Pinot Noir: poser, poseur

(by peter)

My grandfather had it right. When confronted with a thorny problem, he would rub his chin ruefully and say, with a glint in his eye: ‘Hmmm. It’s a poser.’

It’s the perfect way to describe Pinot Noir.

Both a poser and a poseur, this grape is the wine lover’s grape – when it hits the heights, I’d contend that there is nothing better. Why? Because, like no other grape variety, it can pull off a unique juggling act: that of combining breath-taking grace and lightness of touch with immense power and staggering depths of flavour.

(Equally, when it plumbs the depths, there is nothing more vapid or disappointing.)

When Pinot is great, it forces you, the drinker and judge, to resort to a language that is not that of wine, but has more in common with religion, music or art. You suddenly find yourself talking transcendence and resonance as much as fruit or body. It’s that hint of magic that the Hollywood hit film Sideways captured in its own brilliantly quirky fashion.

I often like to think of wine in pictorial terms. There’s one image that springs to mind when trying to convey the heights of which great Pinot Noir is capable of inspiring. It’s Edvard Munch’s The Scream – but in pleasurable form. Time stands still; the world revolves, but you are suddenly at its epicentre, transformed.

But enough of the flowery language. What is it about Pinot that makes it great – or vile, for that matter?

We love Pinot in this household (our coverage of Burgundy 2009 tastings and an upcoming feature on Domaine de la Romanée-Conti are just two current examples). But not every Pinot.

The one thing a good Pinot Noir absolutely must be – be it from Burgundy, New Zealand, Chile, California, Germany, even Switzerland – is elegant. Seductive. Graceful if possible. But, above all, not clumsy. Or over-worked. Or gloupy.

Pinot Noir is at its worst when trying to be something else, or simply trying too hard. Sure, it can be rich and vigorous in a region such as New Zealand’s Central Otago. Or it can be so ethereal it almost veers into white wine territory in Germany, the Loire or the UK.

What it can’t be is Cabernet.

Now, you may very well disagree with these assertions, and that is absolutely as it should be. Because one thing you have to love about Pinot is its ability to inspire passion and polarisation like few other wine varieties. With Pinot, it’s personal.

For all of these reasons, and more, I couldn’t miss out on the recent Stonier International Pinot Noir tasting in London, an event that pits 12 top Pinots from around the world against in each other in a blind tasting format.

This was the 12th such tasting. Usually they take place in Melbourne but this year we Brits were lucky enough to get a taste of the action.

The idea is not simply to see who can guess which is which – though you can’t help there being a bit of that when you assemble wine experts and put a line-up of blind Pinots before them. It’s more about the discussion – which Pinot you prefer and why.

During the tasting there was – how to put this – a vigorous interchange of ideas, as well as plenty of blokeish banter, as you might expect from an Aussie-backed event chaired by Bibendum Wine’s famous wit Willie Lebus. All of which was fascinating – testament to the power that Pinot exerts over winos the world over, from central London to Sydney.

There weren’t really results as such but there was a general consensus on the wine that most impressed on the day: the Vosne-Romanée 1er Cru Les Beaux Monts 2007 from Jean-Jacques Confuron (£76). This, of all the wines, encapsulated the beauty, harmony and grace of great Pinot Noir. It was, in short, why everyone in that room was there.

Looking at the wines by origin, my marks reflected a clear victory for Burgundy (an average of 7.5-8/10 over four wines), followed by Central Otago (6.25/10 over two wines), then Australia (6/10 over four wines) and lastly Oregon (5.75/10).
Clearly, however, there’s also a price dynamic to consider. The Burgundy wines averaged £103, while Otago was £27.50, Australia £46 and Oregon £47. On this basis, those looking for bang for their buck would be well advised to go down the Kiwi route.

Given that the event was put on by Stonier, it was nice to see their wine (Windmill Vineyard 2008) putting in a solid performance. I rated it fourth equal, on a par with Bouchard’s Beaune Grève 1er Cru, and above Felton Road’s Calvert, which was just showing a little too chunky and alcoholic for my liking. It was my highest rated Australian Pinot.
By way of background, Stonier was one of the first wineries to set up shop in the cool-climate area of the Mornington Peninsula, in southern Victoria – just outside Melbourne. It’s now owned by the Lion Nathan group – home to the likes of Petaluma and St Hallett – and its new winemaker is Mike Symons, a man keen on both single-vineyard wines and Pinot Noir: something that bodes well for Stonier.

