I was recently invited as a special guest of the Central Otago Pinot Noir Celebration from 27-29 January 2011 and was asked to give a speech during the gala dinner about my thoughts on the event and Pinot Noir. There was much to say about this biannual celebration which puts Pinot Noir on a pedestal and analyses it from as many perspectives as three days will allow. We had verticals of Pinot Noir from some of the oldest wineries in Central Otago – Mt Difficulty, Felton Road and Quartz Reef. We had horizontals of Burgundy’s 2007 vintage wines expressed over many different appellations from the Cote de Beaune as well as the Cote de Nuits. We had a grand tasting that involved forty Central Otago wineries that showed a recent as well as an older vintage for tasting. We tasted Pinot Noir from all the major regions in New Zealand to discover its mosaic expressions from the North Island coast to the cool southern tip of South Island.
I could have spoken in depth about any of these tastings and social events which were very well organized by the Central Otago Pinot Noir Celebration committee. However, I chose to take a more philosophical approach, to question why we were all gathered together to spend three days questioning, attempting to understand and come to terms with this grape variety affectionately known as ‘the heartbreak variety’. True Pinot Noir lovers know when they are afflicted with this life-long Pinot bug which plagues us for the rest of our lives. We start to ask questions which we know can never be answered in our lifetime – e.g. What is terroir? How is Pinot Noir best expressed from a certain site?
We start to define wine quality in a very different way: We look at palate shape, texture and balance in wine. Intensity and power in wine starts to jar our sensitive palates. We start to use terms like ‘compact sveltness’, ‘stillness in the mid palate’, ‘luminosity’, ‘clarity of expression’, ’purity of flavours’ and ‘delicate hedonism’. These are words inappropriate for a full bodied red wine; they are for a gentler soul – a wine imbued with a spirituality, a delicacy in its delivery and approach. It becomes the appreciation of a woman’s scent as much as her embrace; the possibilities as much as the present; the unspoken as well as the spoken.
Why do Pinot Noir lovers and producers embark on this heartbreaking journey? Sometimes it is unintentional – the Pinot bug grabs you unaware, unplanned and it pulls you in. You start to live with uncertainty, listen more intently and embody Descartes’ philosophy, “I think therefore I am.” Loving Pinot is about maturing as a human being: Being able to listen as well as you speak. Because you know that the best Pinot always whispers, never shouts. If you don’t listen carefully, you may miss its very essence. You learn to become more sensitive to what the land has to tell you, to the stories that Pinot has to share because you know that these soft melodies are exclusive to those who have really learned to listen.
As Pinot Noir lovers, we realize that doing less is often better than doing more when it comes to winemaking. We know that a certain amount of stress and hardship is good for building character and longevity in quality wine. We appreciate the subtle grace of a fragrance that is fleeting but lingers for a long time in our memory. Our appreciation of Pinot is as much about the moment that we bring it to our lips as it is about anticipation, and then afterwards, the memory of its flavours.
Pinot Noir has taught me to be thoughtful, reflective and sometimes philosophical. How can such a finicky, extremely difficult to grow variety, with thin skins express such poetry in a bottle? How is it possible that at one moment it makes us soar, filled with visions of greatness and beauty and at another moment bring us crashing down to earth? As wine lovers, we are probably more often disappointed with Pinot Noir than we are impressed by it. But it is that one bottle out of ten, that elevates us to such giddy moments that we keep going back for the Pinot fix; even though we know that the majority of the time, we will be sorely disappointed.
Loving Pinot is a journey that only the brave and patient should undertake. It involves leaving behind preconceived notions of what is greatness in wine. Slowly, we learn to prize purity and clarity of expression over power, we begin to appreciate how paring down a wine and seeing its essence is preferable to dressing it up. Pinot is good for one’s soul: As Pinot lovers well know, it takes time and effort to understand the regional and sub-regional expressions, the meso and microclimates between wines that come from adjacent vineyards. We learn to be patient and see how vintages express themselves in the wine and how the producers take on these climatic challenges. We are only in the beginning stages of understanding the interactions among different rootstocks, Pinot Noir clones, soils, appropriate water and vineyard management – and how all these elements plus numerous other factors plays itself out in a particular site.
This is painfully clear in new Pinot Noir regions like Central Otago, New Zealand, which is less than thirty years old. Burgundy has a head start, more than half a century, but as one custodian of his Pinot Noir vineyards said to me, “Making great Pinot Noir is easy, it is only the first 800 years that is hard.”
Reprinted with permission from South China Morning Post