After this past weekend of perusing pinot noir from all corners of the planet in the Hemel en Aarde valley, I’m again reminded of the truth behind Bruce Jack’s evocatively titled The Drift Pinot Noir, ‘There are still mysteries’. There are indeed.
Pinots from the rest of the world are given a clarity of perspective when some excellent Burgundies are thrown into the mix. Along that roughly 50km hilly strip known as the Cote d’Or, reference would be to site rather than variety, pinot being a given. ‘Tell them not to think they’re drinking pinot noir but Chassagne-Montrachet, Volnay and so on,’ Remington Norman had urged Ataraxia’s Kevin Grant before our small, select group got to grips with the six beautifully illustrative Burgundies he’d gathered (just – the wines arrived the day before) for our enlightenment. This sextet acted as a core reference for the global web of pinots I tasted over the two days of the second Hemel en Aarde Pinot Celebration.
Setting the scene were 15 of the valley’s 2013 pinots, representing each of the three Wards. The vintage was a tricky one, dogged by intermittent rain, as each winemaker was at pains to inform participants. A thoroughly amused guest speaker, the bonhomous Canadian winemaker, Norman Hardie, whose eponymous winery lies close to Lake Ontario, pointed out these winemakers needed to work a vintage in Canada to experience really difficult conditions. Hardie knows the Hemel en Aarde valley well, having worked with Peter Finlayson at Bouchard Finlayson during the late 1990s.
The collective spirit generates incremental improvement in the valley’s wines, not least driven by young vines getting older. A better understanding of vineyards and cellar techniques adds to the overall enjoyment and diversity of styles. But a sense of place is frustratingly elusive; sometimes I find the wines from the lowest Ward, Hemel en Aarde Valley, do reflect the slightly warmer conditions, whereas Hemel en Aarde Ridge wines, the highest Ward, are notable for their freshness. This the latter group did with remarkable consistency.
Upper Hemel en Aarde Valley, the Ward sandwiched between the two, is more difficult to pinpoint but my thoughts on similarity in the other Wards is generalised; what Hardie emphasised is that site is the most influential factor; it trumps clones but rootstock plays an important role, affecting yield per vine.
The to-and-fro of the discussion only served to highlight how far we still have to travel. Someone mentioned we’ve currently spent 1/65th of the time Burgundy has had to define and refine its wines.
It should be of some consolation that we’re not alone. The rest of the world’s pinots on show at the celebration all gave evidence, to some degree or another, of a voyage in the early stages. Those which for me spoke most eloquently were Hardie’s King Edward Country 2012, Westrey Oracle 2011 Willamette Oregon, Au Bon Climat 2012 Santa Ynez, California, Burn Cottage 2012 Central Otago (which I was pleased about; the last time I had this wine, the bottle was a shocker), Stonier Merron’s Vineyard 2012 Mornington Peninsula and Yabby Lake Single Vineyard 2012 from the same area. Each was unequivocally pinot, though stylistically they were as different as chalk and cheese.
I enjoyed them and many of our own, I’d be happy to drink a bottle of any of them but I’d be left with a nagging sense of dissatisfaction were I able to afford and indulge in Burgundy, even some at village level.
The line-up Kevin Grant presented, with my briefest comments, ran from south to north: Philippe Colin Premier Cru Morgeot 2011 Chassagne Montrachet (a white wine in a red wine skin); Domaine Henri DeLagrange PC Clos des Chênes 2011 Volnay (charm, fragrance, with supple, velvety texture); Domaine Fernand et Laurent Pillot PC Les Charmots 2011 Pommard (austere, noticeable grainy tannins, underlying silkiness, bone dry); Domaine Arnoux Lachaux PC Les Chaumes 2011 Vosne Romanée (stately, deeply scented, viscous and muscular); Domaine Denis Mortet PC Lavaux Saint Jacques 2011 Gevrey Chambertin (quiet meaty features, sinewy, fine tannins, explosion of flavour at end) and finally, back south to Domaine de la Vougeraie Grand Cru Les Bonnes Mares 2011 Chambolle Musigny (precise, complex, great freshness and huge concentration).
Apologies if my notes are unsatisfactory, but I hope they do indicate the marked differences between each site. A line up of the same site interpreted by several producers would also be fascinating, if add to confusion for Burgundy novices!
The dissatisfaction several of these wines aroused stemmed from their profundity, a level beyond their charm, distinction or overall quality.
Not one of the other pinots from the rest of the world delivered this sense of wonder. ‘What’s the fuss about?’ was Kevin Grant’s question; this is an important answer and remains something of a mystery for all pinots outside the golden slopes.