites. It wasn't until the early 1990s that California Pinot Noir's quality and popularity skyrocketed. Currently, 24,000 acres are devoted to Pinot Noir (compared with the state's 75,000 acres of Cabernet).
"I think that Pinot Noir in California has undergone huge changes in the past decade," says Brian Loring, founder and winemaker of Loring Wine Company, in Lompoc in Santa Barbara County. "I would point to three factors that have driven this revolution: new AVAs, new clones and a new definition of what constitutes ripe fruit."
Though California's climate is considered Mediterranean, it is not homogenous. Many of the areas where other grape types thrive are too warm for Pinot Noir. Over the years, new regions and AVAs emerged as suitable for cultivating the finicky variety, and the development of new vineyards within these regions reflects fine-tuned site selection.
In general, compared with Burgundy, California Pinot Noir makes generous, fruit-filled wines, fuller-bodied and with more black fruit flavors.
However, specific regions are developing distinctive styles and consistent characters. Pinots from Sonoma Coast and Santa Rita Hills tend to have more texture and density. Monterey is known for elegant Pinots, though they can be fleshy. Russian River Valley versions show cherry and berry flavors, sometimes with a hint of earthiness. Carneros Pinots can be lean, showing tart cherry and spice notes.
Before Prohibition, Pinot Noir grew mostly in obscurity, under a variety of names, and was often blended with other grapes. In the 1930s and '40s, Beaulieu Vineyard and Inglenook pioneered top-quality varietal Pinots. Plantings of the grape increased in the 1960s and 1970s to satisfy the growing production of Champagne-style sparkling wine. But after peaking in 1978, with more than 10,000 acres, Pinot Noir plantings declined until the boom of the 1990s.
The modern era for California Pinot Noir truly began in 1953, when James Zellerbach created Hanzell in the Sonoma Valley. Inspired by Clos de Vougeot, Zellerbach devoted the winery to varietal bottlings of Pinot and Chardonnay. But lacking the centuries of experience that guided the monks who planted Burgundy's vineyards, Zellerbach chose a site that today is considered less than ideal. As current winemaker Michael Terrien concedes, "Pinot Noir is not the likely grape to plant here, as this is a warmer microclimate than the more recently developed coastal locations."
The quest to produce great Pinot Noir in California led vintners to cooler and cooler sites. In the 1980s, Carneros and the Russian River, Santa Maria and Santa Ynez valleys became established, as did Chalone in the Gavilan Mountains. The most recent wave of AVAs found to be Pinot-friendly includes Sonoma Coast, Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey, and Santa Maria Valley and Santa Rita Hills in Santa Barbara County.
Santa Rita Hills, a relatively new AVA, established in 2001, is a double east-west maritime valley that opens up to the Pacific Ocean just west of Lompoc.
"The channel to the coast opens up the area to heavy fog in the morning and heavy winds in the afternoon," explains Wes Hagen, vineyard manager and winemaker for Clos Pepe in the Santa Rita Hills region. "This keeps the fruit hanging on the vine from March until October, and we can often go an entire growing season with temperatures under 90° F."
Soils are less of an issue than climate. Compared with Burgundy's Côte d'Or, California's Pinot Noir-conducive AVAs have much less limestone. Compositions vary from loam and clay to gravel, marine fossils and sandy sites. Most importantly, the best are well-drained and low in fertility.
Deciding which Pinot Noir clone to plant is easier today because more than 65 registered clones are now available to California growers. (Because of its tendency to mutate, there are more clones of Pinot Noir than of any other grape.) Clones contribute a significant style factor to Pinot Noir, resulting in more distinctive wines of greater varietal character.
"We like to have a selection of clones if possible," says Adam Lee, founder and winemaker of Siduri. However, clones alone do not ensure quality. "I think we're only beginning to figure out how to balance yield, leaf coverage, when to thin and get good physiological ripeness without high sugar," Lee says.
For the most part, California Pinot Noir is ripe. You can almost taste the sunshine. The key is to balance the ripeness and power with elegance, finesse and the nuances of delicate flavors that Pinot Noir is capable of expressing.
Many winemakers have turned this bounty to their advantage, creating a distinctively Californian style of Pinot Noir. "Before, almost everyone was picking underripe [grapes]," explains Paul Hobbs, owner and winemaker of Paul Hobbs Winery. "Now winemakers know to be damned with the sugar and make sure the seeds are good and brown. It's all about ripeness, especially ripe tannins."
"You shouldn't fear alcohol if you are growing a variety under the proper conditions," confirms John Wetlaufer, who manages the vineyards at Marcassin and, along with wife and partner Helen Turley, consults for others. "The key is designing the vineyards for uniform and perfect ripeness, then performing a gentle vinification."
However, this new, riper style of Pinot Noir has created risks and controversy. If Pinot Noir is overripe, it tends to be low in acidity, which involves certain risks in the winery and affects the overall balance and longevity of wines.
High alcohol can be another consequence of overripeness. Reverse osmosis, spinning-cone technologies and adding water are common methods of reducing alcohol. Many vintners are opposed to these adjustments in the cellar.
