Grab a tissue. For if last time we discussed the gladdening effects of Vouvray, today we will focus on the ever-elusive heartbreak grape: Pinot Noir. Pinot is not an easy varietal to work with… it is delicate, thin-skinned, and vulnerable. For this reason, the stakes are high, as vintages can vary greatly, causing great anxiety and pain for the winemaker.
When I first heard ‘heartbreak’ associated with Pinot Noir, though, it was not the winemaker—an actual person—whom I related this characteristic. No, it was Pinot itself. Or, perhaps, it is to some extent the way Pinot makes me feel when I consume it. The Chet Baker of wine varietals, Pinot has a flavor that conjures sound, a personality that falls on the ear through the sonorous drone of a melancholic Harmon mute. Like a seemingly simple song that soon evolves into a jazz standard, the notes, the melody of a Pinot is felt, appreciated, but seldom really heard. Pinot is quick to be loved—everybody’s favorite—but consistently falls short of being understood.
To me, grapes like Pinot (and even Nebbiolo… though that nemesis of mine will be addressed in a later blog) are impossible not to humanize. To dismantle its complexity and flesh out the experience of a substantial Pinot, one cannot escape personification. Burgundy, the birthplace of Pinot, is the single-most fragmented land for Pinot on the planet, leaving Pinot unpredictable and anxious. Pinot has much to live up to, as it naturally has high standards. But what Pinot stubbornly forgets is that it cannot actualize on its own. To realize its full potential, Pinot must depend upon the earth, the climate, and people. That said, though, unlike most other varietals, Pinot is exceptionally autonomous. It is an enigma, befuddling to even the most astute geologists. Its formula for greatness cannot be calculated or counted upon. The winemaker can only do so much to bring it to success.
Like Ella Fitzgerald achieving perfect pitch, to me, the allure, as often is the case with wine and life, is when Pinot pulls off perfect paradox. When subtly meets muscularity, as in a Gevrey-Chambertain, or sophistication meets the everyday, as in a Marsannay, Pinots have the ability to translate the micro, the macro and their antitheses… all in one bottle. Pinot pulsates with nostalgia—always glancing backward with every present sip. It kicks up an equal amount of longing and light-heartedness.
Pinot has even been known to speak to the trends of our time, as many have increasingly gone retro. Winemakers everywhere, not the least of which producers from Burgundy and Oregon, have recognized that the sensitivity of Pinot’s skin can be as much a detriment as it is a benefit to its character. It has a bent for instability—a weakness for changing tides if everything isn’t just so. Pinot is the Gemini of grapes. If not properly cultivated, if submerged in unnatural pesticides and chemicals, this easy-to-stifle grape will lose its voice. It may be consumable, even enjoyed, but like a heavily medicated creature, it will not find its fullest, most genuine expression of self. Returning to more pristine vinicultural practices, partaking in organic and biodynamic methods, can restore the soil in which Pinot grows, allowing for the utmost terroir to be transported from ground to the vine to the wine to the table…to you. For, after all, Pinot’s most coveted trait is its knack for language. Pinot is a polyglot, an orator, a truth-teller for a land’s terroir. Leroy, Laflaive, and Beaux Frères are just a few producers who have caught onto this revolution. Eco-conscientious tactics are especially critical when it comes to the quirky, yet oh so deliciously complicated Pinot. And really, let’s face it, aren’t its quirks more than worth it?
So there you go… the tip of the iceberg. Hardly a start for explaining my fascination with Pinot. But if ever there was a grape that deserves time, thought, and tangential articulation, it is Pinot.