To some people, chardonnay suggests a bouquet of citrus, melon, pear or pineapple. Cabernet smells like black cherry, cassis, mint or tobacco. But what about pinot noir? Wine writers use similar descriptors for it as well, but I have never been convinced of their value. Pinot's unique characteristics, so elusive and indefinable, are quite mysterious and therefore even more desirable when they succeed. Many are the stories of men and women driven to bankruptcy and reduced to tears in their attempts to grow and master it.
Grapes, when turned into wine, do remind us of other smells and tastes, although why these characteristics should make one want to drink them is debatable. If you want apples, why not buy cider or juice? You want tobacco? Smoke a Montecristo. Pinot noir is especially hard to pigeonhole with these descriptive adjectives. Pinot reminds me of little else besides its own enigmatic self. Words such as berries, chocolate, roses and leather are sometimes used, but I think it is out of sheer verbal frustration. The most consistent word used to define pinot noir's smell is: beet root. How's that for an enticement? Half the world hates beets and the other 50 percent probably don't relish it as a component of their wine's flavor. But this beet root analogy is not far fetched. What pinot really smells like is soil, tubers, roots and the fecundity of the terrain it grows in. Pinot is like an earth mother, gathering up its flavors from the ground. How can one describe this in a cheery, positive way?
In reviewing old notes of mine, a few key words repeat themselves. They include "glorious," "marvelous," "sweet," and curiously, "fishy." How fishy can be a positive pronouncement is hard to explain, yet some great quaffs I've drunk have had it. In contrast, some of my most god-awful descriptors can be found as well. "Burning rubber," "rotten vegetables," "stench," "horrid," "brackish" and "stewed" are recurrent. So when one tastes a truly marvelous, complete pinot, that's a time to rejoice. At its best, the round, fleshy, comfortable texture of pinot seems luxuriously sweet. This is just the kind of wine I envision gracing the table of King Henry VIII; a decadent, gluttonous red--so sensuous and full.
Not to be forgotten is the oft-quoted remark that red Burgundy, and so, in effect, pinot noir, tastes like s**t. Many a great pinot takes earthiness to excess and a whiff of manure, or worse, is sometimes a component of the wine. Some reviewers' palates are less disturbed by this characteristic than mine. I do love overt, earthy elements--up to a point. But there is a line, and a truly "skunky" wine, no matter how well made, is offensive to me.
Recently, I tasted 20 pinots without seeing the bottles. The following were the best:
1999 Ladoix, Premier Cru, Domaine Nudant, $25
A sweet, round, "dark" bouquet with a high toned, bracing edge. A substantial, good drink. Somewhat tannic. Promises a pleasant, but scarcely memorable future. Grade: C+
2000 Brancott Reserve, Marlborough, New Zealand, $18
Sweet, pleasing, heady and well done. Purity of fruit, enticing with good overall quality. Lip smacking finish. Grade: B-
2000 Mercurey, Chateau de Chamirez, $23
Light, pretty nose. Delicate, attractive, intense with clean, very good fruit. A bit tannic and raspy. Needs more time in bottle. Grade: B-
2001 Huia, Marlborough, $18
Deep, dark, iodine, a bit obvious, funky, in-your-face nose, but impressive. Interesting flavors of ripe earth vegetables and a touch of the barnyard. Intriguing and memorable. Grade: B- (not for everyone)
2000 MacMurray Ranch, Russian River, $32
Very pronounced, sweet, juicy bouquet; perfumed, stylish and attractive. Nice flavors in a medium frame. Very likable. Varietal flavors with good acidity. Can age three to four years. Grade: B-/B
2000 Marcellina, Carneros, $32
Darkly colored with a flowery, elegant, sweet earth bouquet. Pleasantly odd. A good, earthy style. Elusive, round and mouth caressing. A real personality, impressive with a bit of funkiness. Grade: B
2000 Yering Station, Yarra Valley, Australia, $20
A nice, sweet nose, smoky, elusive with hints of violets. Dry, grainy, good positive flavors. Mouth coating. Well done and will improve. Grade: B
2000 Gallo of Sonoma, Reserve, $13
BEST BUY! Nice, pretty as a sunrise, sweet, gentle, harmonious, balanced, attractive and very inviting. Modest flavors, but well laid out. Flavors are simpler than the bouquet, but extremely pleasant and well done. May improve. Grade: B
2001 Chateau St. Jean, Sonoma, $19
A beautiful bouquet, golden, ephemeral, penetrating. A little fishy! Flavors are tasty, a bit tannic, beautiful, odd and exciting. Grade: B/B+
2000 Domaine Chandon, Carneros, $29
A bit backward. Nice fruit emerging on a nose that is deep, penetrating and luscious. Tangy, alive, sweet earth, beets(!) and truly varietal. Can age and improve for three years. Excellent. Grade: B+
2000 Yering Station, Yarra Valley Reserve, $38
Woody, dark plums, smoky, peat, earthy nose. Deeply flavored with a strong soil component bordering on manure. But not over the line. Appealing, gutsy, almost like an Hermitage, Rhone red. Impressive and magical. Grade: A
Value and pinot seldom go together. The two Yering Station bottlings tasted like textbook, high-priced French Burgundy. The Yering Reserve was a magnificent standout.
