Pinot Noir – home and away

Saturday’s Andover Wine Friends’ fine wine supper was based on a six-bottle case sold by the Wine Society as ‘World Class Pinot Noir’.  The marketing worked perfectly – I duly bought the case and we enjoyed the wines. It was very good value at just under £140.  But ‘world class’?  I don’t think so.  In the New World wines at this price second halflevel are very good indeed, but not the very best.  In Burgundy, bottles at this price can be good, they occasionally can even be very good. Supply and demand make it impossible for them to be world class.  The Côte d’Or is a small area and individual vineyard holdings are tiny.  Our three modern representatives tasted below hold 5.35, 7.09 and, for Burgundy, a decent size 12 hectares respectively. The very fact that hectares are stated to two decimal places tells its own story. There is strong demand for these wines and so prices are high.  World class probably now starts at £50 a bottle and rises to steeply thereafter. You are not going to get that in a £140 half case. 

What the tasting did provide was a splendid introduction to the joys and mysteries of Pinot Noir.  Fortunately, at least for most of our tasters, it skipped the all too common disappointment of the red Burgundy – not just pale in colour as it should be, but lacking in quality fruit, excitement or intensity.

The evening’s wines can be best be divided into home and away, Burgundy and the rest of the world.  Thanks to a generous supply of bonus bottles from participants, we had 13 bottles in all to taste, two sparkling, five still red wines from Burgundy and six from around the world.  We will deal with them in these groups. 


Fortunately our local supply of Pinot Noir rosé which was destined to be the aperitif for the evening was out of stock so we stepped up to a top quality pink Cava and a ‘Blanc de Noir’ Champagne.  They could not be more different in style – one is pink and the other is not, the former is all about ripe red fruit, the latter about yeasty sophistication.  Elyssia Pinot Noir Brut, Freixenet NV has the attractive mid salmon pink colour you can see in the picture, medium intensity cherry and strawberry fruit, with medium acidity and body.  It is clean, very well made and fruity but that is about it.  By contrast, Waitrose Blanc de Noir, Champagne, Brut NV made by Alexander Bonnet, is about the interaction of fruit and yeast:  brioche. savoury notes and sage on the nose over red fruit. The palate reverses the priorities so that the red fruit leads and the savoury notes play the supporting role. Very good length. At £20 a bottle this is a bargain for its complexity, finesse and balance. 

first trioThe’ rest of the world’ category was a bit thin on the ground, especially as the German example I am going to group with Burgundy.  In particular it missed a really big, extracted Californian example and anything from Australia or Oregon – but I plan to make up the last omission before too long.  But what was there was good: Marlborough, Nelson and Central Otago from New Zealand, one choice from South Africa and one from Santa Barbera, California.  The two Wine Society selections in this section showed well.  Neudorf, Tom’s Block, Pinot Noir, Nelson, New Zealand 2009 is characteristically mid ruby, several shades deeper than Burgundy at this level; fine notes of red plum and red berried. It made a good bench mark for the new world examples.  Picnic, Two Paddocks, Central Otago, New Zealand 2010 was a good contrast which was deeper yet in colour, quite powerful and rich on the nose, with medium palate weight, quite tannic and impressively long for the second wine of the estate.  (Disappointingly the top wine is not called ‘Banquet’ or even S Africa & California‘Dinner Party’ but just Two Paddocks Pinot Noir.) Our third Kiwi has a bit of bottle age: Spy Valley, Marlborough, Pinot Noir 2008 and showed it with its moderately intense ruby colour with a touch of orange on the rim; bright red berries and plum now joined by some compost notes, and a rich palate; impressive.  Across the Pacific Ocean, Au Bon Climat, Los Alamos, Pinot Noir, 2007 is an excellent example of relatively cool climate California.  Pale ruby (and thus looks like Pinot, unlike some of Californian examples), this has a very fine approach – fragrant red fruit, subtle oak and smoke effects followed by sweet, ripe fruit (cherry and strawberry) on the palate.  Fine noticeable tannins will give it an ageing ability; overall, very classy.  Across the Atlantic and back in the southern hemisphere we travel to inland but elevated Franschhoek, with vines at 550m making Pinot a possibility: Chamonix Reserve, Pinot Noir, Franschhoek, South Africa, 2010.  Here we have an earthlier, dustier profile, with liquorice, chocolate and tobacco on the nose with the red berries and smoke.  The ageing is 15 months in barrels, 80% new, but the wine has the weight of fruit to go with this.  A good level of complexity but the wine was still a bit rough and ready – those chewy tannins need more time. 

