Pinot Noir: The Agony and the Ecstasy

By Jordan P. Ross

Pinot Noir arouses more passion among wine drinkers than any other wine. Those passions are driven by Pinot Noir's elusive nature: when the fragrance and the texture are right there may be no greater pleasure in all of wine. But Pinot Noir is frequently disappointing and always expensive. Its flavors are so sensitive to nature and winemaking and therefore fragile and fleeting. As one grower put it, “There's nothing worse than a 'pretty good' Pinot Noir; there are so many better wines at half the price.”

Pinot Noir is the greatest challenge to winemakers. According to industry insider Leo McCloskey President of Enologix, a consulting firm in Sonoma, there is more pressure on the Pinot Noir winemaker. “I think it's a part of the conventional wisdom here in California that Pinot Noir is dangerous for a winemaker's career. How many famous Pinot Noir winemakers are there?” he comments

The Vineyard

The challenges start in the vineyard. Ross Cobb, Winemaker at Flowers Winery comments, “The problem with Pinot Noir is that it has very subtle textures and aromas. If you grow it in an area that is too warm or too cold or if it rains or if the soils are too fertile or poorly drained or any extreme, it's going to create an awful wine. Too cold gives you unripe tannins and no fruit flavors; too warm gives you ripe, jammy fruit without the structure, a hollow, thin wine with coarse tannins because it ripened too quickly. There are a lot of Pinot Noirs being made showing all those extremes.”

Bill Dyer has made Pinot Noir and Cabernet for 20 years first at Sterling and now as Technical Director to Marimar Torres Estate in Sebastopol. He comments on the grape's ultra-sensitive personality, “There are some varietals that are able to adapt to a wide range of climates. Chardonnay, for example—perhaps we can say that it's better in the coolest regions but it does make interesting wines in a number of different climates. There are people who debate whether Syrah does best in a cool or warm climate. In fact, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc can make interesting wines in a wide range of climates, although with different characteristics. I don't think you can say that with Pinot Noir; it's not that forgiving of warm climates.”

Michael Richmond founded Acacia in 1979 and is now General Manager of Bouchaine Vineyards in Carneros. He comments, “One of the difficulties is that Pinot Noir has such a narrow window of ripeness; 2–3 days. If the sun comes out it can be even shorter.” Unlike Zinfandel, when Pinot Noir gets over ripe it rapidly loses its character. Pinot Noir's thin skin permits dehydration, rapidly concentrating its small berries with acid, sugar and tannin.

Great Pinot is rare because the ideal vineyard sites are hard to find. Pinot Noir requires specific growing conditions—low vigor soils and cool temperatures. Varietal character starts to disappear above three tons/acre, making it always expensive, even when it's not good. Even where Pinot Noir thrives such as in Burgundy, Oregon and some coastal areas of California and New Zealand's Central Otago, there are dramatic swings in quality between vintages and producers.

Difficult to Rate

This ultra-sensitivity to environmental conditions combined with the variety of choices winemakers make related to crop level, clone, harvest date, extraction and percentage of new oak means that Pinot Noir is made in a broader range of styles than any other red wine. This variation in style makes Pinot Noir difficult to rate. “Before you can evaluate a Pinot Noir you have to discuss the style in which it was produced. The critics should not simply assign a score but explain the style and then the relative merits of the wine in the style in which it's made,” comments Ted Lemon of Littorai Wines.

Besides, what a given taster likes depends on what style he/she is familiar with. If your reference point is Burgundy you will have strong preconceived notions of what Pinot Noir should look and taste and like. Jim Clendenon Winemaker at Au Bon Climat Winery in Los Olivos tells a story, which illuminates his position on Pinot Noir: “We had a really bad vintage in 1983. There was a lot of botrytis which caused the color to break. I sold the wine for almost nothing. It was very light but very nuanced; it smelled a lot like cherry pie, slightly herbal, kind of musty. I took it out and most retail buyers said, we can't sell this, it's too light, nobody wants to buy wine of this style. Every once in a while somebody would say, why is this wine so cheap? I'm just finishing my house wine, a '79 Savigny les Beaunes; this wine has that same character. I sold the wine to consumers who were expert in Burgundy; when they found California Pinot Noir that corresponded with their idea of Burgundy, they jumped all over it.”

Does Color matter?

Today, quality in Pinot Noir seems to be defined by dark color, a trait in which Pinot Noir, compared to nearly all other red grapes, is genetically deficient. McCloskey comments, “The pigments in Pinot Noir are the least stable of all the red wines. That's why producers use Petite Sirah, Syrah and Alicante in their Pinot Noir; it evens out the color swings.”

David Hirsch of Hirsch Vineyards says, “You have to be careful about color. Even some high quality winemakers have a tendency to manipulate the wine so you get more color. We leave ours alone. Last year [2003] you could read a newspaper through some of those wines; there was no color at all and it doesn't bother me. Some of the best Burgundy's I've had—I remember the 1972 Corton Grancey—were pale; it's cosmetic.”

