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North American Pinot Noir by John Winthrop Haeger
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North American Pinot Noir

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Chapter 1

The Basics

The names of wine grape varieties, from albariño to zinfandel, have become the bedrock vocabulary of wine talk worldwide. Nearly everyone who buys or drinks wine in the New World knows the names of ubiquitous varieties like cabernet, chardonnay, and merlot. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB; formerly the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms), which regulates the labels of wine sold in the United States, recognizes about 260 varietal names, but its rather odd list includes quite a number of names that are not true varieties, as well as many hybrids. Spain, a country of surprising varietal idiosyncrasy and diversity, claims more than 600 varieties under cultivation. Botanists and viticulturists estimate up to several thousand varieties worldwide, grown in some 25 million acres of vineyard. Many more varieties have come and gone over the centuries, leaving just documentary traces. Even in those Western European wine lands where wine nomenclature is still rooted firmly in geography, nearly all producers and many consumers can recite, more or less without hesitation, the varietal identities behind the wines of Sancerre and Hermitage, the Rheingau, and the Rioja.

The plethora of wine grape varieties is believed to be descended from a single plant species, identified botanically as Vitis viniferañthough some knowledgeable viticulturists have been known to wonder if certain additional species, now extinct, might not lurk in the pedigree of some modern varieties. Vitis covers a group of thornless, dark-stemmed, shreddy-barked plants, most of them grapes of some sort, sporting stem tendrils opposite the set of their leaves. They grow as climbers on other plants and manmade structures, not unlike Virginia creeper and Boston ivy, to which the genus is related. Vinifera, the wine-worthy species, is a deciduous plant, tending toward thicker shoots and more deeply indented leaves than other grapes, and is generally more vulnerable to fungi and parasites. It is distinguished primarily for its fruit, which is thinner-skinned than other species of Vitis. Its fruit is also more tender, sweeter, and more delicately flavored than other grapes, but needs more heat and sunshine to ripen.

The varieties of vinifera are largelyñperhaps entirelyñthe product of cultivation. Varieties are thus often described as cultivars, which is simply a contraction of the English words cultivated varieties. Before humankind intervened, sometime between 10,000 and 7000 b.c., all vinifera grew wild, and identifiable varieties, for all practical purposes, did not persist longer than the lifetime of a single vine plant. In fact, stable varieties could not exist in the universe of wild vinifera, because the wild species is dioeciousñmeaning that unisexual flowers grow on separate male and female plants. Since fruit is thus produced only by the female plants, and then only when a female flower is cross-pollinated by some helpful insect, every instance of cross-pollination between wild grapevines is a matter of what geneticists call obligate outcrossing. This process inevitably reshuffles the genes in each resulting seedling, guaranteeing that every new vine is genetically different from its parentsñperpetuating heterogeneity in the population of wild vines, and effectively precluding persistent varietal differentiation.

The domesticated version of vinifera, by contrast, is a reliable hermaphrodite. Its bisexual flowers are capable of self-pollination, and every flower can produce fruit. For at least 7,000 years and perhaps longer, domesticated vinifera has been propagated vegetatively. People, interfering with nature, have taken buds or cuttings from individual vines, and grown new vines from the cuttings. In this process, no genes are reshuffled. Instead, each new plant is a genetically identical copy of its individual parent. Genetic consistency and varietal identity have thus been maintained, with help from human beings, across multiple plant generations, as long as the relevant vine population was derived from a relatively small number of parent plants, which were chosen with an eye to similarity of leaves, clusters, and berries.

