Beyond Burgundy

A slightly shorter version of this round-up of delicious Pinot Noirs is published by the Financial Times. 

It would be a very good idea if we wine lovers admired burgundy a bit less. Pinot Noir has been grown for so long on the famous Côte d’Or that the 'golden slope' has been subdivided into hundreds of distinctly different named portions called climats and now has the distinction of being recognised as a UNESCO world heritage site. 

Geographical distinction is all the rage in wine circles today. Universal reverence for the wines produced in Burgundy’s smartest vineyards, in much more limited quantities than in Bordeaux for instance, has swollen prices to unprecedented levels.

So if we were prepared to look for alternative sources of fine Pinot Noir we might all save ourselves a lot of money for a start. We might also encounter a more consistent product. Opening a bottle of burgundy is not all that dissimilar to having a punt on a roulette wheel.

It is no longer the case that the Côte d’Or has a monopoly on fine Pinot production. A new documentary film called SOMM3* (in which I was invited to participate), includes the story of the Judgment of Paris, the 1976 blind tasting of Californian and French wines whose results upturned the assumptions of the global wine trade. In the denouement of the new film, Fred Dame, a leading American Master Sommelier, along with Steven Spurrier, the veteran British wine writer and instigator of the 1976 tasting, and I taste two very smart burgundies and a Pinot Noir from southern California blind. Spoiler alert: my preferred wine was the American, a Domaine de la Côte from Sta. Rita Hills.

I made my judgment on the basis of the wine I’d choose to drink that night, and it is indeed the case that non-Burgundian Pinot Noirs tend to mature earlier – and often more predictably – than fine wines from the Côte d’Or. In our fast-forward times, that is not necessarily a disadvantage.

recent tasting of Pinot Noirs around the world organised by my fellow Master of Wine Alex Hunt of Berkmann Wine Cellars compared 16 smart red burgundies with Pinots from Alsace, Loire, Champagne, Jura, Languedoc, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Chile, Brazil, Canada, California, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Because they are not part of the Berkmann portfolio, Argentina (where there are some particularly venerable Pinot Noir vines in the far south) and Oregon, America’s most Pinot-centric state, did not even feature in this multinational gathering of evidence of Pinot passion on the part of the world’s winemakers.

I have had impressive Pinot Noirs from Austria, Switzerland and other central European countries; the mountains of Andalucia; the central Portuguese coast; and Japan. And I expect this exceptional summer to have produced some of the best still Pinot yet from English vineyards.

Even Burgundians themselves seem to be acknowledging that interesting Pinot Noir is made elsewhere. A trip to Oregon persuaded the Drouhin family to establish Domaine Drouhin there way back in 1988. The Drouhins have since been joined in Oregon by their competitors Louis Jadot in the form of Resonance Pinot Noir. Representatives of no fewer than four of the smartest domaines on the Côte d’Or now have an Oregon connection. Jean-Nicolas Méo of Méo-Camuzet has been making the sturdy Nicolas-Jay wines there with music producer Jay Boberg for some time now. Alexandrine Roy of Domaine Marc Roy also makes Phelps Creek Pinot. Dominique Lafon of Meursault has a long history in Oregon and now advises on Larry Stone’s exceptional Lingua Franca Pinots, while Louis-Michel Liger-Belair of Vosne-Romanée has a hand in both Chapter 24 and Rose & Arrow Oregon Pinots.

Étienne de Montille of Domaine de Montille has gone two better, with projects in both Santa Barbara and the cool, northern island of Hokkaido in Japan. François Millet, poetic winemaker at renowned Domaine Comte de Vogüé, also makes Cuvée aux Antipodes Pinot Noir at Prophet’s Rock in the far south of New Zealand. See Burgundians branch out.

The links between Burgundy and New Zealand seem particularly strong, with many a young representative of a famous Côte d’Or family cutting their winemaking teeth there. Cyrielle Rousseau, currently taking over from father Eric at world-famous Domaine Armand Rousseau, worked in both New Zealand and Australia before returning to Gevrey-Chambertin.

