Pinot Noir

Grey Pinot Noir

19 September 2014

Chateau Grand Traverse Pinot Noir Vin GrisWith the exception of sparkling Blanc de Noirs, I’ve always thought of Pinot Noir varietal wines as, very simply put, red. One does not tend to go to the white wine aisle in search of a Pinot Noir. But white Pinot Noir does indeed exist, as I discovered on a recent visit to my favorite neighborhood wine shop, In Fine Spirits.

There stood a bottle on the shelf, white as could be, but clearly labeled “Pinot Noir Vin Gris.” What was this stuff? Vin gris, which translates literally as “grey wine,” is wine made from dark-skinned grapes but without any skin contact after pressing. The pulp of most red grapes tends to be much lighter in color than the skins, which means if little or no skin contact is allowed during fermentation, the resulting wine will be white, pinkish or orange — not red. According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, vin gris is a specialty of the Côtes de Toul in Lorraine, some wineries in the Loire and a number of producers in the Midi near the salt flats of the Camargue.

The Oxford Companion does not mention vin gris as a specialty of Michigan, however. Indeed, one could be forgiven for wondering if any good wine of any kind comes out of the northern Midwest. But the lakes surrounding this state mitigate the climate enough to allow for the growing of wine grapes, and The World Atlas of Wine calls the vinifera vineyards of Michigan “promising.” That distinction, though, is important — many of Michigan’s vineyards are planted with American grape varieties or hybrids.

Chateau Grand Traverse, the producer of my bottle of Pinot Noir vin gris, has never planted anything other than vinifera grapes in its vineyards on the Old Mission Peninsula, the finger of land extending north from Traverse City. In fact, as The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia relates, the owner of Chateau Grand Traverse was the first to attempt growing vinifera varieties in the area starting in 1974:

Ed O’Keefe of Chateau Grand Traverse… is the only person in the entire Michigan wine industry who has been 100 percent committed to vinifera from the very start. His constant arguing of his case did not make him many friends among his fellow winegrowers, particularly those of the old school who were clinging on to their hybrids, but he was right, and in the end he did everyone in the Michigan wine industry a big favor.

I’ve had other Chateau Grand Traverse wines before, and I found its dry wines to be quite tasty. But why attempt to market a vin gris of Pinot Noir? Surely that can’t be the easiest wine to sell. On the chateau’s website, the winemaker explains: “Vin Gris is the outcome of a pet project of exploring a white(ish) wine from Pinot Noir grapes. Since 2001, I’ve been looking at the differences between reds and whites, in a quest to merge the two.”

I felt very interested to find out the results of this quest, and recently opened my bottle of 2013 Chateau Grand Traverse Pinot Noir Vin Gris to pair with some risotto I’d made. A beautiful rose-gold color, the wine had a fresh, green aroma marked by some dried herbs. There was some pétillance (spritz) to the mouthfeel, and when it first came out of the fridge, the wine felt very bright and tight, with tart, appley fruit, prickly acids and a dry finish. As the wine warmed slightly, it developed a riper, rounder mouthfeel, and lovely undertones of berries. The acids of the wine cut right through the richness of the risotto, making for a fine pairing.

If you can’t make it over to In Fine Spirits, the Chateau Grand Traverse website sells the Pinot Noir Vin Gris for $14 a bottle. For such an unusual and food-friendly wine, that seems like a bargain to me.

A Romantic Sparkler From The Traisental

17 August 2013

Huber's Hugo Sparkling RoseOn a cool late-summer evening, is there anything more romantic than popping open a bottle of fine sparkling rosé? I love sparkling rosés, and I don’t drink nearly enough of them. It was with some excitement, then, that I discovered a bottle of sparkling rosé not from Champagne (which can be ruinously expensive), but from Austria.

This little central European country is known by American wine drinkers, if at all, for its zippy and food-friendly Grüner Veltliners, not its sparklers. Upon further inspection, I noticed that this bubbly was a blend of Pinot Noir (commonly used in Champagne) and Zweigelt (most definitely not used in Champagne). How could I resist? I snapped up a bottle of the 2012 Weingut Huber “Hugo” Sparkling Rosé.

I could find little general information about Austrian sparkling wine in any of my wine books. It was usually but a footnote, and The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia was positively dismissive. Here is its summary, in full, of the state of Austrian bubbly: “Austria’s best-known sparkling wine is the bottle-fermented Schlumberge, produced in Vienna, but it seldom exceeds in quality.” Well, I must respectfully disagree — the Austrian sparkler I see most often is Szigeti‘s sparkling Grüner Veltliner, which is actually quite delicious.

