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Drinking Out Loud

In Pursuit of Ambiguity

Why do some wine lovers insist on exactitude?

Matt Kramer
Posted: February 5, 2013

Recently I gave a speech at a Pinot Noir conference in Wellington, New Zealand. Without going into the various details of my talk, suffice it to say that I offered the suggestion that for producers to create really exceptional Pinot Noir—the truly great stuff—they might want to seek to make 2 + 2 = 5.

I offered one possible means to that admittedly ambiguous end, which involved the idea of Pinot Noir producers creating vineyards that contain a broad mix of clones, or strains, of Pinot Noir, preferably 20 such strains or more.

Moreover, I suggested that this variety of clones be intermixed, as in a field of wildflowers, rather than “rationally” planted in separate blocks, each picked at “optimum ripeness.” (I submitted that the most terrifying phrase in wine today, especially in America, which seems to supersize everything, is “optimum ripeness.” Somehow it always seems to lead to what I, anyway, would consider overripeness.)

The idea here is that too many of today’s New World Pinot Noirs are composed of too few clones (many of them the flavor-potent, narrowband Dijon clones with designations such as 113, 114, 115, 777 and so forth), all grown separately and then carefully, even painstakingly, picked at “optimum ripeness.”

It would be better, I averred, to see a great vineyard—especially with Pinot Noir, a creature of shadings and nuances—more as an orchestra. You need piccolos (slightly underripe grapes) as well as double basses and bassoons (slightly overripe grapes). Too many New World Pinots, for the reasons cited above, seem to be just a collection of cellos.

Anyway, I tossed out this idea as a practical suggestion of how to “let go.” We have become so reliant on rational control that we do not allow ourselves to take the necessary risks required for 2 + 2 to equal 5.

As you might imagine, this caused a bit of a stir. You might be surprised to learn that, as best as I could tell, the Kiwi Pinot producers themselves were not much ruffled by the notion. They are on a devout search for quality and are apparently willing to consider even seemingly improbable notions if it can get their wines to another level.

Other listeners—consumers, wine-writing colleagues—seemed more threatened. One fellow felt that not only was this just so much nonsense, but that obviously I didn’t taste much wine and that I should be getting out in the world to taste more. Considering how much I travel, that seemed a bit off the mark.

What really seemed to irk people about this seemingly mystical goal of trying to get 2 + 2 to equal 5 is that it was irrational. This, in turn, surprised me. Since when was fine wine rational?

Increasingly, we live in an era where everything must somehow have a metric. If something can’t be measured—and thus verified—it’s not “real.” This, of course, is the premise of science, and powerful it is. And useful, too. But such an approach hardly captures all that can be imagined or achieved.

Is New Zealand creating fine Pinot Noirs? It sure is. So too are other New World locales, such as California, Oregon, Australia’s Mornington Peninsula and yet other places. In a remarkably short time, roughly 20 years, give or take a decade, all of these places have managed to consistently get 2 + 2 to equal 4. They have now annually made Pinot Noirs with the requisite finesse, balance and true varietal flavors. That’s no small achievement, especially considering how often, in the early years of each locale, 2 + 2 too often equaled only 3.

But now what? If you can regularly deliver reliable goods, is that enough? Hardly. Would we all (or many of us, anyway) adulate Burgundy if its best wines “only” totted up the admirable 2 + 2 = 4 equation?

Burgundy’s greatest red wines, always 100 percent Pinot Noir, somehow offer another dimension. Somehow, in some way, that seemingly mystical missing “1” that makes 2 + 2 equal 5 is always present. What is its source?

Of course, winegrowers everywhere, as well as impassioned Pinot Noir drinkers, have looked assiduously. Is it clonal selection? Oak barrels? Fermentation techniques? The use of stems or the absence of them? Is it a certain sort of soil? Old vines? The list of possibilities is dazzlingly long and surely contains some answers.

But the real answer, it seems to me, lies in an ability to both accept and embrace what cannot be measured and conventionally verified. It requires a leap of faith into the unprovable-yet-possible.

The great Danish physicist Neils Bohr put his finger on it when he commented to a colleague, “Your theory is crazy, but it's not crazy enough to be true.”

So it is with fine wine and, above all, with great wine, never mind the grape variety. To make what I call “2 + 2 = 5” wines, you’ve got to go beyond the reassuringly rational. The world’s greatest wines tell us of another dimension in our midst. How do we reach it? That, in my opinion, is the single most important fine-wine question of our time.