Pinot's Earliest Traces

No one knows how early vinifera vine populations displayed recognizable varietal character. Although archaeologists have been able to assemble a good many facts about the early history of wine production and consumption, early viticulture is stubbornly obscure. The paraphernalia of prehistoric wine production have been unearthed, primarily in the form of pottery wine jars and drinking vessels. Grape remains have been found at various Neolithic sites around the eastern end of the Mediterranean and along several tributaries of the Tigris River in modern Iran and Iraq. Chemical residues in wine jars, dating to the fourth millennium b.c., have been positively identified as fermented grape juice. But the growing of grapes has left fewer traces than the making and consumption of wine. In Egypt, hieroglyphic writing from the third millennium gives us an isolated glimpse into contemporaneous vineyards. The glyph for grapevines is the recognizable image of a vinelike plant trained along something resembling a trellis or arbor. Otherwise our first insights into early viticulture come from Greek and Roman documents of the first millennium b.c. It is certainly fair to presume that the first evidence of substantial, regular wine production cannot antedate the first cultivated vineyards. It is, however, an open question whether vinifera was domesticated once, and cuttings of domestic vines then carried, carpetbag style, around the ancient world; or whether a ubiquitous wild vinifera species, widely distributed throughout Europe and western Asia 10,000 years or more b.c., was the object of multiple domestications.

For most of the twentieth century, the accepted opinion of most wine historians and paleobotanists was that all vinifera had a common geographic originñin Transcaucasia, between the Black and Caspian Seas, where modern Turkey, Iraq, and Iran share borders. This view, which originates with the work of Russian botanists at the end of the nineteenth century, was embraced by French viticulturist Pierre Viala, whose Traité général d'ampelographie was published in 1909 (ampelography is the science of vine description and identification). It is repeated in Jancis Robinson's classic Vines, Grapes, and Wines, which recasts Viala's work for an anglophone readership. Viala believed that vinifera had been transported, presumably along the same vectors traversed by other cultural indicators, across the ancient Near East to both Egypt and Greece, and thence to Rome and Western Europe. The picture of Greek and Roman settlements along the western Mediterranean littoral, with its well-known legacy of ceramic wine jars, is consistent with this scenario, and with much of what is known about the spread of both wine and culture into Western Europe.

This view of events is not, however, without problems. There is some evidence to indicate that grapes were cultivated and wine made in some parts of France before the first Greek settlements could have had any impact. Several varieties of vinifera grown during the Middle Ages in northern Europe, including pinot noir, seem not to have resembled the grapes grown in the southern parts of Europe. In addition, there is the inconvenient fact that Vitis vinifera grew wild throughout the Mediterranean basin, as far north as Belgium and Luxembourg and east into Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania as recently as the end of the nineteenth centuryñbefore it succumbed to phylloxerañand that small populations of wild vinifera persist today in the Pyrenees, as well as in parts of Italy, Greece, Turkey, and Iran. Since it is not likely that migrants from the eastern Mediterranean would have transported wild vine cuttings in their saddlebags, the extensive and persistent populations of wild vines throughout large parts of Western Europe may be one more indication that some wine grape varieties were not imports at all, at least in the sense that we usually think about imports executed by the known couriers of classical civilization. "It is not unthinkable," writes Raymond Bernard, longtime chief of the Office Interprofessionnel des Vins in Dijon, "that wild vines could have existed in the vast forest of Gaul" long before the Greeks or Romans arrived, and that "local Vitis vinifera silvestris" could have become "Vitis vinifera sativa" in situ, with a bit of human intervention. If this is true, pinot noir is a likely candidate for indigenous European origin, and perhaps even Burgundian origin, for reasons we will see momentarily.

Searching across the centuries for the first traces of modern grape varieties is treacherous business, given the imprecision of textual descriptions and the lack of detail in early drawingsñwhen drawings of any kind have survived at all. There are indications that vineyards may have flourished in what is now the Côte d'Or at least as early as the second century b.c. The earliest surviving description of these plantingsñand this may be a secondhand reportñis found in De re rustica by one Lucilus Junius Moderatus Columella, a farmer's son from the area around modern Cadiz, in Spain, and dates from the first half of the first century of the common era. Columella, who was knowledgeable about viticulture, insightful about matters of quality, and an early student (it appears) of Italian grape varieties, describes "the smallest and best" of three grapes types found in Burgundy in terms that are not inconsistent with the properties of pinot noir. This type, according to Columella, had "the roundest leaf of all," was "tolerant of drought and cold," and produced an age-worthy wine. For no less an authority than Jacques Lavalle, whose classic Histoire et statistique de la vigne et des grands vins de la Côte d'Or was published in 1855, Columella's description was sufficient evidence that something akin to pinot existed in the northern half of France at the beginning of the common era. In fairness, however, vastly more detail would be required to clinch the case objectively. Additional documentation does accumulate during the medieval period, as the monks of Cluny gained control of most of the vineyards in modern Gevrey-Chambertin and the monks of St.-Vivant acquired and cultivated vineyards in modern Vosne-Romanée. Noirien and morillon seem to emerge at this time as the monikers of choice for the local pinotlike red wine grape.

