Tag Archive: Pinot Noir



Come to me, la Comme!

From a lovely little winery I visited in Beaune, March 2013 (see this post for details about the visit).

I had the fortune to impress upon a (now defunct) distributor to bring into the Maryland market a selection of these wines from a (now defunct) importer. Another fortune bestowed upon me was the opportunity to bring a six-bottle cross-section of these home for personal consumption. Down to my last two, I was faced with two premier cru Pinot Noir bottlings: a Pommard (which, by my estimation, likely has several years more life in bottle—for another, special day) and this, a Santenay (which by some accounts is in the latter third of its drinking window).

 

Appearance: deep, black-cored ruby—like The Dark Crystal

Nose: bright red cherry, cinnamon, licorice

Palate: high-toned red cherry, lemon, blood orange, pomegranate, delicate cinnamon/clove, licorice

Mouthfeel: lean and acidically gripping—like sucking a fresh lemon

Finish: fine, chalky tannins; long-lingering citrus acidity and delicate, high-toned pomegranate spice

 

Tasty, but the acidity demands food. Lean and not readily approachable solely due to the bracing acid as all other elements are really quite pleasant. Still young yet—well within its drinking window (I’d say, another decade lies in this bottle) despite the gentle tannins given the assertive acid. The fruit may never come into balance with the acid here, however.

I like this, but another several years may not be enough to make it accessible to the masses.


The next morning brought us a bit South-West to Limoux. Here, through the veil of plane trees, hillside vineyards dominate the landscape punctuated by the rows of huge stainless steel fermentation tanks and billboards of giant co-op producer, Sieur d’Arques. I regret that I have no photos of the region on the whole as it is a curious mix of idyllic vineyards, hilltop villages, castles, suburban sprawl, and industrial wine facilities.

Limoux is reputed to be the original home of sparkling wine. Historical records detail the specific production and distribution of blanquette (“little white”) sparkling wines by the monks of the abbey of Saint-Hilaire in 1531. Without getting into the specific details of the composition and production of Blanquette and Crémant de Limoux wines, suffice it to say that they are made primarily with the Mauzac grape and largely offer simple and affordable satisfaction.

Some of the vineyard plantings of Domaine J. Laurens

Some of the vineyard plantings of Domaine J. Laurens

The fairly small Domaine J. Laurens was our destination in Limoux. Here we were greeted by winemaker/owner Jacques Calvel, a genial gentleman who would provide a happy and informative tour and tasting.

Jacques Calvel

Jacques Calvel

We got a quick look at some of the vineyards adjacent to the winemaking facility. The vineyards are planted with Mauzac, Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir.

Some of the Mauzac vineyards of Dom. J. Laurens

Some of the Mauzac vineyards of Dom. J. Laurens

The winemaking facility looked so small and innocuous from the outside, but it was like Felix the Cat’s Bag of Tricks on the inside:

The large stainless steel fermentation tanks are efficiently packed into a temperature controlled space.

The large stainless steel fermentation tanks are efficiently packed into a temperature controlled space…

...which opens up to the bottling room where just a few bottles await riddling.

…which opens up to the bottling room where a handful of bottles await riddling.

In this space is also the bottling/crown-sealing line which was in operation during our visit:

I managed to find some bottles at the final stage of the riddling process. The yeasts have collected at the neck of the bottle. From here, the neck will be frozen so that when the crown seal is removed the solid matter will pop out like a cork (disgorgement). Then, in most cases, a small amount of sugars (dosage) will be introduced into the wine and then the bottle will be sealed with the classic cork and wire cage closure we all know.

Rosé awaiting disgorgement, dosage, and corking.

Rosé awaiting disgorgement, dosage, and corking.

The wines are stored in a room full of miraculously stacked bottles. This room can hold the entirety of the roughly 30K bottle production at Domaine J. Laurens.

The storage room.

The storage room.

