Pinot Noir

#295 – June 12, 2015 (The Purest Expression of Place)

This week’s topic of Pinot Noir has filled me with trepidation for years. With hundreds of options for quality Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc and numerous viable options for those seeking quality Cabernet Franc, Carignan, Petite Sirah, Petite Verdot, Viognier and even Gewürztraminer, the kosher wine consumer is inundated with kosher versions of the majority of popular wines grown around the world with no end in sight. Kosher winemakers and producers around the world continue to innovate and are constantly seeking to increase the quality of additional varietals such as Malbec, Touriga Nacional, Mourvèdre, Malbec, Grenache Blanc, Roussanne and others. We are lucky enough to be witnessing the dawning of a golden age of kosher wine diversification, encouraging the growing kosher oenophilic population to push their personal palate envelopes and explore the consistent slew of new offerings.

However, with all that creativity (assistant by the constant improvement and development of various winemaking-related technology) there are a few well-known varietals that remain exceptionally elusive within the burgeoning world of kosher wine, chief among them Riesling and Pinot Noir. Despite their many differences, these two grape varietals share a common characteristic that I believe to be one of the main reasons the kosher market has experience such middling success. Both are “transparent” varietals, chameleon-like and highly expressive of the terroir in which they are grown. Another trait they both share is that I have yet to write a complete article about either grape – until now (Riesling will also have its time in the sun, just not today).

One of the reasons for the trepidation is that I only drink kosher wines. After 25 years of being “into” wine and tasting the vast majority of the hundreds of quality versions of kosher Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah produced around the world, I am quite comfortable with the varietals and their respective characteristics, enabling me to provide a relatively broad view on what the grape can do. The lack of quality kosher Pinot Noir has historically placed it in a completely different category, rendering it harder to “understand” (without availing one’s self of the non-kosher options).

Growing up trying to learn as much about wine as I could, I was constantly encountering descriptors of Pinot Noir bordering on idol worship. Nearly every descriptor, quote or discussion of the varietal conveyed a blend of desire, passion and sheer devotion balanced with intense frustration. Most winemakers will tell you that André Tchelistchef, one of the seminal winemaking personalities of the 20th century, was right on the money when he proclaimed that “God made Cabernet Sauvignon, whereas the devil made Pinot Noir.” This week we are going to learn about Pinot Noir, try to understand the source of its magnificence, explore whether “true” kosher versions exist and whether Israeli winemakers should continue to pursue quality Pinot Noir as a viable option.

Derived from the French words “pine” (alluding to the tight and pine cone-shaped clusters of fruit) and “black” alluding to the color of the grapes, Pinot Noir is among the world’s oldest grape varietals dating back to the 1st century when Cistercian Monks cultivated the grape in ancient Burgundy (some of the oldest monasteries are still standing). A number of its characteristics bear primary responsibility for its reputation as being difficult in both the vineyard and the winery (among the reasons for Tchelistchef’s quote). The grape’s notoriously thin skin and smaller leaves make it highly susceptible to the burning rays of the sun (a major reason, cooler climates are highly preferable for cultivating Pinot). Another major issue faced by warm-climate winemakers is the grape’s tendency for early ripening, which leaves little to no time on the vine for the grapes to develop their captivating sensuality before the sugar rises and acid levels drop, yielding grapes capable of producing flabby and uninteresting wines. Lest one think that cooler climates have it easy with Pinot Noir, the tight bunches of fruit make it highly susceptible to multiple types of rot, especially during those autumn rains, requiring a very high level of vineyard management ability to maintain proper quality. The thin skin and low phenols also result in typically lightly colored wines that are medium bodied and relatively low in tannins, creating uneven aging patterns and multiple dumb periods that can confound even the most experience wine tasters (the low tannic levels lead many winemakers to utilize whole cluster fermentation). Pinot’s sensitivity continues in the winery where it is at risk for being over handled and/or managed (making it a natural varietal for many producers of “natural wine”). Pinot Noir is also highly sensitive to yield, with many insipid versions a result of higher yields that stripped the grapes of their divine aromatics and silky characteristics. Lastly, it is genetically unstable and thus one of the quickest grapes to mutate, which has resulted in thousands of different clones (including the better-known Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Meunier, all likely the same grape whose sole “mutation” is being a different color). According to Jancis Robinson, the wide planting of Pinot Noir clones in the “wrong place” is one of the main reasons for the huge qualitative difference between Burgundy Pinot Noir and versions grown in other regions around the world.

