Thursday, November 8, 2012
Pinot Noir: Two styles
(The following piece pulls extensively from a good article by Craig LaBan, Philadelphia Inquirer Restaurant Critic; his complete article is found here.
Pinot Noir is on just about everyone's "very short list" of the greatest grapes (along with, most likely, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Sangiovese, Riesling, and Chardonnay). But Pinot is infamous for being ephemeral and inconsistent: It varies from one bottle to the next, and it can even vary from month to month. It is more difficult to grow and to vinify. It can disappoint, or exalt, and you never know which until you pull out the cork. Personally, I do not appreciate the "what will I get?" aspect of Pinot Noir (or, stated another way, I prefer a baseball batter who hits lots of singles and doubles, compared to one who strikes out a lot but also hits a few home runs). However, I agree that, at its best, it is the greatest grape on Earth. However, it's a shame that we don't get to see it at its best very often. It's also a shame that Pinot is so expensive, but that is mostly because the variety loses its varietal character if it's overcropped--and thus, much of the fruit must be cut off and discarded while still green. This drives up the cost of the wine, obviously, because the yields are lower.
There are two fundamental styles of Pinot Noir:
1. The classic French style: thin, watery, often with weak color, with subtle flavors and suppressed fruit. For reasons I do not fully comprehend (other than Gallic tradition and dominance), this is the most popular PN style, and it is growing in prominance.
2. The "New World" style: more fruit-forward; a darker wine; richer/more body (thickness in the mouth).
LaBan's article contrasts Kosta Browne (a cult CA Pinot producer) with Littorai (which makes classic Pinots). The two wineries share the same zip code in Sebastopol, CA, yet cannot be more different.
Kosta doesn't grow any grapes. They make Pinot from other people's grapes, in a warehouse. Their expertise lies in skillful blending. Their wines sell for $52-$72 and are typically big and fruit-forward, though not too hot (alcoholic). There are over 10,000 people who are waiting to get on their mailing list.
Littorai (Latin for "coasts") loses points with me because it adheres to one of the greatest hoaxes of all time: Biodynamic farming. The only science behind it is that which can be easily gained by studying organic farming practices, which predate the Biodynamic farce and which are well-supported by science and proved in the field; all the rest of Biodynamic farming is hocus pocus dreamed up by a snake oil salesman who knew nothing about botany. Wineries, and their consumers, should be embarrassed to fall for it. Littorai's wines are lighter-styled but reknowned for rich berry and earth elements.
In Oregon, we are heavily influenced by the great Domaine Drouhin winery, which of course was begun pretty long ago now, in an epic move here by the historic Drouhin family of Burgundy fame. I think our wetter climate probably lends itself to the classic style, as well.
I am sick of all the mediocre Pinot being made in Oregon. The great bottles are fantastic and the skill of their makers is remarkable. But there is just too much Pinot Plonk here, too many pretenders. The variety's seen a quadrupling of acres planted in the past decade, and a lot of that is being made into poor quality wine. We shall see what the market thinks, over the long term. Meanwhile, YOU should see which style you prefer.