The first mentions of pinot by nameñsometimes spelled pynos or pineauñshow up during the last quarter of the fourteenth century in actes and other civil documents associated with the dukes of Burgundy. The first, widely cited by wine historians, was an acte of Philip the Bold ordering the shipment to Flandersñwhich Philip had acquired by marriageñof "six queues and one poinçon" (about 11 modern barrels) of "vermilion pinot wine" in 1375. Even better known is a second acte, dated 1395, in which the same Philip orders gamay vines, which he describes as "vile and noxious," uprooted from the Côte d'Or in favor of "pinot."

The great French wine historian Roger Dion believes that "pinot" was used to designate wineñin fact, Burgundy's best wineñbefore it was accepted as the name of a grape variety. Dion found its first application to grapes in 1394, two decades after Philip's "vermilion pinot" was sent off to Flanders, in the pardon of a maître de la vigne who beat to death a child who had failed to keep "pinots" separate from other grapes at harvest. Dion then found numerous references to "morillon dit pinot" and "morillon appelé pinot" in documents from the first quarter of the fifteenth century, as if pinot were being used to denote a subset of some larger type or class of red grapes. Some of these references imply that the pinot vines were newly planted. Dion permits himself to hypothesize that pinot was used to denote a grape variety or subvariety somehow superior to other related cultivars, that Philip the Bold may have coined the new name personally, and that Philip may also have been the patron of this instance of subvarietal selection. However that may be, the name pinot coexists persistently, following its first appearance in 1375, with a host of apparent paranyms (variant names, including nicknames, for what appears to be the same grape variety): noirien, franc noirien, plant à bon vin, plant fin, plant noble, franc bourgignon, franc pinot, petit pinot, and always morillon. Many of these names remained in common use within the memory of living Burgundians. To this day, there is special fondness for the morillon moniker in the commune of Morey-St.-Denis. Locals, who call themselves Morillions, like to assert that the name is evidence that pinot itself originated in Morey. They do not say why pinot is also called morillon in the department of Loir-et-Cher, 200 miles to the west.

What DNA Reveals

It is not likely that a complete genetic tree for Vitis viniferañbeginning with one or many instances of domestication and then traversing vine generations to the varietal population with which we work todayñcan ever be reconstructed. Written descriptions and surviving images, as we have seen, are insufficient for conclusive varietal identification, and many varieties crucial to the species tree have disappeared entirely in the course of time, leaving what amount to blank spaces in the pedigree of modern varieties. Carole Meredith, a viticulturist and plant geneticist recently retired from the University of California, Davis, has nonetheless pioneered techniques that have revolutionized our understanding of wine grape varieties. Since 1996, Meredith has used DNA fingerprintingñthe same technology that is used to connect criminals to crime scenes and to establish paternity among humansñto determine the correct identities of modern grape varieties that have come to be known under multiple names, and to identify the parents and even grandparents of some varietiesñat least where the parent varieties have themselves survived in cultivation or in collections. Meredith's extraordinary work has established, inter alia, that petite sirah is not syrah but durif; that zinfandel is identical to Croatian crljenak kastelanski, and that cabernet sauvignon, the most respected grape in Bordeaux, is the offspring of sauvignon blanc and cabernet franc.

