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Who Rules Now?

Matt Kramer
Posted: May 20, 2004

Fausto Maculan is one of Italy's great wine success stories. The bulk winery that Maculan inherited in the Veneto region of northeastern Italy got its start by supplying the Italian army. (You didn't expect them to drink water, did you?) Now 53, Maculan has transformed his father's winery into a prestige producer by issuing ever-finer Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, among others. His signature wine is Torcolato, a Sauternes-like botrytized dessert wine of uncommon refinement.

So when I went to visit him at his winery a 30-minute drive north of Vicenza, I was a little surprised when, during lunch, he shyly brought out a Pinot Noir. In the decades that I've followed his wines, I'd never seen one before.

"I only make 500 cases," he said. "It's nothing, really. But I wanted to try. You know, our climate here in the Veneto is cool enough for Pinot Noir. Of course, it doesn't taste like Burgundy. But I would like your opinion, just the same."

So I gave it to him: I said it was a good Pinot Noir. That it tasted like Pinot Noir, which is to say that it offered berry-scented fresh fruit with a certain delicacy and earthiness, likely due to the deep gravel soil of the zone. And no, it didn't taste anything like a Burgundy.

But the most important thing I could tell him was this: Burgundy is no longer the standard. Or more precisely, Burgundy is no longer the sole standard.

Certainly, the best red Burgundies are still a benchmark. But now, for the first time, determining what constitutes admirable Pinot Noir is no longer Burgundy's exclusive prerogative.

How can this be? It's simple: There's a lot more Pinot Noir grown today than 20 years ago -- or even just a decade ago. More to the point, there's a lot more successful Pinot Noir grown today.

This is the key point. No longer does Maculan's -- or anybody else's -- wine have to taste like Burgundy in order to be considered good. The world has taken the "law of Pinot Noir" into its own hands.

Take California, for example. It wasn't so long ago that California was decreed unsuitable for Pinot Noir by its own university professors. Back in the 1970s and well into the '80s, the phrase "good California Pinot Noir" was an oxymoron.

But today, California has more than 24,000 acres of Pinot Noir, almost identical to Burgundy's acreage. Astonishing as that is, it's not the quantity that matters. Instead, it's where some of this Pinot Noir is growing: Carneros, Russian River Valley, the western portion of Sonoma Coast, Santa Rita Hills, Santa Maria Valley, Arroyo Grande, western Paso Robles and Anderson Valley, among other cool locales.

Each of these zones has, à la Burgundy, a capacity for creating undeniably authentic Pinot Noirs. Indeed, some of the Pinots coming from these regions are so original that you can say they are Pinot Noirs never previously imagined; they're like a new species of life.

One such is the Pinot Noir from the extreme western region of Sonoma Coast, exemplified by Flowers Camp Meeting Ridge, Marcassin and Hirsch Vineyard. They come from vineyards located a scant few miles from the Pacific Ocean on steep slopes at high elevations above the fog line. Their scale, complexity, density and originality redefine the life-form.

Do they resemble Burgundy? Not at all. But that begs the real (and not at all arrogant) question: Does Burgundy resemble them? For these are unmistakably Pinot Noirs. They have the requisite berryishness, refinement, intrinsic delicacy and sheer you-know-it-when-you-taste-it finesse that sets apart genuinely successful Pinot Noirs.

Similar California "originalities" are found in Russian River Valley, Santa Rita Hills, Santa Maria Valley and Carneros.

The list of other Pinot Noir redefinitions -- wines that taste truly of the variety but not necessarily like Burgundy -- extends far beyond California. Famously, there's Oregon. But there's also New Zealand and parts of Australia such as the Mornington Peninsula, Tasmania, and Margaret River in Western Australia.

And, oh yes, there will be a new Pinot Noir definition in Italy, too. Actually, it's already emerging. But what Fausto Maculan and other Pinot Noir aspirants really have is liberation. (This is true for more than just Pinot Noir. Remember when Bordeaux alone defined Cabernet?)

Burgundy will always be a benchmark. But it's no longer unique in the world, just foremost. For now.

Matt Kramer has contributed regularly to Wine Spectator since 1985.

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