Finally, we got to taste the wines. Ideal timing, too, as it was about 11:15 am and we were all ready for a little palate-invigoration. We tasted the “Cuvée Stéphi Ebullience” Crémant and Crémant Rosé (made specifically for Bourgeois Family Selections) as well as Domaine J. Laurens’ standard bottlings of Blanquette “Le Moulin” and Crémant “Clos de Demoiselles”. All of these were bright, fresh, fruitful and floral, and fine examples of Limoux sparkling wines.

The tasting line-up.

The tasting line-up.


Back on the road headed to Domaine Debray, a young winery (first vineyard purchased in 2006) that produces bottlings from around 25 different crus. We would soon taste them all. The team of owner, Yvonnick Debray and his oenologist, Jean-Philippe Terreau, have quickly established a prolific range of high-quality wines that will be hard to overlook in the coming years.

So unassuming from the outside, but…

This was an intensive tasting inclusive of five 2012 barrel samples and 20 bottle tastings from the 2010 and 2011 vintages. There was about a 60:40 ratio of red to white tasted. The thing that stood out most with this tasting was the precise detail of the entire experience and the intense professionalism of the two gentlemen. These are men committed to creating the best wines possible via exacting methods in the vineyard (sustainable practices, establishing vine-strain, ensuring small yields) through harvest and in the cellar (destemming, gentle pressing, meticulous temperature control, natural fermentation, etc.). The same behaviors were reflected in the nearly ritualistic nature of the tasting.

Where good stuff happens.

It would be foolish and daunting (and nigh-unreadable) for me to post all of my tasting notes here. Suffice it to say that my overarching comment on the wines when asked about possible favorites as we neared the end of the tasting was, “…difficult as it’s all just varying degrees of very good…”. I think that sums it up. There is not one wine in this visit that I would not personally buy or not enjoy drinking. There were, however, highlights:

Never enough Burgundy.

whites

  • 2011 Savigny les Beaune (tropical,spicy/toasty)
  • 2011 Meursault 1er Cru LesBoucheres (fleshy baked red apple, cinnamon, mineral)
  • 2011 Corton Charlemagne (fruit blossom melange, silken mouthfeel, marshmallow finish)

reds

  • 2012 Pommard 1er Cru Les Chaponniéres (mossy/earthy cherry nose, powerful, high-toned, high-extract)
  • 2011 Bourgogne Rouge (modern, sagey, ripe and bright, great value)
  • 2011 Mercurey 1er Cru Sazenay (cherry lozenge, sage, toasted marshmallow, cardamom, lavender)
  • 2011 Aloxe Corton 1er Cru Les Velozieres (black cherry, vanilla, full and rich)
  • 2011 Corton Grand Cru (old-school, black cherry, sanguine, high-toned)
  • 2011 Vosne Romanée Les Barreaux (intoxicating cinnamon/clove nose, über-ripe cherry, baking spice, chewy texture)
  • and the utterly ridiculous 2011 Clos de Vouget Grand Cru (dark and dense, silken, mixed herbs on front with red cherry bringing up the rear, impeccably structured: ripe fruit, sloping acid, velvety tannins)

2nd from left: Mr. Terreau, 2nd from right: Mr. Debray, far right: Philippe Bourgeois

This is a winery to watch.


Image

Smacked right in the nose.

Rich stewed cherries, sandalwood, sage and rosemary attack upon opening the bottle. This is not going to be shy. Fascinating that I can sense the acid on the nose with balsamic tones.

Pours translucent red-black. Certainly extracted, but crystalline filtered.

Ripe black cherry compote hits the palate but almost immediately gives way to that high-toned balsamic thing which carries through the finish. Faint touches of mushroom and wet earth lay in the undertones. Sage, sandalwood and vanilla spice the back-palate.

Silky in the mouth until the acid races across the back-palate and leaves velvety tannins in its wake.