Zweigelt, also known as Blauer Zweigelt, is one of the most popular red varieties in Austria, a country which does indeed make delicious red wines (for more about Austrian reds, see this post and this post). This popularity belies Zweigelt’s relative youth — this cross between St. Laurent and Blaufränkisch was created less than a century ago, in 1922. Capable of “serious, age-worth wine” according to The Oxford Companion to Wine, Zweigelt can now be found in every wine region of Austria.

Huber’s Hugo, a blend of Zweigelt and Pinot Noir (the wine’s fact sheet omits the proportions) comes from the Traisental, a wine region of just 1,730 acres straddling the Traisen River. The soil of the vineyards here is a limestone mix, according to the Huber website, which made me think of the chalky soil of Champagne — an encouraging parallel.

Even so, I didn’t get all that much minerality out of the Hugo Sparkling Rosé. It had aromas of berries, wood and yeast, deliciously juicy acids, and a dry finish with strawberry notes. Although this wine was not bottle-fermented, the ample bubbles felt impressively small — even pointy. Paired with a decidedly un-Austrian chicken burger, the juicy acids felt broader and more orangey, and the strawberry notes became clearer. Not too shabby for a $15 bottle of bubbly.

Austrian sparkling wine may have long been rather dire, but if the Hugo and the Szigeti are any indication, I’d say Austrian bubbly is worth another look.

Late Burgundian

13 July 2013

August Kesseler SpätburgunderIt probably won’t come as a great shock that Germany produces some red wines, but as The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia notes, “Even members of the wine trade find it surprising that almost 37% of German vineyards are planted with black grape varieties.” That figure certainly came as a surprise to me. Where is this apparent sea of German red wine? Certainly not on the shelves of American wine shops — Even the largest stores typically carry just one or two.

The most widely planted (and some would argue most successful) red grape variety in Germany is Spätburgunder, which we know as Pinot Noir. But according to The Oxford Companion to Wine, “Few of these wines are exported since demand so much exceeds supply within Germany, and prices are high.” And surely foreign markets would be difficult for these wines to crack. I suspect if the average American wine consumer saw a high-priced Spätburgunder on the shelf, they would be loath to take a risk on it, even on the off-chance they knew it was a Pinot Noir.

But should you encounter a Spätburgunder at a reasonable price, and should you be a fan of Pinot Noir, I recommend snapping it up. It’s true that not too long ago, the “typical Spätburgunder was pale, sweetish and all too often tinged with rot-related odours,” according to the pull-no-punches Oxford Companion. I had a number of these when I studied abroad in Germany, and I must admit they put me off Teutonic reds for years.

How times have changed! Lower yields and longer maceration periods (the time the juice has in contact with the grape skins and seeds) over the last two decades have markedly increased quality, and I have to agree with Sotheby’s when it argues that nowadays, “talented winemakers have produced truly beautiful, silky-smooth, well-colored red wines from [Spätburgunder].”

I tasted a number of fine Spätburgunders on my last trip to Germany, and they ranged from fruity and pleasing to absolutely lovely:

2008 Weingut August Kesseler Spätburgunder Trocken: This wine from Assmannshausen in the Rheingau had the classic cherries and earth aroma I associate with Pinot Noir. It tasted light, fruity, spicy and earthy, again in classic Pinot fashion. The almost tart acids really perked up when paired with some saddle of venison.

2008 Weingut Schloss Eberstein Spätburgunder Trocken: No one can accuse this winery east of Baden-Baden of overpricing its Spätburgunders — I found a German shop selling bottles of this for just €9 (about $12). A clear brick-red color, it smelled of red fruit and iron. It moved from ripe up-front fruit to a velvety midsection to some rather rustic white-pepper spice. Oddly, I also drank this wine with venison, which it matched perfectly.

2009 Weingut Seeger Heidelberger Herrenberg Spätburgunder “S” Trocken: This winery based in northern Baden takes its highest quality Blauer Spätburgunder (another German synonym for Pinot Noir), designates it as “S”, “R” or “RR”, and ages it in small French-oak barriques for 18 to 20 months. The Sotheby’s Encyclopedia actually cites wines from the Herrenberg, a steep vineyard just outside Heidelberg, as particularly worthy of note, and highlights Seeger as a top producer. I certainly enjoyed this wine — it had aromas of cherries, tobaccos and earth, and open red-fruit flavors which tightened up and crescendoed into some black-pepper spice.