Jeremy Matouk
Port of Spain, Trinidad —  February 5, 2013 5:38pm ET
Fascinating. I would like to hear a Burgundian maker of repute comment on this suggestion.
Matt, it's ideas such as this that make you our favourite wine writer.
Mark Pasternak
Nicasio, Marin County, California, USA —  February 6, 2013 11:21am ET
The vineyards at Devils Gulch Ranch in Nicasio, Marin County, were first planted in 1980 (7 acres) when there was essentially only one Pinot Noir clone commercially available. In 1998 I added 14 more acres of Pinot Noir and deliberately inter-planted 5 different clones as you described in your article. From a strictly grape grower standpoint, I would not be inclined to do it again. However, from the standpoint of the quality of wines that the fruit from Devils Gulch Ranch has been producing, I would have to agree whole heartedly with your premise.
Heitor Almeida
champaign, IL —  February 6, 2013 11:26am ET
Great article. Too bad I don't have a Pinot Noir vineyard to try this out!
Nathan R Carlson
San Luis Obispo —  February 6, 2013 1:22pm ET
Much of managing a vineyard is directed toward getting ripeness into a narrow band, perhaps more so in Pinot Noir than any other variety. If you visit top vineyards in Burgundy or the New World, you will see uniform exposure, spacing, and vigour in an effort to narrow the band of ripeness.

I have heard this argument about introducing more chaos into the system from a few people, but never from those who are making the best wines. Nature has enough chaos already, and within even a very controlled vineyard, there will be variance of ripeness within the clusters and within the berries on a cluster.

Consider this - perhaps a chaotic massal planting may be the correct answer in one specific year's set of circumstances. But it is quite likely to be a less than optimal in nine of ten vintages, and miss the mark of what might have been. It doesn't take a great deal of underripe or overripe fruit to screw up a wine, and much better to have the thinnest margin of control over the ratio than to leave it to chance.

A better approach to the spirit of your argument may be to have multiple clones, multiple rootstocks, and multiple exposures, but to manage them in separate, distinct blocks and sub-blocks, and through sequential harvest of fruit at desired stages of ripening. This leads to a range of wine styles in the cellar from which to build the final blend, rather than one or a few monolithic hodgepodge lots.

Enjoy your writing, Matt - thoughtful and from a point of curiosity, and with the ability to stir conversations - cheers!
Lee Hammack
Rockville, Virginia —  February 6, 2013 4:22pm ET
I would have to elevate far above my current station to even be considered a rank amateur, but I have been around enough to have taken a turn or two at blending. This has led me to believe that your notion of "2+2=5" is actually the goal of every winemaker to whom I have ever spoken, and it renders the resistence you encountered especially confusing. Everyone should be looking to create wine that is greater than the sum of its parts.
I disagree a bit with your idea of mixing Pinot clones to create a Pinot Noir "field blend" in order to achieve added complexity from a variety of stages of ripeness. This MIGHT be placing too much trust in Nature. I think you should be able to experiment (with varying degrees of ripeness) without committing an entire block or vineyard to a field blend strategy.
Charles J Stanton
Willamette Valley, Oregon —  February 6, 2013 4:42pm ET
I think 2+2=5 will vary based on the taster. Even though I farm an Oregon vineyard, Burgundy does it best for me. Call it for lack of a better term, terroir. But a fan of new world pinot noir may think that the Musigny I love is only a 4. Clonal diversity matters, and I am convinced the best new world wines are a blend of several. We have 5 planted in our vineyard, and even though they are interspersed, they ripen slightly differently based on slope location. I for one, invite that kind of uncertainty.
Morewine Bishar
Del Mar, California —  February 8, 2013 7:05pm ET
Interesting argument. What about the effects of co-fermentation, rather than fermenting each distinct, block (and clone) separately?

I have tasted some remarkable multi-varietal whites from Vienna that were co-fermented and was told by the representative that they considered co-fermantation essential to the distinctive outcome of the wines.

Any comment from the winemakers out there?

David Clark
for The Wine Connection
Steve Faries
The Woodlands, TX —  February 8, 2013 8:28pm ET
Matt, you know it's all about predictability, control, and money. The Marriott burger looks and tastes the same in Philly and Houston, by design. The suits would never permit 'Doc' Christopher Lloyd in the cellar.
Dennis D Bishop
Southeast Michigan, USA —  February 9, 2013 10:06am ET
From an engineer's point of view 2 + 2 can not equal 5. It is an imposibility. However, where A + B = 4, you can modify the equation so that A + C = 5 (where C = B+1). The input needs to be changed to have a different (larger valued) outcome. Isn'that what you are saying? Love your blogs!!
Mr John Iacovino
Oak Ridge, TN —  February 10, 2013 6:50pm ET
Keep stimulating thought and action. For thirty plus years I have enjoyed your books and columns.
Our Tennessee chapter of the Ordre Ducal de la Croix de Bourgogne continues to drink as much Pinot Noir as we can, in search of the maximum sum of the parts at the most reasonable cost.
Ruby Andrew
Gisborne, New Zealand —  February 10, 2013 10:55pm ET
Thought-provoking article on a thorny subject. As someone who's been closely involved with clonal importation into New Zealand, I have to add my two cents' worth. The New World, let us remember, started out with no clones of Pinot Noir. Thus, each new clone (even those with Dijon numbers like 777) adds to a country’s germplasm “treasury” – surely a process that can only benefit the goal of producing exceptional Pinot Noir? I have written a response on my own blog at Vino Vitis: www.vinovitis.co.nz

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