With very few exceptions, no one is even trying to make this style of Pinot Noir in California, much less, Russian River Valley. It’s certainly extracted and sage-y (nothing new there), but the acid takes this to, at least, Willamette Valley territory if not Echezeaux. Makes me wonder why so many winemakers in CA insist on cramming Pinot Noir torte into their bottles when this kind of balance is possible.

Gorgeous. The finest California Pinot Noir I have had in years. Drinks beautifully on its own, but is pairable with nearly anything from fresh spinach salad to barbecued spare ribs. Greg La Follette is one to watch.


The bottle is empty. That counts for something, right?

It’s hard for me not to like Mr. Thackrey as a renegade intellect in this industry—his philosophy is very much in line with mine right down to the rambling and often self-contradictory nature (for more long-winded details from the man himself, look here). When a wine-maker is as outspoken about the balance of place, fruit, and the craft/art/alchemy of wine-making (while minimizing the importance of each of those individually), the expectation is that those elements should present themselves obviously and indelibly as specific to that wine-maker. The problem is, I’ve never thought he has achieved that as well as others who aren’t as obsessed with the idea. Perhaps this is a “can’t see the forest for the trees” situation for him and/or me.

I have always consumed his wines with ambivalence. Sure, they’re generally pretty good, but are they successful at conveying what he wishes them to? I hope not, because, while it is a stated goal, I can’t imagine that all he is shooting for is simple pleasure. Otherwise, why chose such curious vineyard sites and such esoteric grape varieties? When creating a broad non-vintage blend like Pleiades (which varies in composition every year) wherein fruit is sourced from various sites, nearly all that remains is a sense of wine-maker’s influence—there is no balance of place, fruit, and craft.  This is in line with his belief in the indelible imprint of the wine-maker on his wine even in the least interventionist manner of production. But it steers towards his obsession being reduced to self-importance (intentional or not).

Oh, well. He would ultimately say something like, “all that matters is what is in the glass now”, anyway. So here’s what is in mine:

Pleiades XX
Light-to-medium-bodied strawberry-and-clay red. Clearly a good amount of Sangiovese and Pinot Noir in the blend but, also, a good bit of aroma-lifiting and spicy Viognier in there to lighten the whole thing. Served just right at about 60° F which allows the lightness of body to shine. It is nice the way the Viognier lifts the dominant floral Sangiovese, spiciness of the Pinot Noir/Zinfandel, and the touch of earthy Mourvédre, but I would have liked some mid-palate acid to call me back to the glass. Juicy strawberry and ripe cherry fruit with undertones of earthy spice and a surprisingly dominant salinity. Tasty and easy-drinking if a bit lacking in the vibrancy expected of such a blend. The fruit-sweetness countered the spicy heat of my basic chili spot-on. Got the wife and me tipsy, so it worked as expected in that regard. Not particularly “special”, but certainly very drinkable and pleasant and will find plenty of enthusiastic drinkers. Drink now—do not wait, as it is just barely clinging to its peak.

⚄⚂.⚄


Mr. Wolf & Racquel

“Just because you are a character doesn’t mean that you have character.”

“Just because you are a character doesn’t mean that you have character.”
                                              —Mr. Wolf (Harvey Keitel), Pulp Fiction (1994)

Every now and then we all crave something that surprises us. There are certain foods, drinks, movie genres, music styles—whatever—that on any given day we will say we don’t care for or out-and-out abhor. But sometimes our brains like to play cruel little games with us.

Two weeks ago I was craving a hedonistic California Pinot Noir. I left the wine shop I work for empty-handed, having fought the urge to submit to this inexplicable, base instinct, expecting it to pass. Oh, sure, I don’t mind those wines when I taste them (in fact, I often quite like them), but drinking them—getting through a glass or more—is, generally, an abhorrent notion to me. This is the classic Robert Parker conundrum: rates high in tasting, but is ponderously difficult to drink. As one who far prefers the lean finesse of most Burgundian (or, even, Willamette Valley, Oregonian) Pinot Noir, even the thought of California Pinot Noir frequently makes me shudder simply because experience has taught me that I can’t enjoy more than a few sips and, like most people, I like to drink my wine as well as taste it.