Meredith's DNA-based work on northern French varieties has recently established that pinot noir is one of the genetic parents of chardonnay, gamay, aligoté, and at least 13 other varieties, including melon, the grape of Muscadet, and auxerrois, sometimes described as the "true" pinot blanc of Alsace. The other parent of all these progeny is gouais, a white variety once widely grown in northern France but now almost extinct except for a few specimens that survive in plant collections. This finding is hugely significant on several counts. First, and tantalizingly, the finding suggests that, for some unknown reason, pinot and gouais were an uncommonly "good parental combination," perhaps because they were relatively genetically dissimilar. Conversely, none of the progeny of pinot and gouais seem to have spawned successful progeny of their own, perhaps because they lacked the genetic distance necessary to birth stable offspring. Could this be evidence that vinifera was in fact domesticated several times over, in quite different locations, birthing "families" both closely and distantly related? Second, given that textual mentions of chardonnay and gamay occur as early as the thirteenth century, it is possible to conclude with certainty that both pinot noir and gouais are older, at least, than that, and conceivably as old as the dawn of French viticulture. Finally, that no cultivar has yet been identified as a parent of either pinot or gouais at least leaves open the possibility that the parents of one or both may have been wild vinesñperhaps the Vitis vinifera sativa about which Bernard has speculated. Beyond any doubt, Meredith's DNA work leaves intact the conventional wisdom that pinot noir, whatever its origins, is very old indeed.

Conventional field observation and DNA fingerprinting both indicate that pinot noir has a strong proclivity toward spontaneous mutation in the vineyard. Pinot gris and pinot blanc, the red-grayish and green-yellowish versions of pinot, are generally grown as distinct varieties, but their DNA profiles are genetically indistinguishable from pinot noir, and they almost certainly originated as spontaneous field mutations from red-berried vines. In 1936, according to Clive Coates, Nuits-St.-Georges grower Henri Gouges noticed that some of the old pinot noir vines in his Clos des Porrets vineyard had begun to produce white grapes. Having propagated cuttings from these mutated vines and planted them in the nearby Les Perrières vineyard, Gouges began making (and still makes today) several barrels of white pinot noir. Now Gouges has propagated this white pinot, which Coates calls "pinot Gouges," back into the Clos des Porrets vineyard where he first found it, so there is now also a dribble of Clos des Porrets blanc, and he has shared cuttings of pinot Gouges with other vintners in the Côte de Nuits.

Pinot meunier, the staple grape of Champagne, which is occasionally made into a still wine, is taken to be a "chimera." "A mutation exists in the outer layer of cells," according to Meredithñcausing the distinctive "floured" leaf that gave the variety its nameñ"but if you isolate an inner layer of cells and regenerate a plant from those cells, the new plant resembles a typical pinot noir." One Austrian scientist advances a different view, however. Ferdinand Regner, of the Federal College of Viticulture in Klosterneuburg, published research in 1999 claiming that pinot meunier (known in German-speaking countries as schwarzriesling) is actually a parent rather than a mutation of pinot noir, and that pinot noir represents the crossing of schwarzriesling with traminer. This research is not accepted outside Austria, and Regner's results have not been replicated in other studies. The mutability of pinot noir is generally thought responsible for the profusion of its clones, sometimes called stable mutations (of which more in chapter 5).

Pinot's Habitat Expands

Whether pinot noir arrived in France with the Romans or the Greeks, or was domesticated in situ from indigenous Vitis vinifera, and whether its first appearance is put as early as five or six centuries b.c. or as late as the European Middle Ages, there can be no doubt that pinot made Burgundy famous, and vice versa. Many wine historians believe that the alliance of pinot and Burgundy was an explicit policy of Burgundy's Valois dukes, whose duchy extended from the Alps to Flanders, and whose power and influence rivaled those of the kings of France until the seventeenth century. Roger Dion in particular, extending his hypothesis about Philip the Bold's seminal role in the propagation and promotion of pinot noir, argues that the reputation of Beaune wines as "the finest in the world" was a "propaganda triumph of the Valois dukes of Burgundy." In any case, as the variety was transported northward to Champagne, west to the Loire, eastward to Alsace and Germany, and southward across what is now Switzerland to Italy, its Burgundian pedigree was respected. The name pinot took firm hold in France, and the grape emerged in Italian as pinot nero. In German-speaking areas, it became known as Burgunder, Blauburgunder, and Spätburgunder. When pinot gris and pinot blanc emigrated to Germanic lands, they were dubbed Grauburgunder and Weissburgunder, respectively, testifying to the presumed Burgundian origins of these color mutations as well. In parts of France, pinot was sometimes mistakenly applied to unrelated varieties, as in pineau de la Loire, a paranym for chenin blanc; we are told that the pinot spelling was not made official until the end of the nineteenth century, and then only to protect the word from mispronunciation by Burgundian peasants, who had a tendency to render pineau as something like "peen-yew."

