Fickle, a seductive mistress, a minx, or, as the late, great California winemaker André Tchelistcheff declared: ‘God made cabernet sauvignon whereas the devil made pinot noir’. Yes, pinot noir has been called many things in its time and not always complimentary. As the mainstay of red burgundy, pinot noir’s apogee, the wines of the fabled Domaine de la Romanée Conti are as rare, precious and costly as the garnet whose colour they emulate.
Extreme reactions to pinot are normal. From a winemaker’s point of view, its need for a marginal climate makes it one of the hardest grapes to get right, hence it’s synonym, the heartbreak grape. For consumers, the pleasure it gives when it’s good outweighs the pain it produces when it’s ordinary. But red burgundy can be infuriatingly hit-and-miss: bottled seduction at its raspberry and fraise du bois-scented, sensual best; frustrating when it fails to deliver on its expensive promise.
Pinot noir is always high maintenance. While Bordeaux’ cabernet and merlot, and the Rhône’s syrah are happy travellers, pinot noir’s prima donna demands for the right location have most big companies giving it a wide berth. It’s mainly small, intense, obsessed wine growers who produce the best results, another reason pinot tends to be on the pricey side. But which country or region makes the best pinot noir outside Burgundy? The Pinot Puzzle, a blind tasting put on for love by PR ladies Jen MacDonald, Angela Reddin and Kate Sweet, pitted Oregon, California, New Zealand, Chile and Australia against each other.
Bottles unmasked, Chile turned in the least impressive performance, but at least its pinots were reasonably priced. In particular, the smoky, juicily strawberryish 2009 Anakena Ona , Casablanca Valley, £10.99, Oddbins, showed Chile’s potential for great value pinot noir. New Zealand showed promise in at least three regions: from Central Otago, a spicy, black cherryish, burgundian 2007 Quartz Reef Pinot Noir, £17.49, Majestic, from Marlborough an aromatic, opulently cherry and strawberry-filled 2007 Villa Maria Reserve, £16.99, Tesco (limited stores) and, one of New Zealand’s true greats, a fragrant, raspberryish, silky-textured 2008 Ata Rangi from Martinborough, around £37.99, Noel Young (01223 566744), Philglas & Swiggot (020 7642 1576).
Australian pinot noir performed best in the cooler Victorian region of Mornington Peninsula. The 2008 Kooyong Haven, Great Western Wine, Bath (01225 322 800) was finely crafted red with a succulent red berry fruits juiciness, the 2008 Riorret Merricks Grove Vineyard Pinot Noir, £23.99, waitrosewinedirect, a stunning red burgundy lookalike in its fragrance and intensity of seductive raspberry and fraise du bois, while the voluptuous New World burgundian style of the 2008 Yabby Lake Vineyard Pinot Noir, £22.99 - £24, Noel Young, Handford (020 7581 2983, was another star.
Oregon pinot was good, if pricey, the excellent 2006 Lemelson Six Vineyards Pinot Noir, £18, the Wine Society, with its smoky vanillin oak and gorgeous mulberryish fruit concentration, the exception that proved the rule; while the 2007 Domaine Drouhin, around £23.50, Berry Bros. & Rudd (08002802440), was superb. California pinot noir, also not shy in its pricing, tended to be more of a mixed bag, although for the intensity of its rhubarb and cherry fruit fragrance, and richness balanced by sea-breezy nip of freshness, the 2008 Au Bon Climat Pinot Noir, around £21.60, WoodWinters, Bridge of Allan (01786 834 8940, Harvey Nichols, delivered. And delivery of fragrance and sensuality is what we hope for from pinot noir, wherever it comes from.
Something For the Weekend 4 December 2010
Under a Fiver
2009 Popolino Rosso
We liked the previous vintage of this crowd-pleasing Sicilian rosso and we like the new vintage every bit as much for its vivid cherryish fruit quality and juicy freshness; slips down a treat with pasta and finger food. £4.99, Marks & Spencer
Under a Tenner
2006 Cune Reserva, Rioja, Spain.
The vanilla undertone in the aroma of this bright, modern tempranillo-based blend from a fine Rioja vintage infuses the wine’s brambly, succulent textured fruit with spice in a seamless, velvet glove package. Reduced to £9.35, from £11.69, until Tuesday, Waitrose.
2009 St-Véran 'Les Crais’, Domaine Cordier
From Christophe Cordier, the master of St-Véran, this is a stylish white burgundy in Pouilly Fuissé vein with an opulence and seductive intensity of peachy flavour whose classically nutty, mineral dry aftertaste lingers. £18.99, buy 2 = £17.99, Majestic.