But, as I sat in my wife’s clothing shop trying to kill time until closing, the pull became stronger. I couldn’t take it anymore and walked to the wine shop down the street. My presumption was that this would be a swift and easy shopping trip. The typically more opulent style of California Pinot Noir is very popular and bottlings are a dime-a-dozen (well, they’re exceptionally common, but are actually more like $25+ each). I knew going in what I wanted: ideally, Carneros Pinot Noir that I hadn’t actually tasted before but that had an established track-record of sweet fruit, spice, sage, and smoke…under $20.

Selection based on my criteria was slim and I quickly had to adjust to a broader region and wider price-range. I stood in the aisle of California Pinot Noirs hemming and hawing to myself (sometimes audibly) over my criteria-reduced handful of wines’ speculative crappiness/projected boringness/over-pricedness until I settled on one that I had overlooked in the seemingly endless 20 minutes spent poring over the same seven square feet of shelving. I recently enjoyed this winery’s Cabernet Sauvignon very much, so this was, ostensibly, a safe bet. A second, deeper issue had just silently introduced itself.

Without getting into the particulars of the impact of vineyard site to a given variety of wine grape, most experienced wine drinkers understand that two wines made with the same grape grown in vineyards 25 miles apart can taste dramatically different from one-another. The problem in this case is the wine doesn’t really show any common varietal character.

Of course, many makers of cheaper Pinot Noir blend in large amounts of Merlot, Syrah, or Carignan to beef-up flavor and body-weight, extend, and reduce costs of their wines. But that was not the case here. This was a 2009, 100% Pinot Noir grown in Carneros and bottled in Calistoga, California. My perception is that the combination of vineyard site and the winemaker’s established understanding of working with Cabernet Sauvignon (and relative inexperience with Pinot Noir) undid this wine. Opaque red-black in the glass and on the palate. Was it bad? Not really, if judged as a “red wine”. But it was, at best, a questionable representation of Pinot Noir. If tasted blind, my guess would have been a Syrah/Grenache blend, and a purely blackberry-fruited, rich, firm, and over-oaked tannic one at that. It had no spice, herbaceousness, smoke, or any measurable sense of terroir (other than its darkness). This was, undoubtedly, the work of a Cabernet Sauvignon master using the same heavy hand with a far less aggressive grape. It could have been enjoyable (if a bit over-priced) if sold as a “Napa Red Wine” rather than a Pinot Noir.

Caspar & Dane

“That’s why we gotta go to this question of character…”

“That’s why we gotta go to this question of character…”
—Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito), Miller’s Crossing (1990)

This problem came up during a wine competition I was judging a couple of years ago. All of the judges agreed that the wine in question was tasty but I argued that it didn’t deserve to medal because it did not show any varietal typicity. I eventually acquiesced so as not to be difficult and it got a silver medal in its category. But this Pinot Noir situation makes me question whether I shouldn’t have made a stronger argument.

I think varietal typicity matters a lot. Wineries have proven for the last century that it is possible to retain some varietal characteristics while expressing region and a winemaker’s proclivities. Not doing so can be catastrophic. If a consumer doesn’t get a product that resembles in any way what they were expecting, then that is, at best, a disappointment for the consumer and, at worst, a big sales problem for the winery. Repeat buys of that product are unlikely. Vineyards will be pulled up and replanted with something else—a heavy expense. Word-of-mouth can damage the brand forever.

So the question is: Does varietal typicity matter to you?

(As a side-note, two days later I got the Pinot Noir I wanted—Villa Mt. Eden, Sonoma 2009. Ripe cherry, strawberry, cola, mesquite, light sage. Bizarre craving fulfilled.)

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