There are many die-hard Pinot Noir enthusiasts that will swear the two are the same wines, just grown in different locals. My purpose of this article is let the reader prove or disprove (or thoroughly confuse) for themselves this idea with the following facts and hyperbole.
It is true that French Burgundy and Californian Pinot Noir grapevines (and everywhere else in the world for that matter) are so intermixed with the cross graphing and cloning that has been going on for decades- that for the most part, they are so interconnected as to be from the same (clones) plants, ok? I’m glad I got that part out of the way! But from here on it starts to get a little bit more fuzzy.
We know that Burgundies (Burgundies are both White Chardonnay and Red Pinot Noir grapes, but we will discuss only the Pinot here) are produced in a very localized section of France, from just south of Dijon and to the northwest of Lyon. The wine-growing section of this area in the heart of Burgundy is only 40 kilometres (25 mi) long, and in most places less than 2 kilometres (1.2 mi) wide. The famous Côte d’Or areas are just south of Dijon and are where 95% of the top Grand Cru’s vineyards originate from. In a simplistic description of classes or appellations , they are: Grand Cru (the top grade and usually located on the highest sections of the vineyard due to the best soil conditions for the vines and drainage, 1.4% of the total Burgundy produced), Premier Cru (next in line as per grade and usually mid-way up the vineyard slope, 11% of total), then Village (located on the lowest section of the slope or valley, 35.6% of total) then regional appellations (these relate to the many other appellations [over 100] and other types of wines from the larger area, 52% of total). Instead of the region being the appellation name, the “individual vineyard” is, and is listed on the wine bottle predominately; i.e. Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, or Domaine Leflaive.
The much talked about terroir, which is interpreted as “its sense of place” encompasses both the exact location and the soil. Both of these are thought to be very unique in Burgundy France, so much so that the Benedictine Monks spent decades charting the different soil types that create “wines of a specific character” in the area; to the tune of a mind boggling 400 distinct soil classifications, and more than 120 appellations! A map maker’s nightmare I’m sure, but there are differences staked out from large plots to those the size of a postage stamp, literally a few grapevines on a row, and these are split up many times over with ownerships- families that have owned these plots for centuries. Many of the family wineries have been making their wines in the same, or close to the same way for generations. Thus the word “tradition” that comes to play here and is a key part of Burgundy: the area and the wine.
We already know that Pinot Noir is the most difficult wine to produce in the world – no matter what part of the world it grows in. But true Burgundy is grown in Burgundy and only in Burgundy. Say you lived in France and you found a location 300 miles from Burgundy and you wanted to grow your Pinot Noir and call it Burgundy; well it’s not going to happen-it won’t be allowed to happen in France. That, thank God, is not the case in the rest of the world. You can grow a Pinot Noir wherever you want, you just can’t call it Burgundy.
What about the many vineyards and their wineries in (we’ll just stick to California because of the familiarity of soil types) similar climatic growing conditions as Burgundy; cool nights, teased with some fog, warm afternoons, semi tortured limestone or Mari soil, etc; the partial recipe for a quality Pinot Noir, oui? This has been debated constantly as to the ability of duplication.
Enter the winemaker. Arguably (notice I capitalized Arguably), a quality Pinot Noir consists of 50% growing the grape up to the delivery to the winery and 50% the winemaker’s skills, nuances and fortitude. When I have sampled a wine that is touted to be “Burgundian in style” what the winemaker is trying to instill is that it is not a high alcohol heavy fruit bomb, less Sirah-like with more subtle complexities. For the most part “Old World” Burgundies are lower in alcohol than their brethren a few thousand miles to the west (12-14.2%) and not quite as bold compared with New World flavors, which are becoming more favored by many of the critics in the US….but then again, ….not always.
French Burgundy is known for predominate earth and mineral notes and is a bit less fruit forward than most California Pinots….but then….I have quite a few California and Oregon Pinots in my cellar that are mineral forward and have lower than the average alcohol content within them; very complex with high acid levels that take an exorbitant amount of “cellaring” to come to their peak drinkability. Very much the mantra of the winemakers in Burgundy.
Through the years many, many documented blind and semi blind tastings (this is where the wines were listed but covered when poured) have been performed to allow the patrons to come up with their own ideas of what tasted better, who could find the nuances in that particular wine over the others and “where were they from”. You could probably guess that the results have been all over the place, and even the experts have been hoodwinked into claiming without a doubt where this or that particular wine came from, only to be woefully incorrect.
So it really isn’t fair. There is a whole lot of earth out there and some extremely smart, eccentric and gifted growers and winemakers that will come up with amazing Pinots that will stand up to any wines on this earth, period! There can be similarities….but…..
Usually this conversation with Pinot lovers finds its way around to the cost or prices of Burgundies. Are they expensive? Are you kidding me, Hell yes! Back to tradition again, with very limited quantities, some “Domains” or Burgundy wineries (the word Chateau is usually associated with the wineries in Bordeaux) going back hundreds of years with a loyal if not very elite fanatical customer base. It can be a challenge to order from the menu and get a fine Grand Cru Burgundy without making sure you’ve already covered your mortgage payment that month! But what amazes most wine lovers is the long waiting lists just to become a member for some of the elite Grand Cru’s. I have sampled quite a few Premier Cru’s and have been extremely happy with many of them, but like any wine, you have to do the homework or find a reputable restaurant that specializes in French wines. One thing that you will find is that one year’s golden goose is another year’s lesser duckling and still can be priced like the former; Grand or Premier Cru . We have found that there is more consistency year to year within places in the world that get their more stable influences from the ocean, places like Central Coast California.
So in summary, it is great to be a nose in the air Pinot Enthusiast, and you might just have the most spectacular Pinot Noir collection from the Americas sitting in your cellar. But do delve into the exotic, if not confusing regal realm of where this great wine originally came from, and maybe taste a bit of the terroir of Bourgogne.
Winegrower Blair Pethel so elegantly put these final thoughts of terroir into words;
Burgundy wines hold a unique place in the world. There is no other wine-making region where the grape variety serves simply as the vehicle for the most important element in the bottle: Burgundy’s land, or terroir. Thus, when you open a bottle of Burgundy, you don’t drink a chardonnay or a pinot noir; you drink a specific place, with its topsoil, subsoil, weather, sunshine, geographical orientation.
It’s the winegrower’s job — my job — to assure that all my wines respect and represent their birthplace, in order to give the consumer the impression of being there: in the vines, with the sun on his shoulders. After all, in Burgundy the grape is simply the blank canvas on which the soil paints its colours.*
*quote taken courtesy of Blair Pethel’s website http://www.domaine-dublere.com/en
Patrick Hurley is a wine merchant and has a varietal specific Pinot Noir website