In Search of Pinot Noir

Benjamin Lewin MW, In Search of Pinot Noir. Vendage Press, 2011.

Burgundy makes Burgundy, Benjamin Lewin reports (quoting a local producer). All the rest make [merely] Pinot Noir.

What should we make of Burgundy’s self-proclaimed status as king of the Pinot Noir hill? Lewin circled the globe to find out and this fascinating book is his report. I recommend it with enthusiasm.

To the Summit

Burgundy dominates the book, as one would suspect, both for its wines and because it is the standard of reference, and in the final pages Lewin reveals his conclusion: Burgundy does indeed stand at the summit based in part upon its superiority ability to age and develop in the bottle (with DRC and Domaine Leroy at the peak of the peak).

But Lewin’s search for Pinot, which takes him to Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Oregon, California, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia, reveals a number of near-rivals and raises many questions. The Pinot world may not be very big (compared with Cabernet and Chardonnay, for example), but it is a bigger world than Burgundians might like to think. And it is changing fast.

Dr. Lewin’s Lab Notebooks

Pinot Noir (along with Riesling) is thought to be the ultimate “terroir” wine, so the wines themselves should tell the story. In vino veritas as they say. This line in inquiry takes us into the detailed tasting notes that are appended to most chapters. These are Lewin’s lab reports (he is a famous scientist — a cell biologist — so it is unsurprising that he would evaluate claims empirically). At best the tasting notes are insightful observations of the ways that wine changes as time and place are varied. Sometimes, I have to admit, they are a bit like wine porn, read to vicariously share Lewin’s delicious work.

Do the wines of Burgundy live up to the myth of Burgundian terroir? Sometimes is Lewin’s answer. Burgundy at its best reveals its terroirist magic, but it doesn’t always turn out that way; caution and care are warranted. Winegrowing and winemaking practices can highlight terroir or disguise it. It just depends.

And climate change threatens to make Burgundy more like everyone else’s Pinot Noir by fundamentally altering growing conditions. Indeed, the book’s final pages ask whether Burgundy will be able to maintain its subtle complexity in the face of climate change and other challenges.

New World Challengers

I received my copy of In Search of Pinot Noir just as I was leaving to give some talks in Oregon Pinot country and I reported Lewin’s conclusions to my audience, which including many wine industry people. If you taste wines from different Oregon AVAs made by the same producer, Lewin writes, you can taste the terroir — just like in Burgundy. But when you taste wine from different producers in the same AVA, no strong common terroir thread emerges. Terroir is a weak force in the New World, it seems. Why? Lewin has an answer.

If you taste the best available Burgundies against the best available Pinots from Oregon and California, Lewin writes, the French wines “blow away” the competition. But it’s a biased comparison since the very best wines from New World producers never see the marketplace. They are tiny production single vineyard wines that disappear into allocation list buyers’ cellars. Ironically, they have no impact on the regions’ reputations and cannot define a signature terroir style.

The best available wines are more comparable to Burgundian village wines than the grand crus, according to Lewin. No wonder they suffer by comparison to the best of the best Burgundy has to offer. No wonder that Burgundy is Burgundy and the rest are not. Interesting.

Much to Like [and to Learn]

In Search of Pinot Noir, like Lewin’s earlier books (What Price Bordeaux? and Wine Myths and Realities) is big and bold, filled with colorful (and informative)  charts, maps and photos. The depth and breadth of Lewin’s analysis is impressive as he breaks down each Pinot Noir region into the historical, cultural, economic and natural forces that shaped it in the past and continues to influence it today. A great wine economist read. A great read period for anyone with a serious interest in Pinot Noir.

I think I learned something new on almost every page. But the most interesting parts  of the book for me are the questions, not the answers. Almost every chapter ends with a question about the future of Pinot Noir. Sometimes they seem to be leading questions (where you are pretty sure how Lewin would answer them) but others are very much more open.

I sense that the search for Pinot Noir is open, too. Market forces and climate change mean that the future is up in the air. Will Pinot Noir retain its special status as the ultimate terroir wine? Or will it become just another “international variety” with subtle differences slowly lost as styles converge on a rich, ripe “international style?”

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What make’s Pinot Noir different? Here’s the famous scene from Sideways where Miles makes the case for Pinot Exceptionalism. Enjoy! (Click here to watch the video if it does not appear above)

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5 responses

  1. Miles could be describing world class cool-climate Zinfandel if you ask me. Thin skinned, lots of juice, tight clusters, rots easily, needs foggy mornings and sunny afternoons to hit peak flavors…delicate and sensitive and most importantly, only a handful of discriminating farms REALLY understand and will take the necessary steps to craft it into world class, age-worthy wine.

  2. Lots of good points here and a really thorough review. Great post.

    I’ve experienced the magic of terroir and firmly believe that wine makers can elect to show off terroir or not (for good or bad). Who hasn’t tasted plenty of bad Burgundy?

    The idea that one place has perfect terrior for a particular grape and it exists no where else is nonsensical. I agree with the author’s point that the best examples of terroir are often not in the marketplace/judgings. I wish oenophiles (and wine writers) who love to generalize about style and place would consider that.

    The French will think I’m a fool but while I agree that tasting aged (and aging) wines is fascinating, I reject the premise that an age-worthy wine is a better wine. The oldest wine I’ve tasted was a 1909 Riesling in a Baron’s castle in Germany (it was incredible and still alive). On that trip I also tasted aged Spatburgunders. Additionally, I’ve written about 10-year old Bonardas from Argentina that are amazing (only a handful of vintners are even testing aging Bonarda). All fun and memorable experiences but the most truly exciting wine moments I’ve experienced were the result of a perfect pairing or just a perfectly made wine. Old age was not relevant.

    • Thanks for this. We had some interesting Chilean Pinot at a Wines of Chile tasting last fall and we also enjoyed Pinot in Argentina (Salentein and Luca in particular). Lewin didn’t go to South America for some reason — his loss, I think.

  3. Just finished the section in your book about how climate change and water scarcity may shape wine’s future. And then, just 3 hours later, saw this article on NPR: http://www.npr.org/2011/11/02/141932301/climate-change-has-calif-vintners-rethinking-grapes

    Seems like the future is arriving and it will definitely be different (as popular wine varieties as we know it may become rare) but perhaps new varieties will save us. Or we can adapt to old varieties that simply taste differently than before.

    On a somewhat-related note, I’m very much looking forward to your talk tomorrow in Seattle!

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