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?”
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)