Pinot X

Pinot is ancient. It’s morphologically close enough to wild vines to be one step out of the forest. With gouais blanc, it birthed a whole world of northern French varieties (chardonnay, gamay, melon, romorantin, aligoté, just to name its best-known offspring), making pinot and gouais the old gods to the Olympians that would follow, and gouais blanc basically Cronos replaced by its children. (I like mythology, discard the metaphor if you don’t!)

Pinot was once considered unusually prone to mutation, but the truth is that its current spectrum is simply a function of how long it’s been around, and how widely it’s travelled: subtypes of every color, from white (blanc, weiss, bianco) to pink (grau/gris/grigio) to black (noir, blau/spät, nero), local variants with their own names, like meunier (miller’s, for the fuzzy white hairs on the leaves that look like dusted flour) or fin (last to ripen), the annoying tendency of international winemakers to talk exclusively about clonal selection (Dijon #113/114/115/777, Wädenswil G5V15…). When your cuttings have been propagated for as long as pinot’s has, there’s going to be some drift. Little genes can toggle, including the surprisingly simple one for grape color, without making it a different variety altogether.

Thin-skinned, with naturally high acidity, early budding (and so, vulnerable to frost), a bit delicate in terms of its susceptibility to disease, it’s a testament to how beautiful wines made from this grape can be that it’s been taken so many places, despite the high level of difficulty involved. Outside of Burgundy, where its variation has been cataloged and contemplated down to the square yard, you’ll find it in the Loire and in Champagne, in the Jura and in Switzerland, in northeastern Italy, in Baden and across the Rhine in Alsace, in Otago and the Willamette and the Niagara Escarpment and Casablanca and Adelaide Hills and all over California thanks to a certain movie, just to name the places where you’ll find at least a handful of really great bottles.

And this is to say nothing of the former Austro-Hungarian empire, where Moravia and Burgenland and the Steiermark are places to find some truly beautiful examples of pinot blanc, a tricky grape for greatness, since it’s all about minimalism (and where to draw the line, in minimalism, between profound and boring!). I could (and have) devoted entire classes to pinot gris and its chameleonlike properties; “Drink the Rainbow” at the end of January offered a little sneak preview to pinot’s dramatic range.

Class was Friday, February 12th. These were the wines:

How it might look on a wine list
Lucien Mazard, Bourgogne Rouge, Santenay, Burgundy, France 2019

Who made it? Claude & Hervé Muzard (brothers), based in Santenay and working about 16 hectares, almost entirely pinot noir.
Out of what? Organically farmed pinot noir from three different parcels planted in the 1950s.
From where? The parcels are in Santenay, the Hauts-Côtes de Beaune i.e. “high slopes above Beaune”, and the bottom half of Chassagne.
Made how? Native yeast fermentation on the skins in tank for a couple of weeks, pressed and moved to a combination of tank and oak barrels of various sizes, of which a proportion is new, bottled without filtration.

How it might look on a wine list
Holger Koch, Grauburgunder, “Herrenstück”, Baden, Germany 2018

Who made it? Holger Koch and Gabriele Engesser (small estate, 8 hectares).
Out of what? Organically farmed grauburgunder aka pinot gris on loess and volcanic terraces.
From where? The Kaiserstuhl (“Emperor’s Seat”), a big volcanic mountain that sticks out of the center of Baden, site of the region’s most celebrated vineyards. Koch’s vines are on the southern end. Baden is Germany’s southernmost wine region, with the Black Forest to its back, Alsace sitting across the Rhine to the west, and the Alps to its south. If you’re drinking German red wine, there’s a good chance it’s from here.
Made how? A small amount of contact with the skins, native yeast fermentation for a couple of weeks, moved to age in huge (3,000L) ancient wood casks, bottled without filtration.

How it might look on a wine list
Beck-Hartweg, Pinot Gris, “Dambach-La-Ville”, Alsace, France 2019

Who made it? Florian & Mathilde Beck-Hartweg (Michel & Yvette, Florian’s parents, retired in 2010 but still help out in the vineyard), as well as a full-time employee named Nicolas Peter (I love when a producer’s site mentions the people that work for them! Wine is rarely made by one person.)
Out of what? Pinot gris farmed beautifully (not just organic certification but with year-round cover crop without breaking the ground except right around the base of the vine to preserve soil microflora) 
From where? Dambach-la-Ville, in the upper part of Alsace on granite. 
Made how? Juice pressed into large oak casks, fermented with native yeasts, and then (for their ‘tradition’ line of wines with a touch of sugar): cooled, moved to a different container, sulfured so it doesn’t restart fermentation, and then filtered before bottling. Their zero-sulfur natural wines need to be dry, or else they’d be microbial time bombs: they wait as long as a year and a half for fermentation to finish completely, and then bottled without filtration and no added SO2. They have different looking, watercolor labels.

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