These new world wines are easy to appreciate, recognisable and mostly about fruit.  By contrast the Burgundian pyramid is about subtle differences and nuances of delicacy and texture.  Our five are all either village level wines or premier crus, so we don’t have either generic Burgundy or grand cru, but there is still quite a quality and price range.  The first is from a little known village at the top end of Côte de Nuits, Marsannay, Domaine Sylvain Pataille, 2010. This is from the domaine of a trained enologist who reduces yields for even this modestly three Burgundianspriced wine:   dark cherry in colour with the blue edge of a young wine, pleasant red fruit and a fine textured palate. A few found this pale and unexciting, others liked the light, fresh fruit and refreshing acidity.  And even at the basic level, there was something  of the Burgundian silky texture.  There was a clear step up to the three premier cru wines (two official premier crus and one village wine of the same quality).  Beaune PC Montée Rouge, Domaine Potel, 2007 was pale ruby in colour, with a reticent nose but a taut, clean fruit palate and very good length.  It combined a delicacy of red berried fruit with the structure on the palate.  Gevrey-Chambertin, Mes Favourites, Vieilles Vignes, Domaine Alain Burguet, 2006 is technically a village wine but was completely at home among the premier crus.  While Gevrey has a reputation for being sturdy and full, this was notable for its delicate but concentrated fruit, and for its subtlety and length.  Good but expensive at £39.  The pre-penultimate wine, a bonus bottle from our own cellar, got the closest to the ‘world class’ of the title:  Domaine Louis Boillot, Nuits-St-Georges PC Les Pruliers, 2001.  In its twelfth year, there is the first signs of garnet at the edge of the rim and with the years in the bottle the nose is really beginning to express itself with the seamless combination of refined fruit and a touch of oak.  The palate however was still full of sweet, red fruit and completely belied its age; it could be a five year old.  Marked minerality on the palate completed the picture for a wine that has probably got at least another decade in it. 

four TomlinsonsThe final pair showed Burgundy’s ability to age and how differently Pinot Noir can turn out 500 km north in Germany.  The oldest bonus bottle was from a great vintage and from the year after our youngest taster was born.  It wore its 30 years remarkably well for a minor village:  Savigny-les-Beaune, Simon Bize, 1983.  Vintages are important in Burgundy and so are growers and this wine combines the best of both.  Pale garnet, almost pale orange in colour, it was a fine combination of forest floor notes and remaining red fruit, light on the tongue but still with fine strawberry fruit at the core.  The most unusual wine, and most distinctive expression of Pinot, has however to go to Hommage Sanct Peter, Spätburgunder (ie Pinot Noir), Walporzheimer Alte Lay, Brogsitter, Ahr, Germany, 2006, just north of the 50th parallel and so at the absolute limit of where grape vines – especially with red grapes – will ripen.  A distinctive, almost brown, pale garnet in colour and a nose and palate dominated by oxidative, yeasty notes.  This wine had clearly been aged for a long time in porous barrels with the result that for a relatively young wine, the meaty, savoury notes are more prominent than anything else.  A local style with good complexity, rather than a representative example of Germany’s Pinot Noir renaissance. 

With thanks to all those who brought bonus bottles and made this a tour de force of some of Pinot Noir’s potential …

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