However, all of the negative characteristics are also what makes Pinot Noir among the most conductive of grapes. The grape’s ability to mirror the terroir in which it lives is the exact trait that elevates it to among the most valued of all grapes and makes it the poster child for the importance of terroir, especially as espoused by the French (who, as you know, label the wines using the region (down to the vineyard) in which the wine is grown as opposed to the varietal). Pinot Noir is most commonly associated with the Burgundy region of France which produced the finest expression of the grape which have also become the standard by which all other Pinot Noir wines must be judged (more on that later). Having originated from and been continuously cultivated in the region since the first century (a Pinot Noir-like varietal is first alluded to in Columella’s Res Rustica), the perception was that Pinot Noir could only be grown in Burgundy persisted for hundreds of years (an perception many wine historians attribute to the propaganda triumph of the Dukes of the House of Valois-Burgundy). The Vosne-Romanée commune of the Côte-d’Or is among the most highly regarded regions for Pinot Noir, containing two of the world’s most famous vineyards; the Romanée-Conti and La Tâche from which two of the most acclaimed eponymous Pinot Noir wines are produced (both owned by the acclaimed Domaine de la Romanée-Conti winery). The Gevrey-Chambertin village in the Côte de Nuits is also responsible for some of the most exceptional expressions of the grape.

While one could generalize the flavor profile of Pinot Noir as red cherries, raspberries, cranberries and lavender with earthy gaminess, pungent mushrooms and forest floor providing secondary flavors and aromatics that make the wine special, the transparency of Pinot Noir ensures a vastly diversified flavor and aromatic-profile that is primarily driven by the different terroirs around the world in which quality Pinot Noir is being grown today. As opposed to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah where power, tannins, rich color, extracted fruit and cellaring ability are highly valued traits, Pinot Noir is haunting, light on the palate, a consummate match to most foods and typically provides a shorter lifespan (a generalization, as some of the finest versions don’t come into their own for more than a decade after which they can age gracefully for 50 years or more). A quality Pinot Noir should be ethereal, sensual and fleeting but with sufficient depth and complexity to properly convey gravitas and most importantly, showcase its “sense of place” in the purest possible way. Quality Pinot Noir will be among the most elegant of wines, have a supple texture and bright and vivid flavors all perfectly balanced and without being overpowering. Given its relatively delicate nature and supple texture, Pinot Noir is almost never blended with other grapes (where the conveyance of terroir would most likely be lost), with Champagne being one of the prime exceptions to this (where it is most often blended with Chardonnay, the “other” Burgundy varietal).

Driven by the sheer splendor of the world’s greatest Burgundies, winemakers around the world continuously twist themselves into knots attempting to coax a semblance of that haunting splendor from their own vineyards, wherever they may be located. During my continuing quest for quality kosher Pinot Noir, one of the questions that continues to haunt me to this day is whether quality Pinot Noir is defined as being as closely reminiscent to Burgundy or whether the grape can and should be unshackled from hundreds of years of tradition and allowed to freely express that which it most desires – whichever terroir it happen to find itself. In other words, is varietaly true Pinot Noir only those wines which showcase the flavor and aromatics of Burgundy or can is the varietal characteristic of Pinot Noir its ability to purely convey a sense of place – any place in which it is grown? While Burgundy lovers tend to posit the former, I find that to be a result of their inability to separate Pinot Noir the grape from Burgundy the appellation that is likely most suited to grow it (most suited but not the only one).

Despite the clear superiority of Burgundy, many other regions around the world have succeeded in producing highly regarded Pinot Noir wines with almost as much Pinot Noir being grown today in America (~73,500 acres) as in France (~75,500 acres). Some of the regions that have seen success include New Zealand’s Marlborough, Australia’s Yarra Valley, the cooler regions of Chile and Argentina and more recently Oregon’s Willamette Valley and more surprisingly California’s Carneros, Russian River Valley, St. Rita Hills and a number of cooler coastal vineyards in Santa Barbera (assisted greatly by the Pacific Ocean’s cooling fog). The common denominator among all of these regions is their relatively cooler climates, generally considered a pre-requisite for cultivating quality Pinot Noir. Similar to the differences between Old World Bordeaux and New World Cabernet Sauvignon, New World Pinot Noir tends to have a cleaner and more pronounced fruit-driven profile, less “barnyard notes and is more heavily reliant on oak barrels than its Burgundy muse.

