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The Heartbreaker of All Wines
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The Heartbreaker of All Wines

What makes it so difficult to produce quality pinot noir? Let us count the ways.

Pinot noir is one of the world’s great red wine grapes. Though famously difficult to work with, it has become a pursuit of passion throughout much of the wine-growing world. The kosher wine scene is, thankfully, not immune from this infatuation.

As a grape variety, pinot noir is comparatively ancient — thought to be at least 2,000 years old — and has been fairly mutable in horticultural terms, with at least three of its mutations proving to be important grape varieties all their own: pinot blanc, pinot gris and pinot meunier. Additionally, at least four famous grapes have been established through DNA research to be the result of crossing pinot noir with a very old and obscure grape called gouais blanc (mainly grown today in Switzerland): chardonnay, aligote, melon and gamay. Despite such viticultural and vinicultural fecundity, pinot noir itself remains a fairly difficult affair.

Over the years, kosher pinot noir as a category has provided its fair share of variation, success and failures, pleasures and pains and more than a little confusion, yet also beauty, delight and even enlightenment — well, in wine terms, anyway. British wine writer Andrew Jefford once aptly noted that: “Pinot noir is the poet among grape varieties. Long flowing locks; flashing eyes; exasperating and sometimes childish behavior redeemed by occasional brilliance. No grape has broken more winemaking hearts than this one.”

Of course this “poetic” quality is part of the appeal; the passionate chase after pinot noir’s potential greatness is made all the more tantalizing by the costs and dangers of the pursuit. And by the knowledge that disappointment is the more likely result — rather than the successful production of an exceptional, brilliant wine. When pinot noir is good, it is delicious, sometimes rapturously, stupendously so; often, however, it is not good.

This O’Dwyers Creek pinot noir is from vineyards in
Marlborough, New Zealand.

Pinot noir is a fragile, delicate grape. Much lighter and less hardy than other familiar red varieties, like cabernet sauvignon, merlot or syrah. The pinot noir grape is also an early-ripening, temperamental variety; it prefers a more cool-climate location than most other red wine varieties, allowing for the growing season to extend longer-enough, towards autumn, to develop interesting and complex aromas and flavors. Such cool-climate locations invariably mean greater vintage variation, throwing the grape off-balance, as it were. Pinot noir is one of those wines that is said to transmit terroir — or a “sense of place” from where it is grown — especially well, but plant it without regard for vineyard aptitude, and your chances for success diminish substantially.

Since the grape’s skin is much thinner than, say, the skin of cabernet grapes, pinot noir more prone to various forms of mildew, rot and disease. This thinness of skin, combined with its early ripening, increases the pinot noir’s susceptibility to spring frost and weather-related ailments. That thinness also tends to result in paler and typically less tannic or chewy wines. If not managed carefully, the grapes can shift swiftly from unripe to overripe. That is, from producing wines that are hard, tight and inarticulate (underripe fruit) to ones that are sweet, stewy and full of jammy fruit caricature (overripe). Thus, a steady and intelligent hand is needed in the vineyard to monitor and fine-tune development in an attempt to tease pinot noir to perform at its best — especially in times of poor weather conditions. After which, a no less thoughtful and experienced winemaker is needed to then deal appropriately with the fruit, and delicately coax the fermentation along. Winemaking mistakes — such as an overly heavy use of oak or too much maceration of the must with the skins — are invariably punished badly by this unforgiving variety.

Yet, despite these well-known issues, the siren song of pinot noir continues unabated. As the “Oxford Companion to Wine” ends its encyclopedic entry: “Wherever there is a wine producer with a palate, there will be experimentation with Pinot Noir.”

Despite such possible pains, potential pleasures abound. Without diving into variations of clonal selection, pinot noir wines are typically fruity, sometimes a little sweet; and they can offer aromas and taste sensations, variously, of cherries, raspberries, plums, rhubarb, pomegranate, strawberry jam, mushrooms, violets, cloves, allspice, darjeeling tea, hibiscus, autumnal undergrowth, forest underbrush, potting soil, worn leather, warm stones on summer evenings, and sometimes even what Europeans occasionally refer to as animali — which Karen MacNeil colorfully described in her book, “The Wine Bible,” as “a highly attractive male sweaty smell.”

Pinot noir tends to have light, graceful tannins and acid-quickened flavors; at its best, it produces smooth and supple yet lively and incisive wines with a graceful, aerial style — often offering sweetness and spice when young and great complexity when mature. With acidity more prominent than tannins, it is dominated overall by rich red fruits, over time developing a wider range and often surprising inner power.

Pinot noir was born in Burgundy, France, and is generally understood to be at its very best when cultivated there — when it performs well. But it has reached significant glories beyond Burgundy, thankfully. Pinot noir is, for example, also the most important red wine grape of France’s Champagne and Alsace regions, as well as of Germany, New Zealand and Oregon. Pinot noir has also achieved some measure of greatness in the coolest parts of California, Chile and Australia, and parts of Canada and South Africa are also enjoying some success with it.

Tasting Notes:

The range of kosher pinot noirs does not represent the wide variety available to the general market, of course, but there are many pinot noirs to bring to the kosher wine explorer. Here are some wonderful and still readily available options to try from across the price spectrum:

From New Zealand, consider the lovely, reliable, balanced and food-friendly Goose Bay, South Island Pinot Noir, New Zealand, 2018 (mevushal; $33; widely available, including at Astor Wines, 399 Lafayette St. at East Fourth Street, [212] 674-7500) offers flavors and aromas of tart cherries, currants and raspberries, with whiffs of earth, cedar, smoke, a touch of pepper and hints of violets. For an enjoyable and fully mature contrast, consider the O’Dwyers Creek, Pinot Noir, Marlborough, New Zealand, 2014 (mevushal; $30; widely available, including at Empire State of Wine, 111 W. 20th St., [212] 888-2297) — still very vibrant but now with earthy and barnyardy though still distinct cherry, sour cherry, raspberry and strawberry fruits, this has become lighter in body and color, yet deeper and perhaps a bit more gravelly in expression; a lovely, aged example of Kiwi pinot.