Interestingly, these geographically adventurous Burgundians quite often find that their own clones of Pinot Noir are less suitable in their chosen non-European terrains than local clones that were once thought to be less sophisticated than more recent imports from Burgundy, known variously as Dijon and Bernard clones. Because summers are, or at least have been, generally cooler in Burgundy, clones of Pinot that ripened relatively early tended to have been selected there. But in warmer, drier climes, these Burgundian clones may ripen so early that the grapes don’t have time to build up interesting flavours. In New Zealand and Australia, the MV6, once slightly scorned, has been reassessed, as have the original Pommard and Wadenswil clones in Oregon.

Below I list, in descending price order, all eight wines from the Berkmann tasting of Pinots around the world to which I gave my top score, 17 out of 20. Although three of the four most expensive come from Burgundy (and I should point out that of the 47 wines I tasted, only six were burgundies, so the Côte d’Or achieved a very high strike rate), the most expensive wine of all is from California.

This underlines just how buoyant demand is for California’s cult wines. Williams Selyem was one of the first California wineries to establish an avid following for its Pinot Noir. Burt Williams and Ed Selyem sold their appealingly ramshackle winery way back in 1998, to customer John Dyson, who had already established a winery in the Hudson Valley in New York. He has lavished funds on it and, in the US, just about the only way to get your hands on a bottle of Williams Selyem other than in a smart restaurant is to be relatively high up on its mailing list. So it is hardly surprising to see it commanding the same price as a premier cru burgundy. 

The bargain on this list is Brian Bicknell’s Mahi from New Zealand. Those looking for other Pinot-inspired bargains should seek out better Bourgogne Rouges such as the 2015 from Dom René Lequin-Colin (£14.50 Stone, Vine & Sun), or some of Chile’s best Pacific-influenced Pinots such as Kalfu, Kuda Pinot Noir 2017 Leyda (£13 Drinkfinder.co.uk) – or the best offerings from the Côte Chalonnaise south of the Côte d’Or, where quality has been rising fast (see Seeking value in Burgundy). Or even consider the best wines of Beaujolais where the wines are getting more and more Burgundian by the minute. See Beaujolais – a useful alternative to burgundy.

BURGUNDY V THE REST – SOME FAVOURITES
Below are the wines I scored 17 out of 20 in the Berkmann tasting with suggested drinking windows. Prices are recommended retail prices per bottle suggested by this UK wine importer.

Williams Selyem, Westside Road Neighbors Pinot Noir 2014 Russian River Valley, California
Drink 2018-2023
£115

Lucien Le Moine, Les Caillerets Premier Cru 2014 Volnay, Burgundy
Drink 2020-2028
£105

Dom Tollot-Beaut, Grand Cru 2014 Corton-Les Bressandes, Burgundy
Drink 2019-2026
£85

Perrot-Minot, En la Rue de Vergy 2014 Morey-St-Denis Burgundy
Drink 2017-2025
£65 (2014 is £69.95 for a single bottle from Lea & Sandeman)

Father John, Vieilles Vignes Pinot Noir 2015 Mendocino, California
Drink 2017-2020
£47.26 Corking Wines

Quail's Gate, Stewart Family Reserve Pinot Noir 2015 Okanagan Valley, Canada
Drink 2018-2022
£45

J Hofstätter, Mazon Pinot Nero Riserva 2014 Alto Adige, Italy
Drink 2017-2023
£40

Mahi Pinot Noir 2016 Marlborough, New Zealand
Drink 2018-2021
£19.49 allaboutwine.co.uk, £22.75 Hailsham Cellars, £23.99 AG Wines, £25.50 Eton Vintners

See my full tasting notes in Around the world in 47 Pinots. Retail stockists can be found Wine-Searcher.com.

*SOMM3 will be available on Itunes and Amazon from 30 November in most countries – probably a bit later in Asia.

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