Perplexing Pinot Noir
Pinot Noir is a minx of a vine. Indubitably feminine alas, if not exactly female, this is an exasperating
variety for growers, winemakers and wine drinkers alike. It leads us a terrible dance, tantalizing
with an occasional glimpse of the riches in store for those who persevere, yet obstinately refusing to be
tamed. ... Pinot Noir travels sullenly. So alluring is the goal of making even the faintest shadow of great
red burgundy in the newer wine regions that the task has become almost a fetish with quality-minded winemakers.
The phrase Holy Grail crops up often in discussions about cultivating Pinot Noir outside of Europe."
This very insightful observation was made by the famous wine writer, Jancis Robinson in her 1986 book, Vines, Grapes and Wines.1 Of all the research that I have conducted on Pinot Noir, this statement best sums up many of our thoughts on this illusive grape variety from Burgundy, France.
While superior Pinot Noir wines are being made in Napa
and Sonoma counties in California and now in
Oregon, I believe that the Hudson Valley has the
potential to produce far superior Pinots that
more closely resemble those produced in
Burgundy - hence the pursuit of my own
"Holy Grail." I think that this is true
because our climate, soil composition,
and underlying geological
substrata are more conducive to
producing more "French-style" Pinot
Noirs. For instance, In the late 1980's,
the French Champagne makers
Charbaut et Fils, under the direction
of Tim Biacalana, made excellent Pinot
wines for both sparkling wine production
and red Pinot Noir wines. And, like
the French, several Hudson Valley
winemakers are producing very fine
To step back a bit, the Pinot Noir grape, grown primarily in Burgundy, France, can be crushed slightly at pressing, to yield a flinty white wine that is the base of sparkling wines made in Champagne. However, different clones of Pinot Noir are used to make the famous red burgundies of France. While red wines produced in Bordeaux are blends of the grapes Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot, red burgundies use just one grape, Pinot Noir. However, while Burgundy uses just Pinot Noir, there are scores of major Pinot Noir clones that are crossblended with each other so that the finished wine has good color, tannin structure, and flavor profile. Today, we will concentrate on the red wines made from Pinot Noir.
This finicky, thin-skinned grape is difficult to grow and is subject to botrytis fungus, which can turn the grapes to mush within a week. Thus, growers are inclined to pick the grape too early to ensure that they obtain a crop. In the cellar it is also very finicky, but if made well is the wine of Kings and Queens! Like true Burgundies, the Pinots I have tasted from the Hudson Valley can have a soft, but firm, underlying body and structure, like a steel girder wrapped in velvet. They are soft to the touch, but underlying that softness is an inner strength supported by an ever-present tannin structure.
On the West Coast, winemakers can over-compensate for the fear of making watery Pinots that do not retain their color. This leads such winemakers to make heavy Pinots that are deep in color, but which have too prominent jammy qualities that overshadow the Pinot structure. This is not the case with well-made Hudson Valley Pinots - while the color of these generally weak-colored wines is okay, they retain the subtle strength, velvet and softness of a true Pinot Noir!
These delicate, full-bodied and complicated wines have flavors of strawberry jam, red cherries, raspberries, black pepper/spice, and "barnyard flavors" (sounds bad, but actually is quite good), licorice and earth. They can also exhibit plum and eucalyptus flavors which layer nicely with cedar and sweet smoke. Great Pinots, while integrated from the nose to the finish, display themselves in layers that make the wine warm and interesting. One of my favorite wine retailers once said that all great Pinots can be described by the three "S's" - "Soft, Sophisticated, and Subtle." The Hudson Valley has made these Pinots, and with more encouragement from local customers, we can make more of these wines for all to enjoy.
Articles are adapted from the forthcoming book “Grapes of the Hudson Valley” by J. Stephen Casscles. In future issues of Hudson Valley Wine Magazine, we’ll continue to feature additional excerpts from this definitive work on regional varietals culled from decades of the author’s tasting notes and personal experience. PHOTO: Randall Tagg Photography .