From the same owner-winemaker as Goose Bay, though from its American Pacific Northwest winery, is the wonderful and beautifully balanced Pacifica, Evan’s Collection, Columbia Gorge Pinot Noir, 2017 ($20; widely available, including at Columbus Avenue Wines & Spirits, 730 Columbus Ave., [212] 865-7070), offering somewhat earthy and minerally laden ripe black cherry notes with enough depth and heft to keep it interesting and enjoyable on its own, though like all honest wines it greatly prefers food. Another wonderful offering from this area of the U.S. is the Twin Suns, Special Edition, Pinot Noir, Dundee Hill, Oregon, Gabriel & Shimon Weiss, 2016 ($30; selling out fast, but still available at Cabrini Wines & Spirits, 91 Pinehurst Ave, [212] 568-3290), with fresh, juicy acidity and fruit flavors of  cranberry, raspberry and can that be fig? Very food-friendly, too. 

From California, consider the light but silky Herzog, Lineage, Pinot Noir, Clarksburg, CA, 2017 (mevushal; $20; widely available, including at 67 Wine, 179 Columbus Ave., [212] 724-6767), with aromas of cherry and citrus and flavors of sour cherry, ripe raspberry, citrus and hints of deeply roasted coffee. Or the always fabulous and refreshing Hagafen, Pinot Noir, Coombsville, Napa Valley, California, 2018 (mevushal; $42; widely available, including at Columbus Avenue Wines & Spirits, 730 Columbus Ave., [212] 865-7070), a perennial favorite, the current vintage being glorious, ebullient and delicious, with lovely, layered notes of fresh, ripe strawberries and cranberries, spice, a broadside of dark cherry and a smidge of chocolate. Another fabulous Golden State offering is the snappily impressive Shirah Wine Co. Shirah Sebastiano Vineyard Pinot Noir, 2016 ($55; available directly from the winery at shirahwine.com, [845]-826-4192), packed with rich, ripe red and dark berry fruits and lovely anise and ginger and perhaps a smidgen of mint; nicely balanced, too.

Israel runs a bit too hot for pinot noir to do especially well, and yet some lovely examples are produced there. Consider, for example, the delicious Vitkin, Pinot Noir, Ella Valley, Israel, 2018 ($30; widely available, including online from Kosherwine.com, [866] 567-4370) — this eastern Mediterranean take on pinot is bright, light, fruity and mildly earthy, with some interesting herbal notes; easy to drink on its own, but really hungers for a bit of poultry or meaty fish. Another tasty though very different Israeli expression is the Golan Heights Winery, Yarden, Pinot Noir, 2017 ($29; widely available, including at Liquors Galore, 1212 Ave. J, Brooklyn, [718] 338-4166) — fruity yet relatively poised, with nice acidity and noticeable but pleasant oak influence.

From Burgenland, Austria, consider the organic De La Rosa 613, Oneg Pinot Noir, 2015 (mevushal; $20; available through organic food stores, or online from Kosherwine.com, [866] 567-4370), enjoyably simple and straightforward; fully mature yet pleasingly still fruity and grounded.

From France’s southern coast comes The Butcher’s Daughter, Pinot Noir, IGP Pays d’Oc, 2017 (mevushal; $15; widely available, including at Skyview Wines & Spirits, 5681 Riverdale Ave., Riverdale, [888] 759-8466), a simple yet enjoyable, value-driven, lightly spiced, cherry-driven but violet-enhanced number with enough acidity to keep it food-friendly and refreshing. Shifting to France’s famed Burgundy region, or Bourgogne, is the comparatively inexpensive yet enjoyable — though slightly but nicely thin and tarte — expression from Domaine Ternynck, Bourgogne, Les Brulis, Pinot Noir, 2018 ($27; widely available, including at Columbus Avenue Wines & Spirits, 730 Columbus Ave., [212] 865-7070).

Finally, also, from Bourgogne, and offering the higher-end range of expression of what folks look for from pinot noir’s homeland, are the fabulous kosher run of wines from Jean Luc & Paul Aegerter’s “Les Vins du Domaine” and “Les Grand Classiques” series. The Jean Luc & Paul Aegerter, Bourgogne, Hautes-Côtes de Nuits, Réserve Personnelle, 2018 ($75; widely available, in Brooklyn, including at Liquors Galore, 1212 Ave. J, [718] 338-4166) is a lovely, vivacious Bourgogne rouge from this firm’s “entry-level” series, yet it punches well above its weight with attractive and perfumed black-cherry, strawberry and raspberry notes, black tea, oregano and cloves, and an earthy undercurrent with a softly tannic shape and lively acidity. The next level is the Jean Luc & Paul Aegerter, Pommard, Réserve Personnelle, 2018 ($150; widely available in Brooklyn, including at Liquors Galore, 1212 Ave. J, [718] 338-4166),  which, though structured and still quite firm, is already showing elegance, complexity and is, well, fabulous — and like all really good Burgundy is sadly priced accordingly. Look for concentrated notes of acidity driven ripe red and black berries coming through the tannins, developing rich and spicy qualities along with mushroomy and earthy goodness as it further matures. If possible, give it another five years, at least, then enjoy for another decade or so. 

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