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Perplexing Pinot Noir

An image of Pinot Noir grapes

“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.”

The insightful observation made by the famous wine writer Jancis Robinson in her 1986 book, Vines, Grapes and Wines1 best sums up many thoughts on this illusive grape variety.

While superior Pinot Noir wines are being made in Napa and Sonoma counties in California and in Oregon, the Hudson Valley has the potential to produce far superior Pinots that more closely resemble those produced in Burgundy. The Hudson Valley’s climate, soil composition, and underlying geological substrata are more conducive to producing more “French-style” Pinot Noirs.

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 Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot, red Burgundies consist of just one grape, Pinot Noir. However, there are scores of Pinot Noir clones that are cross-blended with each other so that the finished wine has good color, tannin structure, and flavor profile.

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. Like true Burgundies, the Hudson Valley’s Pinot Noirs have a soft, but firm, underlying body and structure, like a steel girder wrapped in velvet. They are soft to the touch, but have 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 those winemakers to make heavy Pinots that are deep in color, but which have too prominent, jammy qualities that overshadow the true Pinot structure. This is not the case with well-made Hudson Valley Pinots – while the color of these wines are generally light, 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” (which sound bad, but are actually quite good), licorice and earth. They can also exhibit plum and eucalyptus flavors that 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 wine retailer 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 can make more of these wines for all to enjoy.

1  Vines, Grapes & Wines: The Wine Drinker’s Guide to Grape Varieties. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York. 1986.


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