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Friday, Oct. 10, 2008

DRINK

A sensitive grape for a superb wine

Pinot Noir not only tickles the refined tongue, it inspires lyrical odes


Special to The Japan Times

A delicate, thin skin, in constant need of attention, sensitive to extremes of climate: The Pinot Noir is the pampered princess of grape varieties.

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Esterling Vineyard in Oregon is the source of award-winning Pinot Noirs

Until recently, she only truly blossomed in the gentle cool climate of Burgundy and most especially on the Cote d'Or. Back in the 12th century, Cistercian and Benedictine monks quite literally ate dirt in an attempt to discover why she chose to confer her favors so liberally on such a slight ridge of land. They were attempting to classify the different cru (dividing the area into different plots of land, each of which gave the wine grown there its distinctive character) by tasting the soil.

"The cru is strictly defined in its pride of race and proper role: 'I am the pure stock,' it claims. 'The mere mention of my name makes eyes shine, lips moisten,' " wrote Colette, the famous Burgundian writer, proudly of Pinot Noir in the earlier 20th century. " 'I have names sweeter to the ear than words of love, sonorous as war cries.' "

We could chastise the passionate French writer for using rather superlative prose, if it weren't for the fact that the very best Pinot Noirs are themselves superlative. The rather thin, anemic-looking red has soft tannins that can mature into rich, lustrous reds with a breathtaking array of flavors from sweet cherries to rich, gamy hints.

The downside is that, at their worst, Pinots can be astringent and weak with little or no scent to speak of. This is why the grape has resisted the trend toward mass production. Even in those tiny pockets of land where the vine flourishes, it's just not possible to capture the grape's beauty with high yields and heavy-handed machinery. Thus most of the wines in this article break our usual price barrier of ¥3,000 — if you want to sample a good Pinot, then you have to be prepared to pay for the attention to detail and effort that is necessary to produce it.

Burgundy is no longer the only wine region in the world capable of producing good Pinot Noir. Oregon, New Zealand and California have proved themselves worthy of nurturing this noble grape. Oregon, which is at the same latitude as Burgundy and has deep soils rich in river deposits, is arguably the most prominent of the overseas pretenders to the Pinot crown. The region has bred a new generation of technically minded wine growers who are trying to develop the grape's full potential — though they have, as yet, stopped short of eating soil.

Woodhall Vineyard in Oregon
Woodhall Vineyard in Oregon

Tei Gordon, a wine importer in Japan who was born and bred in Oregon, knows many of the local wine producers in the region personally.

"It's generally people retiring from technology and going into the wine business," he says. "They have the money, so they can hire the best winemakers they can find."

Gordon stresses that these wines are a labor of love, not just a business proposition.

"They care enough about their wines to put their family name on the bottle," he says. "Most Oregon wineries prefer to stay small so they can keep the quality high."

Spindrift, for example, has a very small level of production at around only 8,000 cases a year. The winery was established just a few years ago by Matt and Tabitha Compton, but almost all of the wines they've made have won awards. Matt is a winemaker for many different vineyards and as such, is in a privileged position.

"What Matt's done is that he's used all the fruit from the best vineyards he's managed," says Gordon.

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Spindrift Reserve Pinot 2005 (available at www.rakuten.co.jp from Oct. 14 for approx ¥6,100) has a lovely light, brambly fragrance and fills the mouth with the juicy flavor of a rich fruitcake. If you really feel like splurging on an Oregon Pinot, try Belle Vallze Grand Cuvze Pinot (approximately ¥9,300, also from Rakuten) for its cherry licorice flavors and surprising spiciness. As for California, the Russian River Valley benefits from a cooling fog from the Pacific Ocean that keeps the temperature down to sufficient levels for Pinot to grow. Merry Edwards 2005 Pinot Noir (approximately ¥10,500 from www.rakuten.ne.jp/gold/winedar ) has a glorious fruit bouquet and enticing hints of licorice in the mouth.

If you'd like to sample a New Zealand Pinot, look out for wines made in the Central Otago, Marlborough and Waipara regions. I'm particularly fond of the Spy Valley 2007 Pinot Noir (¥3,150 from Rakuten), which has scents of lilacs coupled with a rich earthiness and is really smooth tasting with lovely silky tannins on the palate.

Finally, of course, there's France. As Japan is one of the most important global markets for Burgundy, much of the Pinot Noir available in shops is grown in this region. Many Burgundians still claim that despite the similarities of climate in Oregon, New Zealand and California, when it comes to terroir (the quality of the soil), Burgundy is unsurpassed. Burgundian wines are extremely elegant and age well, requiring about eight to 10 years to develop their true potential, as opposed to Pinots from other regions that should be drunk rather younger at around three to four years. (Japanese buyers ought to be aware that the physical stresses of transporting wines from France to Japan tends to add a year to the aging process.)

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Wine of wines: Oregon winery Spindrift produces Pinot Noirs from the best grapes that winemaker Matt Compton has tended at other vineyards he has managed.

Few bargains can be found among Burgundian Pinots, but you can try Chorey-les-Beaune Drouhin 2005 which can be ordered at Isetan Shinjuku for approximately ¥4,200.

A quick word about years: The quality of Oregon's vintages roughly mirror Burgundy's, meaning that for both regions the exceptionally hot summer and freezing winter of 2003 caused pretty much a disaster across the board. If you're looking for a really exceptional French vintage then seek out 2005, whereas for Oregon aim for 2006, which has nice rich fruit flavors (though 2005 is also of a high standard). If you see a 2002 Oregon or 2001 Burgundy, snap it up, and if you, like I, don't have a good memory for numbers, store away this one little fact: in every region 2005 was a winner.

Finally, for those of you who would like to sample a truly first-class Pinot Noir: Vosne-Romanze 2005 can be ordered from Marusho Yotsuya for around ¥10,000. The wine has the sublime scent of cherries, licorice and violets coupled with robust tannins that will definitely develop in time into something as smooth and ethereal as Colette's lyrical prose.



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