Oregon fared weakly in this tasting. New Zealand showed well as did a myriad of Californians. The Marcellina had a real suggestion of the Cotes de Nuits in Burgundy. The Chateau St. Jean was an object lesson in "pretty"--the perfect date wine! Gallo continues to offer some great values.
Still, nine of the 20 wines tasted had considerable faults, and some were just awful. Buying pinot is often a crapshoot, and price is simply not a good barometer. I believe that no other grape can disappoint quite as miserably.
Pinot defies description. Seek out advice.
My wife and I often give a party at Oscar time. This year was no exception. I find such occasions perfect for trotting out wines that have been languishing in the winerack, or to be dug up from some forgotten corner of the basement. A great idea is to occasionally buy wines for no particular event in mind; just to have some selections on hand for that sudden visitor or an impromptu potluck dinner.
For the Oscars, we served chardonnays, vouvrays and viogniers. Cotes du Rhone, Brunello and an old Spanish red found their way upstairs as well. It was great fun and instructive too. For example, I served a regular bottling of 1997 Beringer Napa Valley Chardonnay and a 1997 Beringer Private Reserve Chardonnay. These are two wines that, 95 percent of the time, would have already been drunk by now. The '97 regular was crisp, refreshing, almost Chablis-like. Its puppy fruit and oak had all come together. The reserve was a deep yellow, with a rich, unctuous nose and flavor. Nothing stuck out; it had melded into a drink rich enough to spread on a canape!
Here were two delicious examples of good wines that got much better with age. I served a 1995 Antinori, Brunello di Montalcino, Pian Delle Vigne. This heavenly scented sangiovese grosso was bursting with excitement. Full throttled bouquet and flavor that delivered plenty, yet had a structure that promised even more in years to come. I wish I had more.
A 1987 Valdepenas Reserva, Senorio de los Llanos was opened with some trepidation. I had bought this in 1991 and promptly forgot all about it. Would this $7, 16-year-old bottling still be drinkable? It was healthy, soft, warm, fragrant, terrifically balanced and melted in your mouth. A great reason to "lose" a bottle occasionally.
Finally, I decided to taste the 1998 St. Francis, Behler's Reserve Merlot. It had been kind of awkward and disjointed upon its release. This seemed a perfect night to try it again. It had lavish American oak and tanned leather impressions inhabiting the soft, sultry nose of pure merlot. Calm flavors with exotic herbs and a lively finish made this a treat to drink. I've still got one more bottle. I think I'll wait until 2006 to open it. This wine may still be available for sale in our market.For those of you who squirrel away bottles for future, unknown events--congratulations. For those who don't, I highly recommend it. You never know what you might find hiding in the closet.
Arturo Ciompi's WineBeat column appears the second week of every month
I use the old, public school grading system.
A: A wine that seems to give all it is capable of. It offers a myriad of complexities and memorable attributes that make it a standout.
B: Very good with real flavor interest and a number of highlights that make a fine wine.
C: Average. No true defects, but minor flaws that hinder its charm. It is OK and is recommended.
D: Many irritating flaws take away most of the wine's pleasure. The wine is drinkable.
F: Undrinkable, with unacceptable defects and no pleasure factor. A failure.