Today there are about 11,000 acres of pinot noir in the Côte d'Or, the celebrated strip of east-facing slope between Dijon and Chalon-sur-Saône that is home to Burgundy's finest wines. There are another 10,000 acres in southern Burgundy, in the districts called the Côte Chalonnaise and the Mâconnais, where no small quantity of pinot is blended with gamay to make Bourgogne Passetoutgrains. But Champagne is home to more pinot noir than the Côte d'Or, and more pinot is crushed for champagne than is made into still red Burgundies. Pinot noir is also grown and made as a varietal wine in Alsace and Sancerre, and grown primarily for blending in Lorraine, the Jura, Savoie, Menetou-Salon, and St.-Pourçain. Pinot noir is the fourth most planted variety in Germany (after riesling, Müller-Thurgau, and sylvaner), mostly in Baden, but also in the Pfalz and the Rheingau, and in pockets like Assmannshausen and the Ahr, near Bonn, where it has been a specialty for a century. It is Germany's only significant red variety. In Switzerland, 1,500 acres of pinot are grown in the Valais, where it used to be blended with gamay to make Dole but now stands increasingly on its own; near Neuchâtel, where it accounts for half of total vineyard surface and makes mostly a pale red wine known as Oeil de Perdrix; around the lakes southeast of Zurich; and in small appellations (like Bündner Herrschaft) near the border with Liechtenstein. In 2000, Austria accounted for just over 1,000 acres of pinot noir, about evenly divided between Niederösterreich and Burgenland. In Italy, there is pinot in Breganze, the Alto Adige, and Friuli, as well as in isolated vineyards throughout the country's northern halfñnotably in Oltrepo Pavese and the Arno valley, downstream from Florence. Macedonia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Hungary all grow pinot noir. In at least one case, a Burgundy négociant, Charles Thomas of Nuits-St.-Georges, has become involved with a Franco-Romanian venture to produce pinot noir in the appellation called Dealu Mare.

In the nineteenth century and with some gusto in the twentieth, thanks to immigrants, plant collectors, and a growing number of serious vintners, pinot was also transplanted to various parts of the world outside Europe, including South Africa, North America, Chile, Australia, and New Zealand. North America is now home to more pinot noir than Burgundy. Somewhat confoundingly, especially for those who believe that grape varieties have well-established terroir preferences, pinot is successfully grown alongside chardonnay in Burgundy, alongside sauvignon blanc in Sancerre, alongside chasselas in Switzerland, cheek-by-jowl with riesling in Alsace and Germany, and not far from syrah in some parts of California and Australia.

The Good, Bad, Ethereal, and Perverse

As a vining plant, pinot noir is not especially vigorous and has a tendency to throw relatively slender trunks and willowy branches. Its leaves generally measure about five inches in each dimensionñslightly larger than syrah but smaller than cabernet sauvignon. Leaves are usually three-lobed but only slightly indented, and thicker than some varieties, with a surface that is sometimes described as bubbly. Viticulturists observe, however, that pinot noir actually exhibits a wide variety of leaf shapes. Sometimes the leaf is lobed on one side only; sometimes it is grossly asymmetrical; sometimes the lobes are so understated that the leaf seems almost round, or even square. The ripe fruit cluster is typically small, compact, and almost cylindricalñlike the pinecone for which it is presumably named. Individual berries also tend to be small, almost perfectly round, and the color of midnight blue. Cluster morphology and berry size vary by clone, however, with some highly regarded clones distinguished for their comparatively smaller berries and tighter structure. And despite the recurrent description of cylindrical clusters, pruning in the vineyard to remove "wings" and "shoulders" from clusters is a common practice, so not all untrimmed clusters look very cylindrical to the untrained eye.

