The Pinot, the whole Pinot and nothing but the Pinot

Darren Smith

Darren Smith

02 November 2017

A new Pinot Noir promotional group launched its first ever event in London a couple of weeks ago, with the aim of understanding the world’s top Pinot-producing regions’ approaches to the grape.

The revolutionary-sounding ‘Pinot Noir Alliance’ brought together five leading Pinot Noir producers from around the world to demonstrate ‘how the diverse influences of soil, climate, vine age and, crucially, human interaction create a unique style for key pinot-producing regions’. The producers, introduced by event host Tim Atkin MW, were Chile’s Cono Sur, the Yarra Valley’s Oakridge, New Zealand’s Villa Maria, Sonoma estate La Crema and Burgundy’s Domaines Albert Bichot.

The Pinot Noir Alliance
The Pinot Noir Alliance

The discussion was as intriguing as the grape itself, in view of the comparison it allowed between the various regions’ different approaches to Pinot Noir, terroir, to what extent the site determines the wine and to what extent it’s the winemaker’s hand.

It’s fair to say there’s an over-reliance on terroir, and nowhere more so than in France’s Pinot-producing heartland of Burgundy. It seems suspect that the French definition of terroir should tack ‘winemaking’ on to the already comprehensive list of things word should denote – the ‘total natural environment of any viticultural site’, as Jancis Robinson MW’s Oxford Companion to Wine has it.

A large part of wine commentary exists in the ocean of ambiguity partly created by that awkward appendage. This is a problem, because while such commentary highlights the ‘fundamental’ elements of terroir - soil, aspect, drainage, etc, the winemaker’s influence is rarely acknowledged.

Pinot Noir in Burgundy
Pinot Noir in Burgundy

'This whole thing of terroir sometimes can be a little bit too serious and a little bit too reverential,' said Atkin. 'This is the Burgundian way of looking at Pinot Noir – ie, that basically God makes the wine and that human beings don’t really get involved. I think this is highly questionable. Pinot noir, almost more than any other grape, has a very, very important human factor.’

Richard Bampfield MW, representing Domaine Albert Bichot, said predictably that Burgundy is where ‘terroir talks’ more than anywhere else in the world. To emphasise the effect of soil beyond all other terroir components, he presented two premier cru wines from Bichot.

 Pinot Noir facts

  • The Pinot family: Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Teinturier, Pinot Précoce

  • There are more than 1,000 different registered clones of Pinot

  • Pinot Noir is worth £140.8m to the UK on-trade, but overall sales have fallen by £4.7m this year

  • 8.1 million bottles of Pinot Noir were sold in the on trade over the last 12 months, a drop of 6.2% year on year

  • French producers dominate the Pinot Noir category, making up 65% of sales

  • Nearly 250,000 fewer bottles of French Pinot Noir were sold in the on trade last year

  • New Zealand saw its UK on trade sales of Pinot Noir grow by 16%, or 154,000 bottles.

There difference between these two wines from one producer was clear, but it’s more important to state the obvious yet less-discussed point: that, at the same time, two winemakers in the same context may make wines that are completely different from one another.

Importantly, it’s this latter scenario that the average wine consumer is confronted with. Yet, almost invariably, the winemaker’s influence gets subsumed in the pseudo-mysticism of terroir.

The emergence of high-quality Pinot Noir from the New World is especially welcome in this context, because it does not carry such misleading baggage. New world Pinot has made massive strides in the past 20-30 years, thanks to a result of better site selection, better clonal material and, crucially, better winemaking in New World winemaking regions.

In Chile, an excellent example of this is Cono Sur’s working model for Pinot, which has been the New World formula: choose the site, choose the vine material, then make wine – the point being that from vineyard to cellar, it’s human decisions that determine the final product.

A similar story of the importance of winemaking decisions was apparent from Gordon Russell, winemaker at Villa Maria-owned Esk Valley. Villa Maria started making Pinot Noir in the 2000 vintage and was looking for ripeness and boldness, but winemaking decisions led to ever greater levels of refinement.

‘Looking back now it’s almost embarrassing to think we were picking grapes as late as we did and using maceration techniques that we did,’ he said.

Australia's Yarra Valley
Australia's Yarra Valley

If you contrast that with now, the use of wild yeasts, old barrels, natural malos, classic hands-off winemaking techniques, now we’re trying to capture the essence of the vineyard in the bottle.”

Dave Bicknell of Oakridge’s final thought clearly showed the contrast between Old World and New World approaches to Pinot Noir.

‘Once we have a clear concept of what the building blocks are it tends to fall into place,’ he said. ‘The key to it is: where the vineyards are, what we’re growing and how we manage it. After that there’s only two decisions that have any relevance at all for the entire year - the day we pick it and how we press it. Everything else is crap. It’s sales.’

The important point, despite differing approaches, is that what makes these wines what they are is the hand of the winemaker, for whom Pinot Noir is not a ‘ghost’ grape, as Aubert de Villaine once described it, but one to be artfully manipulated. There’s no magic hand of God determining Burgundy’s divine supremacy here.

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