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Monday, October 27, 2008

A Grenache Guy Reflects on the Burghound's Bite

An open letter to producers of U.S. Pinot Noir was written recently by Allen Meadows, also known as the Burghound. The thrust of his comments was that US based Pinot Noir has made some exceptionally positive strides through the years, yet their progress is hampered by utilizing a sparse amount of clones (particular mutations of Pinot Noir that are known for specific attributes) that tend to trump site expression. Meadows believes that the over-reliance on particular clones (notably the Dijon and Pommard 113, 114, 667, 777 and 828) has lead to too many Pinot Noirs tasting the same. He also thinks that the use of a wider variety of clones will better elucidate distinctions in site, or better expression particular terroirs. While I found the piece provocative, I feel that clonal selections are merely the tip of the iceberg.

It is interesting to suggest that varying ones genetic material will help assuage some of the more potent flavors and expressions from clones that tend to trump site...but, to his own contradictory point, Pinot Noir is a mutable grape. While a mutation to Pinot Gris or Pinot Blanc is something I wouldn't imagine would happen overnight, the small adaptations that happen to a vine when it experiences a myriad of local conditions do happen over the years (according to the data he cited it sounds like 10 years plus is a popular figure).

Part of California's maturation w/ Pinot must have come from trial and error; not only winemaking, viticulture and selection, but vineyard maturation. Isn't part of vineyard maturation having older, less productive vines? Isn't part of older Pinot Noir vines its mutations and adaptations in response to site? Would interspersing different clones into current locations expedite the reflection of these sites? I don’t know, but it sounds a bit like Allen likes the progress, but wants the next step to happen a bit quicker than the natural vineyard maturation progression will allow…and I am not sure exactly why this would expedite transparency.

Further, (for what it’s worth) a challenge I would put out to just about any ‘control freak’ New World winemaker would be to perform less inoculations w/ commercial yeasts. I can appreciate the unpredictability and sleepless nights that must be involved w/ using wild yeasts, but if one truly wants to reflect their individual space (vineyard, grapes, winery, etc.), aren’t natural fermentations a pretty good start? I’m not going to make the ‘designer yeast’ stand, nor do I have enough data sets to truly prove that commercial inoculations have less complexity than wild fermentations, but the fact of the matter is that yeasts are part of the skins of the grapes- not just any grapes, the grapes that grow and mature under a particular terroir, and are reflective of just that- introducing something ‘engineered’ from the outside is certainly a step back in terms of reflecting site and singularity. It’s all my empirical evidence (and not necessarily ‘Pinot’ evidence, as it pertains to tasting wine in general) that old vines from optimal areas that undergo wild, slow fermentations produce wines of greater distinction, complexity and depth. My favorite comparison originates from the Chateauneuf du Pape (most all top producers perfom wild fermentations) vs. other new world Grenache examples that have been inoculated vs. wildly fermented. Granted, this is Grenache and not Pinot, but the proof is in the pudding. Most commercially fermented Grenache is boring, and may be tasty or flashy, yet lacks a thumbprint of place & only attains modest complexity. Beckmen is a beautiful counterpoint, as Mikael Sigouin (the Grenache-possessed winemaker, someone I admire immensely) performs wild fermentations that (I believe) give the Grenache a depth and subtle intensity that very few Californian examples come close to....and on top of that, he's got a great site in the Purisma Mtn. vineyard, and thanks to the honesty and 'nakedness' of his winemaking, the wines express something that may truly be representative of what this special terroir is all about.

Yeasts are certainly controversial, just as much as old vines I suppose…but I’m surprised that Allen believes clonal selection (of a mutable grape to boot) should be put in front of natural vineyard maturation and native yeast fermentations to take things to the next level….but hey, Pinot may be a different animal that I’ve just yet to wrap my noggin’ around. After all, I'm just a Grenache guy.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder how many Cali pinot producers really want to spotlight their terroir, or lack therof, compared to Burgundy, Willamette, or even New Zealand. I think, and this is just me, that pinot does well there in spite of the terroir, by sole virtue of the local weather system. The terroir layouts in the top pinot producing regions of cali are far less varied and unique then the other three noted regions for pinot mentioned above.

I think they (cali pinot producers) should focus on their clonal selection as well as yeasts, though I think ultimately the wines are hamstringed by the soil they grow from.

You just don't get the soil variety per acre of oregon, france or new zealand when it comes to pinot, therefore you don't get the blendability(?) of and within each plot.

The less diversity you have going in, the less diversity you will have going out...

Also, some housekeeping, if you ever get a links section going, we;d love to share some link love. We are irreverent (think The Onion if only Tim Keck hadn't been a beer drinker) and sometimes downright mean site, but we are funny, and we have to vent our frustrations with what silliness goes on in the wine world. If you can stomach us, we'd love to do a simple link swap...

Monday, October 27, 2008  
Blogger Brad Coelho said...

I love irreverance ;) The only problem I have w/ linking is that the current template I have doesn't allow it...and if I swap templates I have a rotten feeling that just about every setting I have will become inverted w/ a change!

I think California has a more consistent 'style' of Pinot Noir, w/ a focus on fruit forward, softer flavors that are palate friendly, yet a bit less dynamic. Perhaps the Burghounds have a bit more love for Oregon simply due to the cooler, more vexing climate that may produce a bit more subtle nuances as they are sans uber ripeness (save for Beaux Freres, Bergstrom and Serene). If the skins get too thick, the beloved transparency is least to a degree.

Soil dynamics are certainly another element- which I think is another reason there's some excitement about the Casablanca Valley in Chile. Is it the variability in soil that makes Burgundy so unique or simply the amount of 'limestone gold?'

Tuesday, October 28, 2008  

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