Pinot noir has the reputation of being fiercely difficult to grow, and many growers who have experimented with pinot in the New World have abandoned it. Robinson calls pinot "a minx of a vine" that "leads [growers] on a terrible dance." Burgundians admit that it is delicate, needing in Henri Jayer's words "sunshine but not too much and water but not too much," but spend relatively little time cataloging its liabilities. Among the common varieties of vinifera, pinot does seem especially susceptible to mildew and botrytis, as well as to several viral diseases, including leaf roll and fanleaf. Because it buds early, it is often at risk in cooler climates from spring frosts, though some sources indicate that it resists cold temperatures tolerably well. Like wild vinifera, and possibly testifying to a close relationship with wild vines, pinot appears sensitive to hard rain and abrupt temperature changes after budbreak, birthing clusters with a large percentage of stunted grapes or clusters that fall from the vine unfertilized. Pinot is a relatively shy-bearing variety under most circumstances, so fecundation failures can cause catastrophically small harvests. In addition, pinot noir's small berries have relatively thin skins that are easily broken by rough handling at harvest. The thin skins' tannins comprise only about 1.7 percent of the grape's weightñas compared to 3 percent to 6 percent in most red varietiesñand pinot's anthocyanins, the soluble pigments that give most red wines their color, are present in less than half the quantity as in, for example, syrah. Serious winegrowers in all areas are now meticulous about their pinot noir, lavishing it with intensive, vine-by-vine attention throughout the growing season, and (when their experience permits) contrasting it with syrah, which some say more or less grows itself. "God made cabernet sauvignon," André Tchelistcheff, the father of modern California winegrowing, is supposed to have said, "whereas the devil made pinot noir."

No variety of vinifera has a more exalted reputation for making fine wine, howeverñwhen all has gone well in both vineyard and cellar. "Good pinot noir," say Wall Street Journal wine columnists Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher, with a fair degree of objective sobriety, "has an elegant, velvety taste that tends to be less intense, less tannic and more berry-like than cabernet sauvignon." An "official" description by the Austrian Wine Marketing Board involves "elegant, soft tannins [and] a very fine bouquet which is difficult to describe [but is] reminiscent of raspberries and almonds." Attempting in 1981 to capture pinot's "personality," veteran California wine critic Robert Finigan allowed that pinot is "at once elegant and earthy, musty and fresh, pungent and expansively fragrant." Visually, it is neither thick nor dense, and black is not its color. "You must be able to see through a glass of it," explains Henri Jayer, who has made some of Burgundy's most respected exemplars. "The Pinot has a pretty robe," he continues, "glistening and shimmering like a cat's eyes, [and] sparkling like a diamond."

Many Burgundians insist that pinot's greatest appeal is aromatic. The smell of a fading rose is one classic description, but the spectrum of floral properties associated with pinot noir is actually quite broad, ranging from rose across lavender and lilac to violets, in combinations that sometimes remind people of potpourri. Fruit-driven examples of pinot noir can display everything from raspberry and strawberry to cherry, cassis, plum, and various black fruits. In North America, a variety of intense local berries joins the list, including lingonberry, whortleberry, and gooseberry. A host of tarlike, resiny, woody, and woodsy smells and flavors (including mushrooms and truffles) are common and wholly acceptable, as are overtones of meat and animal, ranging from charcuterie to wet fur and leather, and sometimes extending into the realm of organic wastes. Minerality is common, and usually appreciated. Still, Jayer insists, "the wine must be clean and pure." In fact, it must be "full and fleshy, fat and concentrated, but discreet, supple and soft at the same time, and it must have definition." For Anne Gros, a generation younger than Jayer, the model is not hugely different. "Harmonious, balanced, ample and concentrated," she says, "but also elegant." Ken Burnapña onetime restaurateur who has made some excellent pinots at Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyardsñsaid to Connoisseurs' Guide in 1977, "Pinot noir is the only red grape variety that is totally honest, totally clean, no gimcracks; no little fancy hints and fringes that never come through. Pinot noir is a strong, hard-hitting, clean red wine. In my experience of drinking wine, it is the one wine that keeps your taste buds alive and perking through dinner. It cuts through all the cream sauces and thick tastes."