Channeling the same ambition, willingness to risk it all, creativity, entrepreneurship and good, old-fashioned chutzpah that continues to put “Start-Up Nation” at the forefront of technological advances, Israeli winemakers are constantly pushing the envelope and challenging the minuscule grape-growing region of Israel to produce high-quality versions of nearly every grape imaginable, with Pinot Noir being no exception. “If they can grow it, so can we” could easily be the umbrella slogan for the majority of Israeli winemakers. While the [growing] handful of Israeli winemakers focused on the ever-so-worthwhile endeavor of finding the varietals best suited for Israel’s unique terroir(s) continue to create the best Israeli wines, this shouldn’t stop us from applauding the boundless enthusiasm and creativity showcased by those pushing the envelope in every which way.

Introduced to Israel in 1985 at the Latrun Monastery by two brothers, the varietal only gained popularity once quality versions started being produced by the Golan Heights Winery. Thinking that the cooler Golan Heights region would provide the fickle grape with the requisite protection form Israel’s burning sun and warm-climate terroir, the winery planted its first Pinot Noir vineyards in 1993 and released its first commercial vintage for the 1999 vintage. Consistent with the “house style” of the winery, the Pinot Noir wines produced by the Golan Heights winery were bright, fleshy, fruit forward wines with plenty of oak and heavier bodied and more extracted than traditional Pinot Noir. These wines (and the vast majority of Israel and other kosher Pinot Noir wines that followed) have driven robust conversation among Israeli and kosher wine lovers on whether Israel can (and more importantly should) try to produce quality Pinot Noir. However, I believe the objection to such wines is less driven by the stylistic difference from the beloved Burgundian versions and more reliant on the fact that the vast majority of Israeli Pinot Noir conveys no sense of place, yielding a wine that feels like it could have been grown anywhere. Being a region so obviously different from Burgundy, many posit that it is impossible to do so and winemaking efforts would be far better served applying themselves to growing the grapes better suited to Israel’s terroir. I agree that winemakers attempting to create Burgundy-style Pinot Noir in Israel are on a fool’s errand (even when once in a blue moon an Israeli Pinot Noir is reminiscent of Burgundy like the 2008 Yarden Pinot Noir, it still isn’t Burgundy) but as I said above, who said Pinot Noir has to be “Burgundian”?

With the varietals greatest feature being its ability to cleanly transmit terroir, why not focus on clean wines that that represent the purest expression of Israeli terroir? While the production of Pinot Noir solely in response to market demand by less-than-talented Israeli winemakers borders on the criminal and must be discouraged in every way imaginable, there are supremely talented winemakers in Israel who source their Pinot Noir grapes from vineyards of tremendous quality and forge Pinot Noir wines with plenty of the necessary charm and sensuality, while maintain an Israeli style. While the list is laughingly short, it does exist and is comprised of Ella Valley (2005 and 2008), Gvaot (from the 2009 vintage, although only the 2010 vintage left me with the breathless feeling so associated with Pinot Noir – the rest are more robust variations of the grape that trade some of that delicacy for power) and the aforementioned 2008 Yarden (the 2012 Gamla Pinot is a terrific wine with high QPR, but not representative of “Pinot Noir” in any way). Pinot Noir will obviously never been the star of Israel’s oenophilic portfolio but the few examples mentioned above prove that in the right hands and with the right fruit, true expressions of Pinot Noir can be made in Israel.

That said, and perhaps the best argument against Israeli winemakers continuing to produce Pinot Noir that I have heard is that of specialization. Unlike many other noble varietals, Pinot Noir is an elusive grape, whose ability to produce quality wine is so tied to its unique terroir that simply dabbling in its production is more likely to bring heartache than success. The level of vineyard management, winemaking expertise, familiarity with the terroir and other criteria necessary to properly manage its moodiness, renders it nearly impossible to attain the highest levels of expression when it is simply another varietal being produced. The finest Pinot Noir wines (regardless of where they are grown, although Burgundy is obviously the prime example of this) are produced by winemakers who spend their lives immersed in small plots and dedicated to coaxing the best the temperamental grape has to offer.

