by Richard Paul Hinkle
(WDC Sensual PN 309)
If you are uncomfortable with sensuality—your own, that of others—you might want to skip forward a page or two. You see, when Pinot Noir is the subject, sensuality naturally flows to the forefront. Where the wines of Cabernet Sauvignon (including those from Bordeaux) are flavor-driven wines, those made from Pinot Noir are distinctively texture-driven. Wines made from the red Burgundian template are clearly, happily wines of suppleness and sulkiness, wines suggestive of silk peignoirs and satin sheets.
Pinot Noir is, in short, liquid sensuality. It is about wines whose lingering, languid textural attributes are nearly lascivious, even libidinous in nature. So if you are faint of heart, or easily offended, you might want to flick the page. Now.
Pinot Noir is the grape responsible for the great French Burgundies, as well as the newly soaring reds coming out of Oregon, the cooler spots of New Zealand, and California’s Carneros, Anderson Valley, Santa Ynez Valley and, especially, Russian River Valley. Part of Pinot Noir’s mystique is that it is—at one and the same time—the most precious of winedom’s prizes and the most pixilating of its puzzles. Much as the great Pinot Noirs stand apart from all other red table wines in their sweeping grandeur, so too is Pinot Noir quarrelsome as the devil: as a vine, as a maturing grape, as fermenting must, as aging wine.
Just getting the right grape plant is a pain in the backside. There are thousands of clones of Pinot Noir, and matching the right clone to a given patch of earth is an art form in and of itself, so much so that the best Pinot plots on the planet command upwards of $500,000 an acre.
Growing Pinot Noir is an equally enormous challenge, in that the vine is susceptible to all sorts of plant maladies and wants to ripen its fruit helter and skelter. The Pinot is almost as bad as Zinfandel, ripening berries unevenly and in no particular order. Once the fruit is in the cellar problems continue. The must wants to ferment rapidly at high temperatures, an absolute no-no in light of the fact that Pinot’s alluring texture comes from slow, even fermentations conducted at lower, more controlled temperatures. (Some complain of the Pinot’s tendency towards lightness in color, but remember that the variety is naturally short one color chromosome. It is not meant to be black like Petite Sirah or Petite Verdot. It is meant to be delicate and elegant, from first smell to last, lingering taste and texture.)
It is a curious, even ironic wonder what winemakers have learned over the last decade or two: Most of the centuries-old Burgundian techniques make the best wines, particularly fermenting in low, wide, small tanks and gently pushing the cap (skins and seeds) down manually, rather than aggressively pumping the juice over the cap. Gentle handling—even to the point of avoiding crushing the grapes in favor of whole-cluster fermentation—draws more flavor and more texture, all the while avoiding the extraction of harsh tannins that would subvert the supple, alluring texture that gives this varietal its singular identity. The sardonic cycle of that which is old becoming new again.
Once made, there is neither assurance nor security. Andre Tchelistcheff, for nigh onto four decades the resident doyen at Napa Valley’s Beaulieu Vineyard, cited his 1946 Carneros Pinot Noir as the best he had ever made. “There were at least three stages, when the wine was still in barrel—we hadn’t even gotten it to bottle—when I was ready to pour that wine down the drain,” he once told me ruefully. “Yet, somehow, I felt compelled to wait that wine out. Eventually, my unexplainable patience was rewarded with a gloriously feminine wine.” Russian-born, French-trained—only Andre could get away with saying that.
The reward for all those difficulties can be awesome, which is why so many winemakers set out, like Jason on the Argo, in search of this near mythical golden fleece. At a tasting of older Pinots a few of years ago I came across Santa Cruz Mountain renegade David Bruce’s 1981 Pinot. The wine still exuded a juicy texture, that succulent, fleshy “mouth feel” that makes you literally drool for the rare filet, slathered with mushrooms sautéed in butter. The ripe strawberry, tomato and mushroom fruit, abundantly displayed, didn’t hurt the argument for Pinot Noir as sensuality brought to liquid life.
The French are best at explaining such things. The Burgundians, in their own conservatively witty way, refer to red Burgundy as “The Good Lord Jesus, in velvet trousers, sliding down your throat.” The late August Sebastiani was a bit more direct. When asked by a bosomy matron to describe his Pinot Noir, he replied: “To me Pinot Noir is like woman’s breast. It’s round, and full, and you never get tired of it.” (Which my many feminist friends would happily turn around, pointing to a man’s muscled, hairy chest. At least my wife does.)
While some folks are swayed by the more fruity examples of the variety—whose descriptors range from strawberry to cherry—my tastes generally sway toward the more earthy, more essential wines. These wines are spoken of with words like “tar,” “mushroom,” occasionally “barnyard,” and my favorite, “filet mignon.” Blood rare. Put that in your sensory memory bank and think on it awhile. “Decadent” is the word Rod Strong used to suggest. It fits. So, too, does “fleshy,” the meaning expanded by a winemaker friend to encompass “the smell of a woman freshly out of the shower.” Israeli-born Oded Shakked, the former winemaker at Russian River Valley’s “J” Winery, compares Pinot Noir’s juicy texture to “liquid foreplay.” Yeow!
Tchelistcheff favored the more replicable “rose petal,” telling a story of Captain Joe Concannon of Livermore. “Joe told me to go into the rose garden at Beaulieu, find the darkest red rose in bloom, cut it and put it in a vase for forty-eight hours. Then open the petals to the bloom’s heart. There, in the dying rose is the fragrance of Pinot Noir.”
As important as flavor is, what truly and finally sets the Pinot apart from all other red wines is its fluid, voluptuous texture. Well-made, Pinot Noir has a textural “feel” to it that is supple, succulent, velvety, silky, juicy, fleshy, fecund and “wet.” And that is where the true and hedonistic pleasure comes from. It is “animal” in a way; it is nearly carnal. But it is also wonderfully sumptuous and luxurious.
It is, I think, that basic, near feral quality about Pinot Noir that helps us to get past those who would dehumanize wine by quantifying it so narrowly with point systems and scores, with talk of total acidity and pH numbers. British-born author Gerald Asher assesses those who would judge wines by-the-numbers: “It’s almost as if your hostess leaned across, just when you were about to taste her Hollandaise sauce, and started to discuss emulsions with you.” Phew! (My own response to the 100-point scoring systems and judgmental approaches is Hinkle’s First Wine Law, which says, “There are only three categories of wine: 1) I like it; 2) I don’t like it; or 3) I’ll drink it if someone else pays for it!”)
What makes Pinot Noir so ultimately alluring is that inherent and generous “mouth feel” we have just spoken of. Because of that, Pinot Noirs are wines that can match up with nearly any food grown on the third rock. Seagram’s seasoned restaurant advisor Evan Goldstein refers to Pinot as “liquid chicken it its easy versatility.”
That said, when you pair a good example of the Pinot with rare red meats, or nearly anything with mushrooms, you shall see first hand the glory of red wine at its best, sensuality in a bottle. And, as the Dalai Lama reminds us, the goal of life is happiness. I suggest to you, here, that Pinot Noir is as good an avenue as any to reaching that goal. Allow me to raise a glass of the Pinot to your good and lasting health!
[The author of Good Wine: The New Basics, Mr. Hinkle also wrote the California, Oregon and Washington chapters to the Larousse Encyclopedia of Wine. More importantly, he came up with Hinkle’s Second Wine Law, which speaks to the inherent sensuality of Pinot Noir: “Great Pinot Noir inspires one to create new sins . . . and wish to commit them!” Hinkle is to be found on the web at RichardPaulHinkle.com.]