Pinot's fans are so enthusiastic about "their" variety that efforts to create straightforward description often turn poetic, and are sometimes transformed into panegyrics. Contrasting pinot with "blockbuster versions" of syrah, cabernet, and merlot, Sarah Kemp, publisher of Britain's Decanter magazine, likens pinot noir to a Merchant-Ivory movieñ"refined, beautiful, ethereal and intellectually appealing." Its flavors, according to wine writer Oz Clarke, "are sensuous, often erotic, above rational discourse, and beyond the powers of measured criticism." Joel Fleischman wrote ten years ago in Vanity Fair, "At their best, pinot noirs are the most romantic of wines, with so voluptuous a perfume, so sweet an edge, and so powerful a punch that, like falling in love, they make the blood run hot and the soul wax embarrassingly poetic." California wine writer Richard Paul Hinkle talks about pinot's "raw, succulent and fleshy textural sensuality" balanced with "inherent elegance and grandeur." Pinot is "a righteous grape," according to Master Sommelier Madeline Triffon, director of wine and beverages for Unique Restaurant Corporation, "chock full of incredible texture and hedonistic pleasures"; it is "sex in a glass," so seductive that "it's very, very hard to say 'no' to." "The king of natural wines," concluded George Saintsbury, 80 years ago, in Notes on a Cellar-Book, reflecting on the red Burgundies it had been his privilege to enjoy.

The enthusiasm for pinot noir qua wine is far from universal and unqualified, however. Makers and commentators articulate their models and pen their descriptions, but pinot's broad range of acceptable hues and color density, and its wide organoleptic bandwidth (the range of sensory impressions it conveys to the nose and the palate), still generates confusion even among experienced tasters, whether the wine was grown in Burgundy, North America, or somewhere else. For Jayer, thinking only about Burgundy, "the diversity of styles from one cellar to another" is an essential part of the genius both of grape and of place, and he has professed concern lest the diversity be lost to "vins standards" that are "perfect and perfectly neutral," which he sees looming on Burgundy's horizon. Some winemakers on this side of the Atlantic seem to agree with Jayer, arguing that pinot is the only varietyñthus farñto have escaped being "defined" by wine critics, and therefore to remain a safe haven for a relatively broad range of interpretations and styles. But others find that mischief lurks in diversity. John Baxevanis, in Wine Regions of America, blames the "passionate opinions" and "lack of consensus" about pinot noir's ideal expression on pinot's intrinsic "lack of varietal identity." This diversity has the baleful effect, he argues, of making pinot "the subject of considerable manipulation either through winemaking processes, or by the addition of other wine to add color, flavor, alcohol, longevity, etc." For wine writer Norm Roby, charged to create tasting panels on a variety-by-variety basis for Vintage magazine in the early 1980s, the lack of consensus emerged as a practical problem. He cited major intrapanel rifts over acceptable levels of body, tannins, and volatility, with some tasters preferring a light, delicate style while others privileged intensity of flavor. "For many pinot noirs," Roby reported, "two tasters loved it, two hated it and two felt it was just average in quality." Similar results are reflected in the published notes of San Francisco's Vintners Club, covering tastings held over a 14-year period between 1973 and 1987. Repeatedly, only two or three tasters out of a dozen could agree which wine in each flight was the "best" pinot, and some wines emerged from the tastings ranked simultaneously at the top and the bottom of the heap. Although genuinely pathological disparities of opinion about pinot are less common today than they were 20 years ago, wine juries are rarely unanimous in their assessments of pinot noir, winemakers themselves often disagree on qualitative issues, and individual wines are still rewarded, in the same tasting, with both rave reviews and punishing scores.

Critics and consumers, and sometimes even pinot noir's most avowed fans, complain that pinots can be stubbornly inconsistent, unpredictable, and often downright disappointing. They contrast this misbehavior with the better "manners" shown by fine Bordeaux, syrah-based wines, and reds grown in Northern Italy. These brickbats are cast equally against red Burgundies, North American pinots, and pinots made elsewhere. Several hobgoblins are at work. First, pinot noir makes an unstable wine. There is no nice way to say this, though adjectives like moody and capricious take off some of the edge. Pinot can show beautifully from barrel and then suffer an acute case of bottle shock. It can taste ethereal one day, but then close down to a shadow of its former self. California wine writer Dan Berger calls pinot "enigmatic," complaining that the same wine is "flamboyant and engaging" at one moment and "acerbic and angular" at another. Pinot is certainly more susceptible than gutsier varieties to damage from excessive heat, and it can be traumatized by rough transport.