Tasting with Sebastian at Basserman-Jordan2011 Weingut Dr. von Basserman-Jordan Spätburgunder Trocken: This Pinot Noir from Pfalz-based Basserman-Jordan had a particularly earthy aroma, with notes of iron and cherries. It tasted brick-red, with powerful black-pepper spice and a touch of something herbaceous. I wouldn’t call this one “refined;” it was more rowdy and rustic, which is not at all a bad thing.

2010 Weingut Dr. von Basserman-Jordan Ölberg Grosses Gewächs Spätburgunder Trocken: There are a lot of rules governing what qualifies a wine classified as “Grosses Gewächs,” a very recently developed designation which translates as “Great Growth.” Most important is that these wines come from vineyard sites which have shown themselves over the years to be truly superior. There are also rules about residual sugar and so forth (as there always are in Germany) which I just can’t bring myself to write about. You can often tell a wine is a Grosses Gewächs by the “GG” on the label, but prior to 2006 or so, you just have to know your vineyards.  In any case, this Spätburgunder comes from the Ölberg, a vineyard which produces some of the Pfalz’s very top red wines. It had a more herbaceous aroma, and it felt more under control, its red fruit flavors complemented by vanilla notes and white-pepper spice. It seemed elegant, this Pinot Noir, with a silky, creamy texture. Superb.

None of my resources, incidentally, indicated why the Germans call Pinot Noir “Spätburgunder,” which translates as “Late Burgundian.” It seems an odd name for a grape which traditionally ripens early. My theory is that Germans simply called it “Burgunder” until an even earlier-ripening Pinot Noir mutation evolved in Franken about 150 years ago. To distinguish between the two, it only made sense to call one Late Burgundian and the other Early Burgundian, or Frühburgunder.

Patagonian Pinot

27 April 2013
Fin del Mundo Pinot Noir in the Hotel Grano de Oro

Fin del Mundo Pinot Noir in the Hotel Grano de Oro

Costa Rica isn’t exactly a major wine producer, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find fascinating things to drink there. Restaurant wine lists tend to focus heavily on South American wines, as you might expect, but it wasn’t an unending sea of Malbec (Argentina’s most famous variety). Menu after menu included at least one Argentinean Pinot Noir, a notoriously fickle grape I associate with the Côte d’Or much more than the Pampas.

And there’s a reason for that — Argentinean Pinots can be quite difficult to come by in the U.S. I searched for Argentinean Pinot Noir on the website of Binny’s, one of the country’s largest wine stores, and I came up with just one solitary option (a 2011 Bodega NQN Finca La Papay for $12). I seemed I had some odd Pinot Noir on my hands, a prospect I found rather exciting. It’s Pinot Noir, after all, that elicits such passion in the film Sideways, and it’s Pinot Noir that is responsible for the greatest reds of Burgundy and Oregon. I had never sampled one from Argentina, however, and I couldn’t wait to see how this “capricious and extremely variably vine” (The Oxford Companion to Wine) would perform in that terroir.

According to the sources I consulted, Argentinean Pinot Noir has yet to fully develop. The Oxford Companion to Wine was dismissive, asserting that Pinot “has yet to find a suitable home in Argentina.” The World Atlas of Wine takes a more optimistic tone, however, noting that in Patagonia and Mendoza’s high-altitude vineyards, “some promising examples are beginning to emerge.” Although it didn’t mention Pinot specifically, The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia took a dim view of Argentina as a whole, chiding most of the country’s wineries for allowing excessively high yields and doing too little to “alter Argentina’s image as a bottomless vat.” Ouch.

I didn’t taste any particularly expensive Argentinean Pinot Noirs, but the ones I did sample ranged from simple and charming to quite exciting:

2011 Saurus Patagonia Pinot Noir: Patagonia is Argentina’s coolest wine region, making it most suitable to growing Pinot Noir. This wine comes from San Patricio del Chañar, a “new winemaking area,” according to the winery’s website, along the border with Chile. It had a very aromatic nose of red fruit, a beautifully creamy texture and prickly black-pepper spice, held in check with impressive focus and control.

2010 Bodega del Fin del Mundo Reserva Pinot Noir: Also produced in Patagonia, this winery’s Pinot Noir doesn’t seem to appear on its website, though it’s in Spanish, so what do I know? In any case, I liked its aroma of black cherries, its tightly wound red fruit, subtle white-pepper spice and earthy finish. A touch medicinal, but tasty nevertheless.

2011 Luigi Bosca Pinot Noir: This wine comes from 45-year-old vineyards in Mendoza, a warmer region to the north of Patagonia. It lacked the sharp focus of the Saurus, but I very much enjoyed its fresh, easy fruit and earthy finish. It was an ideal warm-weather wine, perfect for an al fresco dinner overlooking the rainforest.

