Saturday, August 13, 2011

Wine Study- "Pinot Noir"

Romanée-Conti Grand Cru Vineyards

“If Bordeaux’s pleasures are above the neck, 
then red Burgundy is something completely different…”
 –Jancis Robinson."

We continue a series of sessions with the Francesca's at Sunset and Brannon's Cafe teams we are calling "Wine Study."  We are meeting every other Saturday for the purpose of expanding our knowledge and experience with wine.  Some Saturdays we have had to miss due to high business volumes at the resort or because I was out of town.  No matter how long we take off; wine is waiting for us when we return. Our guide is Jancis Robinson's Wine Course DVD, Mrs. Robinson poured depth and detail into this television series that aired in the United Kingdom in 1995 it withstands the test of time!  If you have not purchased this DVD series yet; do so now, it is really GREAT!

Episode 7- Pinot Noir is exciting like the previous episodes where we have seen personalities of the winemakers influencing the wines and/or the terrior of different regions in comparison.  This episode we see the drama that unfolds over many vintages and a significant paradigm shift... 

The show starts in a peaceful pastoral setting in BurgundyEastern France, and Jancis warns us there are passions smoldering underneath the calm surface.  She tells us about “Queen of Burgundy” who is in exile, “Pope of Burgundy” given up earthly matters almost retired and hints at the drama surrounding the creation of these "Bottles to Die For" coming from this world famous village; Vosne-Romanee!

As dramatic as this all sounds coming from a breathless Mrs. Robinson it is nothing compared to the French Revolution.  It is brought up here to explain how the vineyard plots are carved up into smaller and smaller segments with each generation. The French Revolution, with it's overworked GUILLOTINES, ushered in the Napoleonic Code which changed the inheritance laws so that all family members shared equally.  Thus, when a person died with four children; each child received ¼ of the holdings.  For a vineyard site that was two hectares the four children would then each have 1/2 a hectare.  If each of them has only two children they will end up with a 1/4 hectare and within a couple more generations the family will be dividing up vine rows and then individual vines. Seems very fare to the families yet brutal to the vineyards and the terribly crippling to the making and selling of great wine. 

Where ever some men make problems; others will make solutions.  Out of this fragmented ownership came a robust system of  negociaints. The good negociaint assembles wines from a variety of sources and sells them to customers and exporters/importers.  Examples of negociaints are Bouchard Père et Fils, Joseph Drouhin, Jadot, Faiveley, and Jean-Claude Boisset.  While these names we see the most on the wine shop shelves and restaurant wine list Jancis devotes many minutes to the noble grower producers.  Because there are over 115 négociants who produce the vast majority of the burgundy wine; they only control around 8-10% of the area. Individual growers own 65-67% of the area, and only produce and market only 25% of the wine. Yet, when they become successful they become ROCKSTARS of the wine world! 
Pop-culture t-shirt honoring an old farmer!

“I haven’t a SECRET; I let nature take its course.  I am not a brave person and as nature does the work SO WELL, I don’t see why I should interfere.”  -Henri Jayer

Lalou Bize-Leroy of Domaine Leroy is still rocking!  She set the wine world on fire with sales of DRC to the Japanese market. When she was kicked out of DRC she founded Domaine Leroy which is now fierce competition to the old historic estate.  All the while she remains in harmony with nature and practiceBIODYNAMIC farming.  This is a system of organic agriculture based on a series of lectures to farmers in 1924 by Rudolf Steiner, a German Theosophist.  Biodynamics uses the principles of organic farming—no pesticides or chemical fertilizers—and goes on to include practices of planting and harvesting by solar and lunar cycles and fighting pests such as moths and rabbits by scattering the ashes of their predecessors.  Sometimes looking a lot like 'witchcraft' it is often misunderstood.  One thing seems to be clean the farmers practicing Biodynamics are highly focused on their vines and their vineyard and producing some OUTSTANDING grapes!

“I am sure that it’s for the GLORY of WINE!” -Lalou Bize-Leroy

With so many of these man made obstacles and the impossibly wet and cold conditions, remarkably; Burgundy makes some of the greatest wines in the world!  You see; seventy million years ago Burgundy was underwater, this region was covered with silt, shells and bones of sea creatures that became fossils.  Then thirty-five million years ago geological activity forced up the hills and ridges making fortunately east facing slopes.  The combined effect with the people's wine making ingenuity; these breathtaking wines that can not be made anywhere else on the planet...

Then Mrs. Robinson takes us across the globe to the western coast of the USA for an International Pinot Noir Festival held in OREGON every year.  Here she interviews two men; James Halliday, wine writer and wine maker, along with Robert Kacher, Burgundy Importer.  They raise the question “What is man’s contribution to terrior?” They review the many things a grape grower and wine maker can do that influence the quality of the wine.  Things like;  lowering yields, using state-of-the-art trellising, green harvesting of fruit at the point at which grapes start to change color, hand harvesting of fruit at the point of physiological (taste) ripeness (not analytically (laboratory) ripeness) and sorting by quality as the grapes are harvested.  Just as important, if not more important than the place the grapes are grown is the care and effort by the people growing the grapes and making the wines.

Which is a very nice segue into Jancis' short interview of  the first man to plant Pinot Noir in Oregon; David Lett, founder of Eyrie Vineyards.  He recounts a time in a class at UC Davis, our nations leading university for viticulture, when the professor said “There is NO climate cool enough for Pinot Noir in California.”  Mr. Lett took the professor at his word and searched for a region closer to the same climate as Burgundy and he found the Willamette Valley.  

Today, the world is in love with the Pinot Noirs from Oregon.  Can you imagine if everyone had ONLY gone to Oregon to plant Pinot Noir?  Can you imagine a wine world with out California Pinot Noir???  There would have been no 'Sideways Effect,' there would have been no Williams-Seylem Winery, in the Russian River Valley!  Which is Jancis Robinson's next stop to interview Burt Willaims and Ed Selyem.  Two friends who made incredible success by making Pinot Noir.  Starting in 1981 they grew to the point in 1995 when the interview was filmed they were making five-thousand case a year and selling it in three weeks!  And, in 1998 they sell their winery to the John and Kathe Dyson who by all accounts are making wines as good if not better than the founder's of the winery.  On top of that they have expanded production and built a beautiful new winery!  (Makes one wonder where Mr. Lett's UC Davis Professor is today?) 
“The Old Ways are better.” –Burt Willaims
Williams-Selyem Winery, Russian River Valley 1981

Williams-Selyem Winery, Russian River Valley 2011
That is all for this episode.  On a casual viewing I missed it.  Cheers to Mrs. Robinson and her team; they  have expertly woven into this short show all the wonder and complexity that is Pinot Noir!  A bit of mystery and intrigue, along with some earthy Biodynamic farming and sophisticated power plays in the business of wine.  Reoccurring in these personalities is a bit to a lot of contradiction and this is a quality that I find in some Pinot Noirs and can make this varietal a challenging wine drink, even more so to make. All together we see a portrait of a grape varietal, amazing television.

If you will read this handout which has a few notes from the video and a lot of information and links to more on the web related to the topics Jancis covers, hopefully it adds to the subjects and fills you in on where the personalities from the video are today.  It is my sincere hope that you are finding this blog informative and instructional

To check your learning experience and highlight the most important information here is the quiz.  And the quiz with answers.  And please reply to this blog; is Pinot Noir  your  favorite wine?

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