Lemon thinks color is not what people should be thinking about, “I don't think color is a valid parameter because you can manipulate it. To be called Pinot Noir in California you only need 75% Pinot Noir. Anyone can add 20% of another darkly colored grape variety, even 10% if it's really dark. The reality is that 99% of the reputable California producers wouldn't do that, but it's legal.”

What's interesting about color is that it does not affect a wine's flavor (aroma/taste/mouthfeel) but it does affect how we perceive flavor. Sensory scientists have found that people learn domaines and in the domaine of foods and beverages, darker colored products are rated as more intensely flavored. While this may be true for lemonade and orange juice, it does not necessarily apply to Pinot Noir; just because a wine is light in color does not mean it isn't flavorful.

The irony is that a Pinot with lighter color and beautiful aromatics, while a pleasure to drink, is a tough sell; you hit a ceiling as to what consumers are willing to pay for subtlety. “You have these big, muscular Pinots getting rave reviews. People love to drink approachable, elegant wines but they'll pay big bucks for the monsters,” comments Richmond.

The new clones, denser spacing, better trellis systems and vine row direction have enabled growers to harvest riper fruit. Richmond comments, “We're learning that as the grapes get riper, their varietal definition tends to go down, but their power comes up.”

Better Pinot through Technology?

The use of technology and enzymes is another is also contributing to the super-sizing of Pinot Noir. Enzymes are used to extract more color and tannin and concentrators remove water from the must. Sturdier wines like Cabernet Sauvignon may benefit but Pinot Noir's subtle aromatics and texture do not survive these treatments. “I've tried enzymes and decided they're not for me. If you have the fruit you want, there's no value added to using enzymes,” says Dan Goldfield, Winemaker and partner in Dutton-Goldfield Winery in Sonoma.

Pinot Noir purists say that if you want power, drink Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Syrah. “Pinot Noir is a grape of finesse and it does it better than any other grape. If you lose the finesse, you've lost the essence of this variety. You can make good wine that way but not good Pinot Noir,” comments Steve Doerner Winemaker of Cristom Vineyards in Oregon.

Pinot Noir vs Cabernet Sauvignon

Today, there is a 'bigger is better' mentality towards red wines. Doerner comments, “You don't have to search for subtlety or intellectualize about the wine, it's there in your face. This registers better because a lot of Pinot Noir drinkers are coming from Cabernet Sauvignon. In a competitive tasting, the Pinots that will grab your attention are those with the most guts.”

Many consumers are coming from Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz, and when they taste an elegant, finesse Pinot Noir ask, “Where's the beef?” Clendenon comments, “A lot of people being educated in wine today are coming from a whole different palate preference. We have people moving up the wine chain and their last stop was Rosemont Shiraz.” The appreciation of Pinot Noir is more learned. The subtleties can be missed if you don't know what to look for.

David Graves of Saintsbury Winery in Carneros contends that consumers are more likely to encounter Zinfandel, Cabernet, Merlot or Syrah. “Pinot Noir comes later because there is less of it in the market and it tends to be expensive,” he adds. Since familiarity is the most important determinant of what consumers like, the attraction to the highly extracted, over-ripe version of Pinot Noir is that it tastes like Cabernet or Syrah. Meanwhile, Pinot Noir purists feel that the qualities that draw them to Pinot Noir—aromatics, subtlety, silky texture and compatibility with food - are lost.

The Press or Opportunistic Winemakers?

Clendenon feels that the press, in league with market-driven winemakers is responsible for Pinot Noir that more closely resemble Syrah. He remarks, “My criticism is that there are critics who have established a “bigger is better” criteria for Pinot Noir. There are a lot of Pinot Noir makers who are in it for the romance or glamour. That's why I got into it but I did so after working in Burgundy, not because I had a Williams Selyem and thought I could make a wine every year like the '90 Olivet Lane. If all you're trying to do is keep your enterprise alive through shameless commercialism, you shouldn't have gotten into it.”

It is difficult to tell whether consumers like to drink these performance-enhanced Pinots or they are drawn to them because they get the high ratings? Marimar Torres has been making elegant, age-worthy Pinot Noir since 1992. She comments, “We frequently discuss this question of style: Do we want to produce a wine that garners high scores or one that is varietally correct and good with food? One year we experimented with a block that gave us fruit with incredible concentration and depth, as well as high alcohol—but I thought that, even though it might have gotten us a high score, it was "too much of a good thing" and not really the style we strive for.”

Dyer adds, “The late harvest strategy is a commercial strategy and one that I don't think is beneficial to Pinot Noir. Some of the younger winemakers who have really embraced that strategy I think have somehow come to the conclusion that there is no flavor in the grapes until they are pruney and even raisiny.”

Is There Morality in Winemaking?

You cannot blame winemakers for making what they think will sell. One Pinot Noir winemaker who changed to a more commercial style [picking at higher sugars, lower acidity, dehydration] and saw his ratings and sales take off, remarked, “Elegant and delicate wouldn't score more than 82 points. Each year the bar is raised and the further we get from Pinot Noir. But we want to make a wine that sells. What is success: maintaining a style or selling 30,000 cases?”