Over the years Israeli Pinot Noir has been produced by a long list of kosher and non-kosher wineries including Avidan, Barkan, Ella Valley Vineyards, Galil Mountain, Golan Heights Winery (in both its Gamla and Yarden series), Gush Etzion, Gvaot, Katlav, the aforementioned Latrun, Livni, Pelter, Tanya, Tishbi, Tura, Tzuba and Vitkin. Outside of Israel, Pinot Noir is produced by a number of kosher wineries including California’s Covenant (for their Landsman club with the 2011 being my favorite to date), Four Gates, Hagafen (under both the black and red labels), Herzog (under a number of labels), Hajdu (the Makom label we discussed two weeks ago) and Shirah; Italy’s Borgo Reale; New York’s City Winery, New Zealand’s Goose Bay; Oregon’s Alex Eli and Washington State’s Pacifica. Additionally and most notably, many kosher Burgundies have been produced over the years (including a large number of very expensive and extremely mediocre wines sourced by négociant Roberto Cohen), the vast majority of them not being worth the bottle in which they were sold. Two notable exceptions to this rule and perhaps the only quality true Burgundy kosher Pinot Noir wines produced to date, are the 2004 Clos Vougeot (which continues to suffer from extreme bottle variation) and the 2002 Aloxe Corton Domaine Ravaut (which remains majestic). Additional quality kosher Burgundy options have included the 2004 Domaine Pierre and 2010 versions of the Aloxe Corton and a Gevrey Chambertin that I have not yet tasted.

Being among the most aromatic of all red wines, the best wine glass in which to experience all a quality version has to offer is a balloon glass (otherwise known as a Burgundy glass). As I mentioned earlier (and repeat annually around Thanksgiving time), Pinot is a great match to most foods but is exceptionally well suited to gamier fare including turkey and duck.

Listed below are tasting notes for a number of kosher Pinot Noir wines I have recently enjoyed. Not included in this list are wines I recently reviewed (like Hajdu’s Makom and the 2008 version from Ella Valley), those no longer available (like the Alex Eli from Oregon), Rosé and sparkling wines whose primary component is Pinot Noir and, as always, wines that I have tasted but did not find worthy of recommending.

Shabbat Shalom,

Chateau De La Tour, Clos de Vougeot, Grand Cru, 2004: While others have reported significant bottle variation, the majority of my recent tastings have yielded a quality wine (unlike the less than great 2002 vintage of the 2003 vintage whose bottle variation was off the charts from its release). Clos Vougeot is a large vineyard with numerous owners and winemakers, making consistency a tough thing to maintain. According to the late Daniel Rogov “the vines produce wines so beloved that even today, when French soldiers march past the land, they salute.”. A slightly subdued nose of cherries, strawberries, floral notes, roasted herbs, freshly turned rich and dark earth and slightly smoky oak leads into a medium-bodied and exceptionally elegant palate with silky supple tannins and plenty of balancing acidity yielding to now integrated notes of bright red summer fruits, ripe cherries, saddle leather, freshly cured tobacco leaf and hint of herbaceousness that intrigues.

Covenant, Landsman, Pinot Noir, 2011: While the 2013 vintage is the “current” version, I very much prefer the 2011 which I find to be their best yet and which should be enjoyed in the very near term. Despite its roots in the big, bold world of Covenant, the wine is a refined and delicate beauty. A lovely nose and palate of bright red cherries, red plums, nice herbs and delightful floral notes. On the medium bodied palate, well integrated and caressing tannins backing up the fruit and spices with judicious acidity ensuring proper balance and a structure that means business. Drink now.

Ella Valley Vineyards, Pinot Noir, 2008 (Shmittah): While not every wine I have tasted from the vaunted 2008 Israeli vintage is the superstar some would have us believe, this wine made from 100% Pinot Noir Grapes harvested from Ella Valley’s Aderet vineyard was really delicious and something special. An elegant wine and full bodied (yet so gentle) with plenty of black and red fruit on both the nose and palate including black cherries, cassis and strawberries with some spicy oak resulting from the 16 months in French oak leading into a strawberry and cherry-laced finish with a hint of tannin. Bold tannins that needed some time to settle down in the glass but with a stylish structure that bodes extremely well for the continued development of this wine. In an effort to pamper this fickle grape, Ella Valley actually erected a canopy over the vines to protect from the harsh Israeli sun. I don’t know if it helped but the proof is surely in the wine, which is scrumptious. Drink now or in the next 12 months.

Four Gates, Pinot Noir, n.v: I don’t know if I have ever used beautiful to describe a wine but there really isn’t any other word to describe this medium bodied violet scented wine with a gentle nose. Blended with 50% each from the 2007 and 2008 vintages, this wine was great on its own but incredible with food. Plum, cherry, raspberry and cranberry on both the nose and palate with some nice hints of roasted herbs, toasted oak and kirsch. A medium and caressing finish rounded out this lovely wine.