You will likely have trouble finding one of these specific labels in your local wine shop, but should you run across an Argentinean Pinot Noir, I recommend giving it a try. It may not reach the heights of Burgundy, but it will likely be a perfectly tasty wine at a perfectly reasonable price.

Teutonic Pink

7 November 2012

I know I claimed to be done with rosé for the season, but I had one on my shelf too tempting to leave unopened until the spring: A 2011 Reichsrat von Buhl Pinot Noir Rosé from Germany’s Pfalz region. I remember when I saw it on the shelf at Binny’s. A Pinot Noir from Germany would be odd enough on its own, but a Teutonic Pinot Noir rosé? That’s unusual and obscure gold.

According to The World Atlas of Wine, the Pfalz, a region between Saarbrücken and the Rhein, is “today arguably [Germany's] most exciting wine region… famous for an increasing number of seriously ambitious individual wine producers.” Von Buhl makes its wines in Deidesheim, a Pfalz town surrounded, if the Atlas is to be believed, by “excellent” and “exceptional” vineyards. This is the southern end of the Mittelhaardt, long known for producing some of Germany’s finest Rieslings, with “succulent honeyed richness and body, balanced with thrilling acidity.”

But Pinot Noir? This thin-skinned variety, notoriously susceptible to rot, does surprisingly well in the Pfalz, which is “Germany’s sunniest, driest region,” according to the Atlas. Since the vineyards receive only about 16 inches of rainfall a year, mildew and rot tend not to be a problem. And if you look at map, you’ll see that the Pfalz (also known as the Palatinate) is not too far from Burgundy, home to some of the best Pinot Noirs in the world.

I’m not sure the Pinots of the Pfalz quite reach those lofty heights — that’s for another blog post — but I can tell you that the Reichsrat Pinot Noir Rosé was no insipid White Zinfandel. It had a honeydew aroma mixed with something a little spicy, and the melon notes continued onto the palate. A blitz of sharp, limey acids blasted the fruit out of the way, leading to a spicy finish. There was a prickle on the tongue as well — a hint of bubbles. And indeed, the von Buhl website notes that this wine “is actually a product of [their] sparkling wine production.”

This rosé isn’t “fun,” exactly. It’s not a wine I would serve at a pool party. It demands attention. But paired with an Asian “salad” of wheat berries, beef, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, carrots, red peppers, garlic, soy sauce and sesame oil, it worked beautifully. The acids rounded out, becoming more orangey than limey, and the wine felt bigger, rounder, and, most interestingly, smokier.

If you’re hankering for a rosé this autumn or winter, the von Buhl would be a great choice.

SUMMARY

2011 Reichsrat von Buhl Pinot Noir Rosé: Verging on sparkling, with melony fruit and sharp, racy acids. Excellent with food. Chill well in the refrigerator.

Grade: B+

Find It: I must admit I don’t recall what I spent on this bottle, and it’s not available on Binny’s website as of this posting. I did a quick search online and found a number of stores selling it; the lowest price I found was $18.

Virginia Is For (Red Wine) Lovers

30 July 2011

A veritable forest of stemware covered our dinner table

Virginia produces delicious Viogniers (among other white wines), but it turns out there are some remarkable reds in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

I looked for some at Binny’s yesterday, but all I found was a lone Sauvignon Blanc from Barboursville (a Cabernet Franc is also available on their website). Until Virginia wines catch on, and I do hope they will, you will likely have to order them straight from the winery’s website. A bit of a pain, perhaps, but worth the trouble.

Here are a few favorites from the Wine Blogger Conference’s tastings, in no particular order:  (more…)

A New Frontier – Part 2

11 June 2011

After tasting two unique and delicious Serbian varieties, I was excited to see what some of this country’s most thoughtful winemakers could do with more well-known grapes. Could they hold their own on the international market?

The 2009 Botunjac “Rasplet” Reserve Riesling certainly could. It seemed hardly believable that this dry, character-rich wine came from the same variety that ends up in Schmitt Söhne. A very pale gold, this Riesling had a rather alcoholic nose of apples, and rich, musky-dusky flavors of pear with a touch of resin and a whisper of yeast. I have never visited Serbia, but I have to imagine the rich, dry and stylistically unusual Rasplet to be very expressive of its terroir. It worked wonderfully with smoky, slightly spicy Serbian sremska sausage.

The vintner, Kosta Botunjac, certainly takes great care making his wines. He comes from a family of dedicated winemakers; while in a German POW camp in 1942, his grandfather Dragomir managed to send a postcard home with instructions for making the Pinot Noir. (more…)