Doug Sloan

Pinot Noir – the heartbreak grape

Of all the classic red wines, Pinot Noirs are most likely to be overlooked, under-appreciated or just plain misunderstood

Of all the classic red wines, Pinot Noirs are most likely to be overlooked, under-appreciated or just plain misunderstood.

With layers of aroma and flavour from floral through fruit into spices, and earthy animal elements like leather and roasted meats – it is much more about subtlety than sheer power.

Typically light in ‘weight’ and colour, Cono Sur Pinot Noir (341602) $12.45 from Chile is very much a classic New World Pinot Noir – with that elusive scent of fresh cut beets over dark cherry and jammy strawberry flavours and that “tree bark” liquorice twist of fresh leathery tobacco leaf.

In his wine cult classic book, The Heartbreak Grape, Marq de Villiers tries to explain Pinot Noir’s allure: “Something struck me about its clarity, a brilliant red, like rubies under fire …it was rich and complex, with a maddening hint of chocolate and violets.”

Fruit for Riverlore Marlborough Pinot Noir (459503) $18.50 was harvested at optimum ripeness for great complexity and weight. The result is a lovely vibrant-coloured wine with aromas of sweet strawberries and dark fruits. On the tongue there are bright cranberry, raspberry and strawberry flavours that slide seamlessly into a lightly smoked oak and earthy finish.

Rich and complexly scented and flavoured, although it can be quite light in colour, Pinot Noir is smooth and relatively unassertive compared to sturdy Cabernet Sauvignons, lush Merlots, peppery Malbecs and boisterous Zinfandels.

Made from grapes grown in various vineyards up and down the coast of California, in regions that include Monterey, Santa Barbara and Mendocino, Murphy-Goode Pinot Noir (608075) $20.75 has that textbook vibrant black cherry character, bright and sassy over deep strawberry fruit. Subtle hints of dried sage and star anise add interest and complexity. Aging in both French and American oak contributed subtle notes of vanilla.

Then there’s that especially ‘silky’ mouth-feel – a rich tactile tongue-coating quality all out of proportion to the often very delicate fruit flavours and floral aromas that even simple Pinot Noirs offer us.

Often this makes them taste much sweeter than they are, especially when the winemaker minimalizes interventionist meddling and instead encourages the wine to more or less make itself.

Don’t be surprised if the last glass out of the bottle of Synchromesh ‘Palo Solera Vineyard’ Pinot Noir (63610) $26 from the Okanagan Valley’s East Kelowna pours a little cloudy. This is real wine, made from real grapes, unfined and unfiltered. Raspberry, cherry and sweet spices mingle with leather, cedar and some rainforest floor notes on the nose. There’s a natural simplicity to this luscious and seriously supple red – ripe berry fruit, fresh sliced beet aromas and flavours and subtle sage and earthy thyme complexities in the long aftertaste.

As the name of de Villier’s 1994 study implies, ‘The Heartbreak Grape’ is among the most difficult to successfully cultivate and turn into wine. The grape’s tendency to produce tightly packed clusters makes it susceptible to bunch rot and powdery mildew. Thin-skinned grapes that ripen unevenly can lead to lightly coloured red wines with aromas and flavours that sometimes fall short of greatness.

Adventurous and relatively well-funded pinotphiles may have to hunt to find a bottle of Marimar Estates Don Miguel ‘La Masia’ Vineyard Russian River Valley (71133) $58.75.  Like a much more expensive Burgundy, it flaunts concentrated layers of cherries, berries, raisins and dried prunes hovering over an earthy undercurrent of mushrooms and truffles before sliding into subtle echoes of molasses, dark chocolate and coffee.

Although there are a few somewhat affordable red wines from Burgundy that are clearly labelled as Pinot Noir, most are named for their specific districts – Nuits St.Georges, Gevrey Chambertin, Pommard, Mercurey, etc.

Experienced wine lovers who have deliberately pursued a deeper relationship with ‘The Heartbreak Grape’ won’t be surprised at the price of Seguin-Manuel Pommard ‘Vielles Vignes’ (514414) $77.90.  From the village of Pommard in Burgundy’s Cote de Beaune, this is among the most affordable examples of the red wines made from Pinot Noir grapes that made Burgundy world famous. Lightly coloured, it offers aromas of raspberry and black cherry with a smoky molasses note. Despite being both bright and silky on first sip it has a deep and persistent backbone of tamed tannins that beautifully frames the predominant flavours of cherry, boysenberry and blueberry.

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