The complicated perfection of Pinot Noir
Words by Anna Sulan Masing | Illustration by Bénédicte Muller
One woman’s quest to demystify the wines of Burgundy.
I believe in traditions, but I have mixed emotions about the ‘new year, new me’ mantra, the proclamations are always so grand that the only option is to fail. But this year is my year, the Year of the Rooster, and I am determined to make an effort.
In December I prepared to find the perfect resolution. A few audio books later (The Essentialist was key) I realised I had to be specific, be passionate (so I could stay focused), and give myself a time frame. Fed up of hearing about depressing diets and abstinence, the rebel in me decided that because red wines are generally dry, due to their tannins, I could do ‘dry January’ by drinking red wines. January was my time frame, and by focusing on the Pinot Noir grape I had my passion and specificity.
My research started with Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson’s The World Atlas of Wine, and this quote: “Let Paris be France’s head, Champagne her soul; Burgundy is her stomach”. The way to my heart is through my stomach, so I knew I was on the right resolution.
"Johnson and Robinson talk about Burgundy wines with a sense of mystery - and this is the burden, and excitement of Pinot Noir – we will only ever be able to scratch the surface"
It’s impossible to talk about Pinot Noir without discussing Burgundy. In the Burgundy region, in the east of France near Dijon, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes are grown on vineyards that date back to the Middle Ages. Pinot Noir is a grape that takes on the ‘terroir’, meaning each winemaker, vineyard, village, sub-region can give entirely different flavour profiles. Within this small region lies rivers, a fault line, valleys and rocks, the opportunity for difference is huge. But no matter how much science there is to analyse these elements, Johnson and Robinson talk about Burgundy wines with a sense of mystery - and this is the burden, and excitement of Pinot Noir – we will only ever be able to scratch the surface.
The key to my resolution was working out how to find the best Pinot Noir for me, in whatever situation I found myself in. I discovered that Pinot Noir is ultimately a great sociable wine. It is a wine that can just be enjoyed. Its acidity means it is wonderful with food but it doesn’t need pomp and fuss. The lighter (and often cheaper) Pinot Noirs are perfect just on their own, or even slightly chilled in summer. I personally preferred the smoky, savoury end of the scale, with more tannins; but each Pinot Noir has its occasion. This is a wine that works with simple food and great company. I vowed to spend more on the wine, less on the food, and more time with the company I was in.
DEMYSTIFY THE WINE LABEL
Part of the trick of learning about new wines is understanding the label. To do this with Burgundy wine I spoke to Virgile Degrez, sommelier-trained General Manager of Cabotte, a London restaurant owned by 12 Burgundy winemakers and two master sommeliers.
Virgile talked me through wine labels with three wines they sell by the glass:
2015 Bourgogne Domain Lebreuil - £6.80, 125ml
The year refers to when the grapes were picked. Bourgogne means that it is from Burgundy but not a specific vineyard or village, Domain Lebreuil is the estate where the wine is made. 2015 was a great vintage and this wine was only recently bottled. It is fresh, elegant with lots of red fruit flavours and easy to drink.
2014 Gevery-Chambertin, Domaine Duroche, Cote de Nuits - £14.50, 125ml
This is referred to as ‘village level’ wine. Gevery-Chambertin is the village the vineyards are in, Domaine Duroche is the estate and Cote de Nuits the sub-region, north Burgundy. This is much earthier than the Bourgogne, a touch of spice but still fresh.
2008 Mazoyeres-Chambertin Grand Cru, Domaine Tauenot-Merme - £46.70, 125ml
This label tells us it is a grand cru vineyard named Mazoyeres-Chabertin. Grand cru is the top of ranking vineyard, all the grapes come from this one patch of soil. Domaine Tauenot-Merme is the estate and winemaker. At this level the personality of the winemaker comes through in the wine. This vineyard is in the Cote de Nuits sub-region of Burgundy.
Next I spoke to Sophie Sturdy of Highbury Vintners, an independent wine shop in North London I visit often. As Sophie has a lot of influence over what I drink with the food I cook at home, I wanted her take on three Burgundy wines at different levels:
2014, Bourgogne, Pierre Bouree Fils, £17
2014 was an ok year, not a lot was produced that year which does make prices go up. Wild strawberry, cherry flavours, but good acidity. Great to drink on its own, or at lunch time with a light dish such as a chicken salad. This is simple and has a ‘short finish’ which means the taste doesn’t linger on your tongue.
2011, Nuit Saint Georges, Domaine Michel Gross, £47
Highbury Vintners bought this ‘village level’ wine several years ago, but have left it until now to sell; you could drink it straight away or wait up until 2020. It is structured with good tannins and flavours of red cherry, layers that are smokey, with earthy touch; over time it will get more complex. This is a dinner wine, great with confit duck, strong cheese such as Epoisses or chicken in a creamy morel sauce. The acidity means it can cut through the richness, but it is still delicate.
2002, Pommard Pezerolles, Domaine Ballot Millot & Fils, £74
Pommard is the village and Pezerolles is the vineyard – it’s a premier cru ranked vineyard. Premier cru is just below a grand cru in the ranking, and indicates a grape-growing site with very high potential. This wine is leathery, savoury and would work with a steak or venison but you wouldn’t want to overpower it with a strong sauce. It could also work with pasta, let the umami flavours of the wine shine through, sweetness of tomatoes would complement that.
Recently Virgile tried a bottle of Burgundy grand cru from 1937 that had a rich, powerful profile. Some of these wines age beautifully but Jancis Robinson, in The 24-Hour Wine Expert, suggests Pinot Noir ages anywhere from 2-15 years.
The New World
One of the effects that the New World has had on Pinot Noir is that consumers have become familiar with the name. Grape varietals are used on the labels outside of Western Europe, unlike in the Old World, and in particular France. The style of New World wines is often fresher, has red fruits, is juicy, easy drinking and accessible; these attributes make the wine a popular and sociable choice. Some Burgundy winemakers, particularly the Bourgogne level, have utilised this familiarity and started putting ‘Pinot Noir’ on the label. A lot of people aren’t aware that all Burgundy reds are Pinot Noir grapes.
It is the process of decanting that is important – pouring the wine into another vessel lets oxygen into the wine so it can ‘breathe’. Giving your wine a good swirl in your glass can also be effective. The vessel isn’t important, a clean vase will do! As Pinot Noir is a delicate wine 1-2 hours of decanting is fine.
As there is such a range in the grape I realised that there is a Pinot Noir for every occasion; and so, my quest continues. Spring will be about drinking Champagne with Pinot Noir in its blend, for summer I’ll try other Pinot Noir sparkling wines, autumn will focus on the New World, and then come winter I’ll be saving up for a couple of bottles of those rich, deep grand cru Burgundy.
New year, new me, new bottle of Pinot Noir!