Symons reckons it takes a Pinot Noir vineyard at least 20-25 years to get into full stride (something that countries like Chile would do well to heed). He also thinks that those who talk about clones when it comes to Pinot are ‘wine w*nkers’ – for him, it’s all about how you grow it.

Tastings that we’ve done suggest that Stonier has been doing solid if not spectacular work of late, and would benefit from a step up in quality and ambition. Symonds may well be the man to deliver just this, so we will be keeping an eye on the Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs with some interest.


NB: prices are those given in Stonier’s tasting booklet, with asterisks denoting estimates for wines not currently available in the market.

Beaune Grèves 1er Cru, Vigne de l’Enfant Jésus 2007, Bouchard Père et Fils (Burgundy, France – £88) – Perfumed, elegant. Savoury and sappy: Old World elegance here. Floral, earthy. Fades a bit in glass. Some leather. On the palate, it’s fluid, spicy. Zippy and tangy. Juicy. Marked by freshness and lift. A bit young and angular. But may soften in time. Coolness marks it…a little bit too much, really. Eearthy tones. Intriguing, if not the most enjoyable right now. But I’d back it. Invigorating stuff. But not the best. Seems Burgundian: a lighter style but with some power and backbone – light Nuits? Or good Beaune. Probably the latter. (Many others criticise it for being too lean and lacking charm.) 7/10

Rippon Mature Vine Pinot Noir 2008, Wanaka, Central Otago (New Zealand – £25) – Punchy. Quite dark fruit. Polished and quite ripe. Dark cherry. Bit spirity. On palate, juicy and dense. Fluid, layered, nice bittersweet fruit. Young and self-contained, although a bit spicy and hot on finish. As a result it’s a bit chunky and clunky. Which is a shame. But it does lose some PN typicity for it. Verges on bitter. (Many thought it was a bit too big, bold and oaky, from a warmer climate.) 6.5-6/10

Yeringberg Pinot Noir 2008, Yarra Valley (Victoria, Australia – c.£45) – Super pale. Ripe cherries on nose, mainly fruit forward. Touch of raisin. Seems quite simple. In the mouth, it’s easy, fluid, berries and stalks. Better on palate than nose. But still a bit simple and confected. Drinks well though. Has the ring of a cheaper New World cuvée not trying too hard… (The consensus was this wine was too confected and oaky; though some praised its density and the way it opened up over time.) 5.5/10

Gevrey Chambertin 1er Cru Aux Combottes 2007, Domaine Dujac (Burgundy, France – £94) – Very expressive and charming initially. Lots of smoky oak here? Savoury, perfumed and earthy. Seems like a lovely Old World / New World cross: savoury but expressive. Lovely fluid graceful attack. Juicy yet savoury. Lovely lightness of touch despite clear weight and layers. Fine grained, savoury, beautiful harmony and depth. Seriously impressive. Lovely finesse on finish despite notable alcohol. (A clear favourite of these first six for the group, with its potentially divisive funky character noted – Matthew Jukes described it quite brilliantly as ‘pagan’.) 8-8.5/10

Stonier Windmill Vineyard Pinot Noir 2008, Mornington Peninsula (Australia – c.£29) – Mute and minty initially. Ripe cherry, plum, mint. Looks Ozzie on first impressions with its hints of eucalypt. On the palate, it’s juicy and dense. Spicy. Raw power. Much more impressive on palate than on the nose. Serious depth and resonance. Grip but not raw. A bit hot on the finish, so risks stepping outside classic PN territory. But a well executed wine, with lots of depth. A bit of a paradox – but an impressive one. Savoury bittersweet on finish. (This wine was generally highly rated in the group discussions, with people noting its complexity at the riper, plusher end of the spectrum. Some put it in Central Otago.) 7/10

Bindi Block 5 Pinot Noir 2008, Macedon Ranges (Australia – £75) – Restrained, spirit nose. Mint and herbs. In glass, it emerges well. In the mouth, it’s juicy, fiery. This one has lovely juice and concentration but DOES step outside PN elegance. It’s just too hot on the finish, too full and rich. Is it Oregon? Doesn’t seem to have much restraining it. Too alcoholic. Even though it’s an impressive, layered dense style, it’s just a bit too much. (Some liked it but many criticised its lack of balance and general heftiness – even its ‘kinkiness’.) 6/10

