A version of this article is published by the Financial Times.
Red burgundy casts a spell on a high proportion of wine drinkers. When it’s good, it is uniquely hedonistically charged. And when it’s bad, we tend to see it as our fault for having backed the wrong horse in the incredibly unpredictable race towards burgundian perfection.
The result of this widespread reverence for red burgundy is the legions of vintners around the world currently trying their hand at growing the red burgundy grape Pinot Noir. The theory has been that Pinot Noir is so delicate and finicky that it can succeed only in Burgundy but that is increasingly questionable.
Admittedly, Pinot does not thrive everywhere. It is a naturally early-ripening grape variety producing delicately perfumed wines, so it needs a relatively cool climate in order to avoid ripening so soon that it has not had time to develop any flavour. But in the last couple of months I have tasted over 100 perfectly respectable Pinots from as far afield as England, the Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, South Africa, Chile, Argentina and Brazil, as well as from the more obvious likes of Oregon, New Zealand and the cooler reaches of Australia and California.
The 2016 vintage in Burgundy has been pitifully small, so that burgundy prices that were already sky-high are expected to be stratospheric – never mind the weakness of the pound. So it is becoming increasingly sensible for burgundy lovers to seek out more affordable alternatives.
Two major tastings recently that included extensive ranges of both red burgundies and Pinots from elsewhere suggested that burgundy is by no means always intrinsically superior. One expects red burgundy to be a little more reticent, and long lived, than the alternative but too often it can be darned cussed, unyielding and unrewarding.
On the other hand, as winemaking competence, and local demand, increase outside Burgundy, prices for the most admired Pinot Noirs produced outside Burgundy have been climbing. In seeking value, the trick, as usual, is to find up-and-coming sources that have yet to establish their reputation.
Chile has been producing some of the most reliable inexpensive, if light and sometimes a bit vegetal, Pinot Noir for years, notably under the Cono Sur label, but is still struggling to establish its fine-wine reputation. Each new vintage seems to bring an increase in quality, however, with the Aconcagua coast north of Valparaiso apparently one of the most promising newer locations for Chilean Pinot Noir. Clos des Fous make an exceptional example, Errázuriz is getting there, and the Montes Outer Limits bottling from the Zapallar vineyard is particularly good value.
If it’s French finesse you seek, I have been most impressed by some Pinots from the hills of Limoux, the western Languedoc’s sparkling wine country. Domaine Begude’s two red Pinots have become increasingly interesting and refined as their vines grow older and owner James Kinglake gets to grips with the delicate interplay between Pinot and oak. His French winemaker has worked in Central Otago, one of New Zealand’s many wine regions focused on Pinot Noir.
When importer Liberty Wines showed an array of 43 Pinot Noirs from around the world recently, one of the best-value was from the eastern Languedoc, just north east of Pézenas in Montagnac. The winemaking daughter at Domaine La Croix Gratiot also picked up experience in New Zealand, with celebrated winemaker Matt Thomson, and seems to have brought back a healthy respect for gentle winemaking and sweet, fresh fruit. Domaine La Croix Gratiot, Les Zazous 2014 Languedoc has a recommended retail price of around £16 while the cheapest red burgundy in the Liberty tasting was £22 and was not nearly as pleasing.
Matt Thomson was responsible for another particularly well-priced Pinot Noir from Liberty. Tin Pot Hut’s 2014 is from Marlborough, the vast wine region in the north of the South Island initially devoted to Sauvignon Blanc but whose Pinots have been gaining gravitas. And with their recently launched own label Blank Canvas, he and his partner Sophie Parker-Thomson were coincidentally responsible for one of the finest Pinots in the Liberty collection, their 2014 from a Marlborough vineyard Matt planted in 2001.
The other Liberty Pinots that earned a score of at least 17 out of 20 from this rather stingy scorer were the regular 2014 from the well-established Ata Rangi based in Martinborough, New Zealand’s North Island home for the red burgundy grape; Wieninger Select 2014 from vineyards in the Vienna Woods; the redoubtable Ted Lemon’s Littorai 2014 from the cool Sonoma Coast in California; and, in a breakthrough for the country as a Pinot Noir producer of note, both wines shown under the Crystallum label made by South African producer Peter-Allan Finlayson. Of the 10 red burgundies shown, only one, Mongeard-Mugneret’s Les Plateaux Nuits-St-Georges 2013, gave as much pleasure, and costs about £60 a bottle.
Wine merchant, Master of Wine and champion wine taster Alex Hunt is also fascinated by the geographical diversity of the Pinot Noir kingdom today and recently put on a tasting of 61 Pinots from around the world currently in the portfolio of his company Berkmann Wine Cellars.
Thanks to climate change, both Germany and Alsace are now producing very competent Pinot Noir (sometimes called Spätburgunder in Germany), and some Swiss Pinots can easily outshine some of Burgundy's finest, although local demand means that they tend to be quite robustly priced. One of the best-value Pinots in Alex Hunt’s tasting was a special bottling from Balthasar Ress in the Rheingau, called Red Rabbit in answer to a bargain Riesling called White Rabbit from the same producer.
He had winkled out some great value from less obvious corners of the wine world such as a light but convincing Loire Pinot from Guy Allion of Touraine (red Sancerre tends to be overpriced in my view); three (two with serious, burgundy-like ageing potential) from Hofstätter in Alto Adige on the Italian/Austrian border; a perfectly respectable Brazilian; and that rarity, a keenly-priced Californian, from the Foley stable in this case.
Oregon is the US state most seriously devoted to Pinot Noir. Jackson Family Wines, the burgeoning family-owned wine empire underpinned by Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay, is currently investing heavily in Oregon, as have several smart Burgundy producers.
Of Berkmann’s 20 red burgundies, I found myself writing GV for good value in my notes on six of them, but this was strictly in a Burgundian context. Their prices ranged from £35 to £60 a bottle, and the two most thrilling examples were more than £100 a bottle. Bargains are rare and getting rarer in Burgundy.
Most of these are available at many more independent merchants than the one cited. See wine-searcher.com for stockists.
Clos des Fous, Pucalan Arenaria 2012 Aconcagua
£21 The Wine Society
Montes Outer Limits, Zapallar vineyard 2012 Aconcagua
Domaine Begude Pinot Noir 2015 Haute Vallée de l’Aude
Domaine La Croix Gratiot, Les Zazous 2014 Languedoc
£15.99 Shills of Cockermouth
Tin Pot Hut 2014 Marlborough
£14.95 Eton Vintners
Blank Canvas 2014 Marlborough
£24.99 Noel Young
Ata Rangi 2014 Martinborough
£39.90 The New Zealand Cellar
Wieninger Select 2014 Wien
£19.99 AG Wines
Littorai 2014 Sonoma Coast
£36.99 Invinity Wines
Crystallum, Peter Max 2015 Western Cape
£25.99 Handford Wines
Balthasar Ress, Red Rabbit 2014 Rhein
Grape & Grain, Haywards Heath