Finding the holy grail? Benjamin Lewin’s In search of Pinot Noir

Review of Benjamin Lewin MW, In search of Pinot Noir, Vendange Press, Dover, 2011

I picked up this book with real excitement on two counts. First, as a self confessed Pinotfile (both Noir and Gris, happy with Blanc too) I was thrilled to find a full length, substantial treatment of this great grape variety.  Second, I am just beginning a ‘Sangiovese in its various expressions’ project. While Sangiovese is a much poorer traveller than Pinot Noir, this book does offer a model for my project. 

Benjamin Lewin brings a great deal to the party.  He has the significant advantage of being a scientist and so can handle both the technical aspects of wine and the statistical material with aplomb.  The nearly 400Five Pinots pages of text are well illustrated with tables, charts, maps and what I take to be the author’s own photos.  In addition there are good endnotes which point to the author’s sources.  So this is a big book and reflects a huge amount of work.  He is also an MW and so has done the hard yards in terms of wine study and tasting. He sensibly includes a lot of tasting notes for regions other than Burgundy on the grounds that the wine press is awash with Burgundy notes but is a little short of records of Pinot Noir in the Ahr, in northern Italy, in Chile, New Zealand and so on.  The tasting notes are helpfully congregated at the end of chapters so as not to clutter the main text.  So there is a major resource here if you want to know what individual bottles taste like in Graubunden (no, me neither), Russian River or Martinborough.  While no doubt Pinot is grown somewhere that is not commented on here – I could offer one, somewhat ambitious, southern Tuscan location – the coverage is excellent.  While Burgundy of course does get detailed treatment, what is unusual about this book is that so does all the other important Pinot growing areas.

The author starts with the questions to which wine lovers wants answers.  To what extent are wine styles affected by terroir and to what extent by wine making decisions?  How do the ‘other’ regions compare to the heights of Burgundy itself?  ‘Is there only one true path for Pinot Noir or have plantings in new places revealed alternative truths for this fascinating grape?’ (flap jacket)  If the holy grail for wine makers around the world is to emulate Burgundy, have they succeeded? 

In the end, the answers given here are, like the holy grail, somewhat elusive.  After the richness of the grand tour of major Pinot producing areas, the concluding chapter first wrestles (somewhat surprisingly for a Pinot around the worldconclusion) with the question of ‘what are we looking for?’ and then produces Domaine de Romanée Conti as the ultimate example of Pinot.  While the latter might provoke the thought that we did not need to read 400 pages to come to that view, the former question does need answering.  Benjamin Lewin’s view is that  we are looking for aromatic and palate complexity and wines which can develop with age.  As he says, that applies to any fine wine. So the further wish list is sheer sensuality, silky elegance or delicacy (pp. 369-70).    Again, Pinot lovers are unlikely to argue for long over that while you maintain what could be called a Burgundian paradigm.  And the author does point out that price in the market would back this judgement. 

There is another case to be made however.  The thing about long term relationships is that you internalise one another’s preferences .  Give me a menu and I will be able to tell you what dishes my wife is likely to choose – and I am sure she could do the same for me. When we taste wines together she will nearly always prefer the young, fresh, refreshingly youthful wines and I will go for the supposedly more serious, longer aged ones. Apply this to Pinot and you could argue that the reliably fruit-led but not overly extracted wines of Marlborough and Central Otago are better than the lottery that is red Burgundy.  While arguing that no other Pinots come close to the complexity and subtlety of good Grand Cru Burgundy in successful years, Benjamin Lewin also points out that a lot of Grand Cru Burgundy fails to live up to this billing.  As we all know to our cost, this is also the case for Premier Cru and village wines, while too much Bourgogne rouge is simply pale and uninteresting. So perhaps we should factor ‘reliable performance’ into any estimation of quality? 

All Pinot lovers and students will want to and need to refer to Benjamin Lewin’s book.  Like too many bottles of red Burgundy, it does have its frustrations. It feels that it really needed an experienced editor to shape the material so that he had to summarise his chapter by chapter conclusions. What does Pinot from the Ahr typically taste like? – the answer is there but is touched on in passing in mid chapter: it has no common style. Similarly the conclusion of the book as a whole introduces new material rather than synthesizing, reflecting on  and taking further the valuable ground that has already been covered.  Note to self: stand back from the fascinating detail and get the big picture stuff right.  Now let’s open another bottle of Pinot and see if its producer has found that holy grail. 

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