May 28, 2009


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A pinot is still a pinot
Even in a new vineyard, some grapes stay the same
By Tim Protzman

If chardonnay is the gateway drug of wine then pinot noir must be the crystal meth.

At some point all wine drinkers reach pinot.

There are exceptions, like Carol, who only drinks chardonnay and knows every nuance of every premium chard that ever came out to the Carneros. However, she’s the exception to the rule. Her everyday favorite is Macrostie Carneros Chardonnay, which at $42.99 is pricey. I found it very old-school Californian, some butter, some oak, some vanillin, but subdued. Like what they were doing in 1988. Before it became a mass-market fad. And, while the wine is delicious, I’m approaching it a little differently because of my extensive tasting of Chablis, White Burgundy, Loire, sauvignon blanc and Southern Hemisphere chardonnays. The knowledge of these wines puts American chardonnay in perspective. It helps one understand the tragedy of excessive oaking. The shame of over-buttering to the point where you could dip lobster meat in it and the need for a vineyard to sell wine. Lots of wine. Napa vineyards often sell for over $100,000 per acre! And that’s just the unimproved land. So we can understand why a vineyard would want make a $15 bottle of wine that costs $7 to make and sells 100,000 cases a year, as opposed to a $120 bottle that costs $80 to make but only sells 6,000 cases a year.

Now, not every long-time wine drinker ends up at pinot noir. Personally, I’d choose Barolo as my final stop, but there’s just not enough selection available. Cabernet sauvignon is also a choice destination, especially Bordeaux. And even though there’s much more cabernet available to the public, some is just so-so. The best ones are expensive and take a long time to age. So we have pinot noir. It’s plentiful, trendy and mostly good. Yes, there are some really bad pinots available, but even the most yucky and disgusting have easily identifiable pinot characteristics.

The thing I like the best about pinot noir is the thing I like best about merlot. It’s reliable. It tastes nice and it’s hard to grow, but harder to ruin in the vintner processes.

Keep your eye on Australia, New Zealand and Chile and Argentina. They all make pinot. It’s not Richebourg, yet, but the quality’s getting better. And here’s a nice little surprise for Carol. Chardonnay is coming on strong in Oz. The Margaret River, Yarra Valley and Adelaide Hills regions all have excellent weather and soil for chardonnay. Seppelt, Devil’s Lair, Cape Mentelle and De Bortoli all make superior products.

Maybe it’s because in the heart of France’s oldest, most cultivated wine region, Burgundy, they grow two predominant grapes — pinot noir and chardonnay. Linked together like Ahab and the whale.

One of the best tastings I ever attended was an informal little thing with pinots from all over the world. I could tell the Burgundies. I could sense the little extra edge, the earthiness of an Oregonian from the Willamette. But from there it was tough going. The New Zealand blended into the Finger Lakes. Chile was nearly identical with Veneto. Santa Barbara and Russian River were side by side. One taster gave up. He answered Antarctica when the host asked where the wine was from. There was an Israeli, a Canadian, a Croatian and a Pennsylvanian. (I may have a friend in Pennsylvania, but it’s not pinot.)

All had the violet, the strawberry, the earth and ammonium, the dried almost faded grape fruit notes. All were delicate and humble. Because pinot’s a subtle grape. No flash and bang. The taste comes on slowly. It’s not up front. It evolves and expands and fades like a morning glory in the sun.

My musings come from a single bottle of Hungarian pinot noir I tried last week. The first sip confirmed its pinotness. It could have been Argentinean, Australian or Canadian. It was unmistakably pinot. And that clarity, that sense of self, that truthfulness is the reason we love that little black grape. It was a 2006 Pannonhalmi Apatsagi Pinceszet for $24.99. This wine’s from a vineyard that dates back to 996 AD. Previous vineyards were burned by the Goths, Huns, Mongols and Turks. The wine was big and robust with cream tones and chocolate rose flavors. The vineyard is in western Hungary about 120 miles from Vienna, Austria.

I theorize we’ll hear more about obscure and formerly productive wine regions, especially in Europe. Most countries have a long wine-making tradition (except the Scots, thank God) and we’ll soon have the chance to taste wines from obscure places like Apulia and Sardinia and Moldavia and Romania and Uruguay and Tasmania. And some will be Pinot Noir and it will taste the same.

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