How would you go about making a world-class pinot noir? This, of course, is a rhetorical question. Creating a satisfying pinot requires years (lifetimes?) of experience in winemaking and viticulture. The well-worn path to pinot failure is lined with the remains of those hoping to shorten the time-intensive process, then discovering their odds of success are only slightly better than winning the Lottery.
As with most things artistic, there are a thousand creative decisions that interact to determine the ultimate result. Here is an overview of the choices you would have to make in producing your own, award-winning pinot:
Which vineyard location?
Few varietals reflect a sense of “place” as much as pinot – it is Terroir-Driven. In selecting your vineyard, consider altitude, soil type (is it high or low vigor?), drainage, wind, average temperature by day-part, rainfall by season, and avg. hours of sunshine. U.C. Davis recently held a conference on “Terroir”, with the day’s most memorable quote coming from <i>Randall Graham of Bonny Doon Vineyards</i> (though as I write this it seems more appropriate to make that the other way around) who said “I’ve concluded that one lifetime is simply insufficient to learn how to produce terroir-driven wines”.
Which Root Stock?
This is relatively easy, as there are likely only a handful of viable rootstocks. But if you have high-growth, vigorous soils you’ll get lackluster pinot. So pick a low-vigor rootstock to reduce your crop yield (an activity known as “de-vigoring” the vines). Two tons of fruit per acre is a reasonable goal, though some of the best pinots come from vines producing less than a ton per acre. The increased intensity of the fruit from low-yielding vines is one of the primary reasons for the high price of pinot.
Which Pinot Clone?
This gets tougher – pinot has a highly unstable DNA structure that easily mutates. To date, over 1,000 pinot clones have been documented, each producing pinot with slightly different characteristics, and which must be selected to grow and ripen most effectively in your chosen vineyard and on your rootstock. Note, by contrast, the highly stable Cabernet Sauvignon vine has only a dozen identified clones.
The truly curious find it helpful to know some pinot clones are named after the winery or vineyard that popularized them (Wente, Beringer, Martini, etc.) while others are numbered, with domestic clones being assigned numbers under 100 and French clones assigned numbers between 100 and 1,000.
Which Trellising System?
Trellising, or “training”, the vines determines how much sun exposure the grapes will receive. This decision requires that you balance freedom from the molds and diseases that threaten these temperamental grapes against the possibility of sunburn and. Direct sun exposure also affects the grapes’ ripening speed and the flavor profile they produce.
Etc. Etc. Etc.
Your list of creative choice goes on to include decisions on date of harvest , sorting technique, whether to de-stem prior to fermentation, cold stabilization prior to introducing yeast (or choice of natural yeast, if you have experimented enough to know your local yeasts are desirable), type of yeast if innoculating, length of maceration, to rack or not to rack, to filter or not to filter, type of oak barrels to use, degree of toast desired for the oak, and length of time in barrel. Finally, how much do you want to spend on bottle, label and closure (cork or screwcap?)
This long and intimidating list of choices is being taken on by a growing number of small producers, many of whom are refugees from the increasingly large wine conglomerates whose accounting departments over-manage their artistic wine making process.
Wines from these producers dominated the San Francisco Pinot Noir Shoot-out in March of ‘06. This public event featured 40 pinots, each wrapped in foil and randomly assigned an identifier, then tasted in a blind format. A panel of astute pinot experts had tasted over 200 pinots in order to select the 40 they thought the most worthy. This format not only tests one’s palate, but allows an accurate calibration relative to that of others. I am pleased to report that I discovered some great new pinots that day, and am in discussions with some of the producers to them to you. Watch for them here.
Quote of the day:
"How can a few notes of music, some paint on canvas, mere juice of grapes fermented with yeast, have the power to lift the human spirit? No one can explain this; it is the mystery of art."