Felton Road Calvert Pinot Noir 2008, Central Otago (New Zealand – £30) – Expressive dark fruit and spice. Touch spirity. Opens up into savoury dark roasted fruit notes and spice, pepper. Has a NZ character to it, maybe Central. Pure yet savoury. Inviting nose. On the palate, it’s full yet elegant. Layered. Spicy and big yet with zippy tangy acid character – seems very NZ to me. Good but a bit forced and prickly on the finish. Trying a bit too hard. A bit too big for PN for me. Falls down on finish despite nice savoury tones and good structure and acid. Too hot. Too bitter. (Many admire this big bold style with ‘good architecture’ but others mark it down for lacking finesse.) 6.5-6/10

Chambolle-Musigny 1er Cru 2007, Domaine Comte Georges de Vogüé (Burgundy, France – £154) – Leafy red fruit. Sappy yet dark. Interesting, intriguing. But quite overtly leafy. In the mouth, it’s soft textured yet slightly angular on entry. Leafy green streak. Has real core and focus, a vibrancy running through it that to me indicates Burgundy. Again, like wine 1, it suffers in this context, looking lean, but it’s a style that I’d come back to and drink because of that core focus and lack of overly big personality and alcohol. Unassuming but intriguing. Not the most complex, plush or sensuous but foodie and refreshing. Seems like a goodish basic Nuits. Persistent, gracefully. (This wine seems to split tasters, many seeing it as dull, some unshowy. Not a universal favourite, despite being the most expensive wine on show.)  7-7.5/10

Evening Land Vineyards Seven Springs Vineyard La Source Pinot Noir 2007, Willamette Valley (Oregon, USA – c.£50) – Restrained, leather, rubber. Smoky. Odd reductive medicinal note on initial nose, quite invasive. Like something’s been burnt: forest fires? Or overly charred? On the palate, it shows a smooth texture. Medicinal smoky note. Juicy acid. Savoury edge. Has Old World elegance on the palate. Much better on the palate than the nose, which is very awkward. But palate is juicy, zippy. Acid a bit sour and the finish a bit prickly, mind. But it’s refreshing and savoury, with grip. A difficult one to call. At the moment, it’s out of balance and a bit odd. And sour/bitter. But has some nice elements. But ultimately it lacks harmony, so probably won’t improve significantly. 6-5.5/10

Stefano Lubiana Estate Pinot Noir 2008, Southern Tasmania, 14% (Australia – c.£35) – Plush ripe stewed fruit. Stemmy. A bit unfriendly. Seems like ripe fruit trying to be given a green edge in the winemaking – or vice versa. In the mouth, it’s hard, angular, bitter and tough on the finish. Just doesn’t come together. Seems very worked, trying too hard. Not a fave at all. (Tim Atkin MW described this as ‘vile’, while Matthew Jukes praised its ‘billowing fruit’…most criticised it for lacking Pinot typicity.) 5.5/10

Vosne-Romanée 1er Cru Les Beaux Monts 2007, Domaine Jean-Jacques Confuron (Burgundy, France – £76) – Immediately attractive nose because of the toasty oak. Also hedgerow fruit and some bottle age. Gentle herbal and floral notes emerge. Dried and fresh berry fruit. Mealy, too. Real florality and sappy loveliness. Palate attack is fluid, limpid and elegant. Savoury yet juicy. Very harmonious. Real depth and filigree layers. Fine tannin. Savoury. Lovely dovetailed finish. A really complete wine, does all you could ask of it. Is it too oaky? It’s definitely there, but not at all invasive on the palate. Lovely stuff. Not the best ever but the best wine here, by far. (Group comments include ‘stunning’, ‘superb’, ‘suave’, ‘tender’, ‘precious’ – told you wine experts could wax lyrical about Pinot…) 9/10

Argyle Nuthouse Pinot Noir 2007, Willamette Valley (Oregon, USA – c.£44) – Soft mute plummy fruit. Slightly baked. Herbal. But seems NW and spirity. Fluid, juicy, spicy. OK, nice plum skin tones. Gently integrated. A bit hot on the finish. Seems to sit mid-table in this tasting context. But a bit hot on the finish, and simple, esp after wine 11. It’s OK, nothing special. (‘More Eryl than Arnie’ was how one taster summed it up; the general consensus was of a decent if unexceptional wine.) 6-5.5/10