Kermit Lynch, the California-based importer of fine Burgundy, remembers his experience with the 1972 vintage of Hubert de Montille's Volnay Champans, which arrived dumb in California, having suffered from its oceanic traverse. "Put it in a cool cellar for six months," de Montille counseled the worried importer. Lynch did, and the wine recovered, but Lynch wisely used refrigerated containers for future shipments, in an effort to mitigate pinot's mood swings.

Conversely, pinots can improve spontaneously and unpredictably when they are three, five, or eight years old. Five years after the vintage, Iron Horse Vineyards' first edition of vineyard-designated pinot noir, from the Thomas Road Vineyardña slightly lightweight but very charming wine in its youthñinexplicably put on weight in the bottle and gained layers of complexity not at all associated with age.

Second, there is substantial discontinuity between really good pinot noir, wherever it is grown, and lesser wines made from the same grape. Everything short of really good seems irretrievably mediocre. This curse, which may be rooted in pinot's legendary transparency and fragility, along with its extreme sensitivity to being overcropped, explains why so much Bourgogne Rouge offers only the palest hint of a fine Gevrey, Echézeaux, or Volnay, and why large lots of industrial North American pinot noir echo fine vineyard-designates and microblends only faintly. It also explains why so-called entry-level pinot, priced inexpensively, is so hard to find. It is also the best available answer to Jim Clendenen's otherwise reasonable plaint, in a 1998 address to the Napa Valley Wine Library, that consumers and critics reserve a special onus for pinot noir, demanding that all pinot noir be conceived as "the ultimate in greatness." Consumers permit a majority of cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel, syrah, and nebbiolo to exist respectably as "delicious, serviceable, and tremendously versatile wines," Clendenen observed accurately, while they obstinately hold pinot to a higher standard. The inconvenient fact is that when pinot noir is not held to a higher standard, it is usually much less than delicious. Serviceable pinot noir is not quite an oxymoron, but it comes close.

Finally, pinot noir, in all its manifestations, suffers from the scarcity of individual wines. The total acreage planted to pinot noir in the Côte d'Or is not much less than the total vineyard acreage in the Haut-Médoc and St.-Emilion combined, and there is only a little less grand cru Burgundy made in an average year than there is first-growth Bordeaux. But of each first-growth Bordeaux (except Château Ausone) 12,000 to 33,000 cases are made, against a paltry couple hundred (and sometimes less) by most producers lucky enough to own a slice of Le Chambertin, Bonnes-Mares, or Clos du Tart. Burgundian patterns of landholding do not constrain the North American scene, but individual benchmark pinots on this side of the Atlantic are very often produced, with uncanny similarity to grand cru Burgundy, on an almost Lilliputian scale, usually because the output of a small vineyard is deliberately divided by its owner among several client wineries. In Burgundy, the multiplicity of small producers leads to huge differences between the best wine made from Bonnes-Mares (for example) and the worst, and to disappointed consumers who forswear Burgundies entirely after mistakenly spending a lot of good money on the worst. North America largely escapes the good-and-bad Bonnes-Mares problem, but increasingly shares with Burgundy the downside of very many wines produced in very small quantities of each. The basic law of very small supply and modestly large demand sends prices soaring and creates offensive discontinuities between price and value.

Under the circumstances, it is perhaps not surprising that wine literature is awash in bittersweet love-hate vocabulary about pinot noir. For every superlative, there is a countervailing reservation; for every rapturous evaluation, there is somewhere an angry critic or disappointed consumer. Burgundians have lived long enough with pinot noir to have become accustomed to its ways and to accept its foibles as the price of sometimes stunning wine. But on this continent, aspiring winemakers and unhappy critics have embraced an odd vocabulary redolent of epic strife and operatic drama without which, it seems, no story about pinot noir is ever complete. The variety is said to be capricious, petulant, tantalizing, and even quixotic. Dan Berger says it is "cursed with a personality so sour it would make the grinch look like Santa Claus." Its makers are said to be "lunatic-fringe" questers after "the Holy Grail." Marc de Villiers's book about one of North America's pinot pioneers is titled The Heartbreak Grape. This is all good fun, but in the following pages, I will attempt a slightly more sober approach.