Jonathan Ray

The art of drinking Pinot Noir

The art of drinking Pinot Noir
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If you’re a lover of Pinot Noir and fine red burgundy you’re doubtless in a bit of a stew. You’re worried that although the about-to-be-launched 2020 vintage is an absolute cracker, the amount of Pinot produced was down by around 40 per cent and there ain’t going to be enough to go round.

You’re also fretting that since the recently-harvested 2021 vintage was cursed with frost, hail, rain, disease and just about everything else, only miniscule amounts of Pinot were produced. The quality – amazingly – is high, but you’ll be darn lucky to get your hands on any.

Rarely, if ever, blended (except to make champagne and other fine sparklers), Pinot Noir is known both for vibrantly juicy wines marked by hints of raspberries cherries and plums and for soft, ethereal, mellow wines with hints of chocolate, game and even vegetal notes.

It’s called the heartbreak grape, not only because it’s tricky to grow, is picky about its soil, doesn’t like the heat and is so thin-skinned that it’s susceptible to mildew, rot, frost, but also because fine Pinot wine is just so hard to find. All too often it flatters to deceive and just when you’ve found a great one, you try another only to leave cruelly disappointed, suffering from what I term post-Pinot tristesse. Don’t you hear the devil’s laughter?

The French will tell you that only in Burgundy or Champagne does Pinot Noir really sing. That if you want floral, perfumed Pinot you should go to Beaune and that if you want voluptuous, juicy wines, you should make for Morey-St-Denis. For spice, go to Pommard; for elegance go to Volnay; for earthy weight go to Nuits-St. Georges and so on.

And if you want fine Pinot Noir-based fizz, head to Champagne and producers such as mighty Bollinger. Or try one of the smaller producers such as Henri Chauvet, whose Blanc de Noirs Brut NV is a glorious blend of 90 per cent Pinot Noir and 10 per cent Pinot Meunier, full of toast, brioche and citrus.

But hang on a tick. If you’re so keen on Pinot Noir, why not look further afield? Despite what the French say, there are increasingly fine sweet spots where this most capricious of varieties has deigned to shine.

One of my all-time favourite expressions comes from Hamilton Russell Vineyards in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley in South Africa. Here, thanks to warm days tempered by cooling sea breezes, Anthony HR and his team produce gorgeously drinkable wines full of soft, silky-smooth, mellow fruit. Neighbouring wineries such as Bouchard Finlayson, Newton Johnson and La Vierge are not far behind.

For Pinot Noirs characterised by vibrant fresh and sour cherry notes, brighter and livelier than those of Burgundy and less earthy and vegetal, try those from Central Otago in New Zealand. Here wineries such as Mount Difficulty, Mount Edward, Amisfield, Rippon, Felton Road and Quartz Reef produce astoundingly fine wines.

Travel north to Marlborough and if you don’t fall under the spell of Seresin Estate’s remarkable expressions such as their Sun and Moon, Raupo Creek and the madly accessible Leah and Rachel, then I don’t think you’re a Pinot lover at all.

Then there’s Mornington Peninsula in Victoria, Australia (seek out Stonier, Moorooduc, Crittenden and Paringa) and Russian River in Sonoma County, California (Marimar, Lynmar and De Loach).

Oh and what about Oregon? It’s no accident that Burgundy royalty in the form of Veronique Drouhin (of Maison Joseph Drouhin) was moved to make wine there. And don’t forget the Niagara Peninsula of Canada, where the likes of Norm Hardie make wonderfully complex examples.

Closer to home there’s Germany (where the grape is known as Spatburgunder) and neighbouring Alsace, best known for its whites but where every grower makes light and elegant Pinot Noirs too.

Even Britain is in on the act and not just for sparklers. Balfour ‘The Suitcase’ from Hush Heath Estate in Kent is just one of several tasty still English Pinots I’ve sampled recently.

Fine burgundy might be off limits for the foreseeable but that doesn’t mean fine Pinot Noir is too.