Lee feels the style at Siduri is already changing. "I think we pushed the high alcohol as far as we can and we're tending to pull back from that," he says.
Jim Clendenen makes different choices in the vineyard. "I attempt to project the growing season so that I harvest balanced grapes and don't have to add anything to the wine, such as acid or water," he says. "It's a question of finding challenging climates that are at the margins of cultivation versus warmer, protected sites with ripe fruit and having to water down."
For the future, dealing with the amount of sunshine, heat and drought topped the list of concerns among most winemakers interviewed for this story. They agreed that there is still a lot of work to be done in the vineyard, in terms of site selection, plant material and farming practices.
But perhaps the biggest issue is the struggle for identity. "Let California Pinot be California Pinot and Burgundy be Burgundy," states Loring. "I think the Australians had the right idea when they took Syrah cuttings from France and renamed the grape Shiraz. We should have done the same thing with Pinot Noir in California."
Oregon's Willamette Valley is cool and wet. Like Burgundy, it pushes the limits of cultivation for red grapes.
Nobody told this to David Lett when he headed north from California to Oregon to plant Pinot Noir in 1965. Lett just knew that California was too warm. Forty years later, Oregon has made Pinot Noir its flagship grape, with 7,600 of its 13,700 vineyard acres devoted to it, and has established a global reputation for the wines made from it.
Oregon's success lies in a combination of people and place. "The success of this region has been built on a cooperative spirit of learning to be better growers and winemakers," says Ken Wright, owner and winemaker of Ken Wright Cellars, one of the state's leading producers. "The sharing of experience has helped to elevate the industry in a very short period. The challenge we face is to maintain the cooperative spirit that we have established."
The place turned out to be the northern end of the Willamette Valley, a 150-mile stretch from Portland to Eugene. "Pinot Noir is not the most difficult grape to work with," comments Rollin Soles, founder and winemaker of Argyle winery. "It's one of the most difficult grapes to find the right place to grow it."
Soles defines the "right place" as an area where the early-ripening Pinot Noir ripens at the end of the growing season—the end of September or early October—as opposed to being overripe by then.
And that is what the cool Willamette Valley offers more often than not, resulting in slower and complete development of Pinot Noir's flavor, color and tannin components. Wines made from such grapes exhibit finesse, complex aromas and flavors and lush textures. Flavors such as red currant, raspberry, blueberry, blackberry, cherry and plum are common, often with dashes of flowers, spice and mineral for added complexity.
Furthermore, Pinot Noir's ability to convey the character of a singular plot of land has resulted in a proliferation of vineyard-designated wines and the fine tuning of subregions as Oregon's wine industry matures. Currently, there are four AVAs in Willamette: the all-encompassing Willamette Valley, established in 1984, along with Dundee Hills, McMinnville and the Yamhill-Carlton District, all approved in 2005. Another three AVAs are pending.
Such fine tuning amplifies the influences of the two main soil types there—ancient marine sediments from the Pacific and basalt soils from volcanic activity in eastern Oregon.
"Pinot Noir grown in basaltic sites tends to have great purity in the expression of focused fruit, both in aroma and flavor. Acidity levels tend to be higher in these regions," explains Wright. "The sedimentary sites have floral, spice and earth qualities. Raspberry, blackberry and black cherry fruit are accompanied by chocolate, cola, anise, cedar, clove, tobacco and violets. Acidity levels tend to be lower in these regions."
The climate is maritime, influenced by the Pacific Ocean. Willamette Valley is protected from heavy rainfall by the coastal mountain range, but still receives 30 to 35 inches a year. Unlike Burgundy's however, Willamette's summer pattern is more one of drought conditions. "Most people don't realize it gets quite dry here," says Tony Rynders, winemaker at Domaine Serene.
There are no vineyards on the valley floor. Rather, vines are cultivated at elevations of between 200 and 750 feet. It is too cold at higher elevations, while in the valley, the vines are prone to frost and the deep soils are overly fertile.
In this climate, vineyard practices maximize the available sun and heat. One of the most important factors, according to both Rynders and Wright, is crop thinning. "Thinning early [a few days past flowering] reduces the work we are asking the vine to do early in the season," says Wright. "The fruit we keep is ripened seven to 10 days earlier than would be the case with traditional techniques of thinning at color [when the grapes change from green to black in August]."
The early pioneers brought their California experience to Oregon and laid out the vineyards in much the same low density. At Argyle, Soles doubled that density to approximate the system he saw in Alsace, which has a similar climate. Then, Robert Drouhin of Maison Drouhin in Burgundy bought land in the Dundee Hills area of the Willamette Valley. He suggested doubling the density yet again. Soles doubted Drouhin's logic, but now concedes the Burgundian was right. The high density promoted more even and consistent flowering in the spring and lower yields and fully mature fruit by harvest.
The original clones planted in Oregon served the Oregonians well. By the early '90s, many growers were planting clones developed at the University of Dijon in France. The clones were selected for their early-ripening characteristics, an advantage for Oregon. Soles agrees that new clones have added "a whole new set of tools to our toolbox."
