Pinots you need to know
One of the world’s best-known grapes is also one of the hardest to select. Adam Lechmere gives more than just a Sideways glance to pinot noir
The wonderful film Sideways is more than a decade old. One measure of its enduring appeal is that the (vastly inferior) stage version has just had a six-week run in London; another, that Californian pinot noir winemakers still talk about its seismic effects on their industry. The central character, the shambolic Miles, loves pinot.
‘Its flavours, they’re just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and… ancient on the planet…’ he says, adding possibly the truest thing about pinot noir. ‘It can only grow in these really specific, little, tucked-away corners of the world. And only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it.’
So true but but a custom honoured more in the breach than the observance. Just as every actor wants to play Hamlet, every winemaker wants to produce pinot noir, even if they have terroir quite unsuited to this most pernickety of grapes. Plant pinot where it’s too hot, and more often than not it turns to jam; some growers pick as early as they can to overcome that problem, resulting in thin and astringent wines.
Others let the grapes hang, producing alcoholic fruit bombs. A group of Californian winemakers were so depressed by the quality of pinot being grown in unsuitable parts of the state that they started the In Pursuit of Balance (IPOB) movement, dedicated to producing pinot at its best.
The taste descriptors most used for pinot are ‘light’, ‘ethereal’ and ‘fresh’. Fruit flavours range from red cherry and raspberry to blackberry; there should be earth, truffles, button mushrooms, mouthwatering acidity and soft tannins.
And where are those specific, tucked-away corners of the world? The one essential is climate. Pinot must be allowed to ripen slowly: if the weather’s too warm, acidity levels plummet before the grape has developed flavour. But if it’s too cold, those haunting aromas never get a chance to come through. Burgundy has been acknowledged for centuries as the perfect place for pinot. Then there’s the cooler parts of New Zealand – to my mind, Martinborough produces subtler expressions than the more famous Central Otago.
Rainy Oregon can work wonders, as evidenced by the number of Burgundians who try their hand there. Then there’s the Sonoma coast (the birthplace of IPOB) and further south in the Santa Maria Valley and Santa Rita Hills (where Sideways is set).
Germany is second only to Burgundy in elegance (and it’s half the price) and Chile is also capable of producing beautifully subtle wines, like the Grey from Viña Ventisquero and Errazuriz’s Wild Ferment (below).
You’ll also find some excellent pinots from Australia’s Mornington Peninsula and in England, where you have to choose with extreme care (Gusbourne’s version is very good).
It’s a wide list but interestingly enough, great pinot isn’t as diverse in style and flavour as other grapes. It always has traits in common.
In Chile’s Atacama Valley, the driest desert on Earth, Ventisquero makes a wine called Tara. It would be difficult to find a landscape more different from Burgundy’s, yet there is still a shock of recognition: that bright red cherry, minerality and velvety texture could be Côte de Beaune.
Henri Prudhon Le Sentier de Clou Vieilles Vignes Saint-Aubin 1er Cru, Burgundy 2012, £18
Red cherry and truffle nose, red fruit palate, gripping tannins and fresh acidity. Try with roast chicken.
Available at:The Wine Society
Karl May Spatburgunder Rheinhessen, Germany 2014, £12.99
Wild strawberry nose translates to rich red cherry flavours, hints of allspice, robust tannins and a juicy finish. Perfect to have with duck.
Union Wine Company Underwood Pinot Noir, Oregon 2014, £12.99
Lovely smoky bacon nose, then it’s all wild red fruit, earth and fresh acidity. Enjoy with a shredded beetroot salad.
Available at:Marks and Spencer
Coney Pizzicato Pinot Noir, Martinborough 2014, £16.99
Violet perfume, minerality and velvet tannins with sharp acidity make a compelling combination. Pair with barbecued quail.
Errazuriz Aconcagua Wild Ferment, Chile 2014, £16.20
Fresh, cherryish aromas, more cherry on the palate with restrained tannins. Enjoy with a hard cheese such as Gruyère.
Available at:Hatch Mansfield