Four Gates, Pinot Noir, 2009: While not at all Burgundian in style, the wine is definitely a varietaly true Pinot Noir as it succinctly conveys exactly where it was made (and by whom). Benyo’s traditionally high acid provides the backbone for this intensely flavored and highly aromatic wine. The wine opens with an effusive nose of intense red cherries and raspberries, rosewater, earthy minerals and toasty oak. The sensuously supple medium-bodied palate has plenty of bright and near-sweet red fruit, some rich black fruit lurking in the background, along with freshly rained-upon forest floor, limestone minerals, gobs of mouth-watering acidity and a hint of herbaceousness on the lingering finish. Supremely elegant and among the sexist wines he has ever produced, the wine is beautiful in every way imaginable.

Golan Heights Winery, Yarden, Pinot Noir, 2008: Despite being the poster child (or punching bag, depending on your perspective) for the argument against Israeli pinot noir, the 2008 vintage stands out as the winery’s finest attempt at the elusive “varietaly true” Pinot Noir. Despite spending almost a year and a half in French oak and yielding at least 14% AbV, this medium bodied wine is exceptionally well-balanced between the mostly bright red fruit tinged with tart raspberries and cranberries, rich forest floor, tons of bright acidity, plenty of spices and a hint of roasted herbs. Dancing on the palate as a true Pinot should, Victor’s traditionally elegance shines through and provides the best Pinot Noir wine from the winery today and one of the best ever produced in Israel.

Gvaot, Gofna Reserve, Pinot Noir 2012: After a weaker 2011 vintage (for their Pinot Noir), Gvaot made two pinot Noir wines in the 2012 vintage. One version is label under their flagship Masada label (and priced accordingly) comprised of grapes sourced from their ‘local” Har Bracha vineyard. This wine came from the same Har Bracha vineyard as past vintages and after spending 12 months in French oak, presents more like a varietal Pinot Noir (albeit of lesser quality) than its more robustly New World elder sibling. With plenty of tart and near-sweet small red fruit on both the nose and medium bodied palate, the wine showcases pungent forest floor, flinty minerals and a subtle note of slightly toasty oak that enhances the fruit flavors in an intriguing way. While not the 2009 or 2010 vintage, this is a delightful wine that continues to show why Shivi should be on anyone’s shortlist of Israel’s top winemakers.

Gvaot, Gofna, Pinot Noir, 2010: Blended with 10% Merlot and aged in French oak for 12 months, this medium bodied wine is simply delightful. Only 650 bottles were made rendering it terribly tough to lay your hands on. The wine has a rich nose loaded with wild flowers and ripe red fruit, plenty of controlled toasty oak and cedar. The delicious and mouth filling palate had plenty of raspberries, cherries and plums with hints of spice, espresso and cigar box all leading into a lingering finish of more fruit, forest floor and toasty oak. An elegant wine, showcasing the rich Har Bracha terroir from which it was sourced. Drink now.

Gvaot, Gofna Reserve, Pinot Noir 2009: Gvaot’s first release of Pinot Noir in a limited edition of 550 bottles and a rousing success (although no longer available anywhere). Produced from vineyards at 720 meters above sea level where the delicate and high-maintenance grapes benefit from the natural protection of the valley’s walls. A medium bodied wine and sensual wine, whose depth of flavor and complexity is immediately recognizable on the rich nose of red fruit and wild flowers which follows through on the promise to a palate replete with cherries, raspberries, a tantalizing hint of strawberries, the typically Israeli crushed warm herbs and a nice spiciness from the 12 months in old French oak. Lovely right now, with great balance and elegant structure, this wine will continue cellar nicely through 2017. The 12.5% AbV is an added bonus.

Hagafen, Pinot Noir, Combsville, 2011: While not yet a single block Prix Pinot Noir of yore; it certainly appears that Hagafen has gotten its Pinot Noir groove back as this is a very nice and medium-bodied wine, reminiscent quality-wise of past successful vintages. Plenty of raspberries, strawberries and other bright red fruit, are accompanied by a tinge of earthy minerals, a hint of spiciness and rounded out by a medium finish. Drink now through 2016.

Tura, Mountain Vista, Pinot Noir, 2013: Sourced from the same quality Har Bracha vineyards as the excellent 2001 version (along with the 2012 Gvaot Pinot Noir), the wine got an extra boost from ten months in oak that managed to give the wine some added “Israeli-richness” while remaining well-balanced with the bright red fruit, floral notes, tart cranberries and near-sweet cedar. With a subtle undertone of earthy minerals and caressing tannins, the wine is sure to please. Enjoyable now through 2017.