But clones are only one of many factors. "Maybe even more important than clones are rootstocks," says Véronique Drouhin-Boss, Robert's daughter and winemaker at Domaine Drouhin in Oregon since 1988. "We use various rootstocks in Oregon, including some we know are excellent for Pinot Noir but that we cannot use in Burgundy as they do not do well on limestone soil."
Ken Wright feels clones are less important than low yields and proactive farming. Wright also advocates leaf pulling, to partially expose fruit, and shoot removal and positioning to ensure exposure of all leaves to the sun and discourage shading. These sound canopy-management techniques capture the sun and heat available to Pinot Noir vineyards in Oregon.
No other New World region has staked its claim so fully on a grape as fickle as Pinot Noir. To date, the gamble made by Oregon's pioneering wineries and tight-knit community seems to have paid off. "As the industry has matured, we have become more bankable," says Wright. "Outside winemaking interests are now looking to the region as a profit source."
Ironically, success breeds its own perils. Now that Pinot Noir is a trendy grape, some Oregon growers and winemakers are concerned about protecting their vision of quality and style. Grappling with new AVAs and outside influences, they fear that newcomers might not understand that the success of the region was built on cooperation and the sharing of knowledge. But in the end, they believe, the distinctive character of their wines will build loyalty among consumers and sustain their efforts to deliver the best that Pinot Noir can offer.
New Zealand's romance with Pinot Noir is still in the heat of first passion. In 1996, only 431 acres were planted to Pinot Noir there; by 2004, that number had increased almost eightfold to 3,239. Now the third most important grape variety after Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, Pinot Noir is poised to become New Zealand's great red hope.
Prior to 1995, most of the Pinot Noir grown in New Zealand went into sparkling wine, and quality was poor. "It was very difficult to grow on the old-fashioned sites, and pioneers in Martinborough and Otago were just beginning to make a mark," recounts Steve Smith, wine and viticulture director at Craggy Range winery.
Most areas suitable for growing Pinot Noir in New Zealand lie on the cooler South Island. Marlborough is the most important in terms of acreage, followed by Central Otago and Canterbury. The Martinborough region (and environs in Wairarapa) is the only North Island area of significance for Pinot.
Progress in wine quality has been a consequence of planting in the right spots. "It wasn't until the late '80s, with Ata Rangi, Martinborough Vineyard and Dry River [all in Martinborough], then in the early '90s, in Central Otago at Rippon Vineyard, that the right sites started to emerge," explains Blair Walter, winemaker for Felton Road Wines in Central Otago. "Once these producers showed what could be done, the next wave started with plantings like our vineyard in the early '90s."
The climate is temperate, influenced both by the Pacific Ocean and the central range of mountains that limits rainfall on the east coast. There is considerable regional variation, however, in both temperature and precipitation.
Martinborough is slightly warmer and drier than Marlborough, due to its more inland location. The old river terrace contains stony soils that add a mineral component to the wines. "I have never seen soils like this elsewhere in New Zealand," exclaims Smith. "They work like limestone in Burgundy." Martinborough Pinots tend to have firm tannins, along with darker fruit flavors of blackberry, cassis and spice.
Marlborough is better known for Sauvignon Blanc, but its warm days, cool nights and alluvial, gravelly soils also make it well-suited to Pinot. "Marlborough at this stage produces mostly very open wines with an abundance of fruit but not a lot of savory notes," says Smith.
The Waipara district of Canterbury has established a reputation for Pinot Noir. The soils are a mix of alluvial gravels, clay and limestone and there's a greater range between day and night temperatures compared with Marlborough. "The style is full-bodied wines with red and dark fruit, sometimes with an element of spice, similar to Marlborough," says Matthew Donaldson, winemaker at his family's Pegasus Bay winery in Waipara.
Pinot Noir from Central Otago is relatively new to the New Zealand wine scene. This mountainous region, 500 miles farther south than Marlborough, is more continental in climate, with hot days and cold nights during the growing season. It is also drier. With its variety of soils, including schist and limestone, it lends itself to the early-ripening Pinot Noir.
"In Central Otago, the large diurnal shift in temperatures contributes to very good, deep colors, and aromatic and flavor purity and intensity—sometimes to a fault that the wines are too pure and simplistic," says Walter. Smith calls these New Zealand's "wow" Pinots, "with lots of exotic red fruit, wild herb and floral aromas, very seductive and open."
Overall, it's difficult to identify particular styles with each region. "While there are some regional tendencies, individual producers and individual sites are much more significant," stresses Walter.
New Zealand's Pinots will continue to improve as the vines age and vineyard managers and winemakers gain experience with the grape. "I genuinely believe that in Martinborough and Central Otago we have two of the potentially great Pinot Noir producing regions in the world," states Smith. As new plantings come on line and volume increases, consumers should benefit from the introduction of midpriced labels, mostly from Marlborough. If New Zealand's success with Sauvignon Blanc is any indication, that will be good news for Pinotphiles.
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