Small Batch Series: Pinot Noir

Today I’ve got a tasty curation of Pinots from all over the world, but after having an otherwise illuminating conversation with a fantastic Pinot producer from down south, I have to get something off my chest first: 

I love Oregon completely. I’ve been to the Willamette a few times, had amazing experiences and would very much like to be allowed back in someday. I love the natural, non-elite wine culture there, it’s refreshing and welcoming, absolutely. 

But Oregon, dear Oregon, my one complaint involves how many of you pronounce your leading grape variety: in an attempt to resemble the original French pronunciation more closely, you’re inadvertently using an existing French word that doesn’t actually mean “wine”. 

The problem is Pinot Noir, specifically the word Noir. Certain languages contain sounds that other languages do not: the dental fricative “th” sound (/θ/) so prominent in English doesn’t exist in French, so native French mouths are unaccustomed to making it, leading French speakers to sub in other sounds that their mouths are more familiar with: “theatre” may be pronounced as “tee-atre”, “dee-atre” or “zee-atre” depending on where the French speaker is from (Quebec favours the “d”, France the “z”, that’s how you can spot them in the wild – saves you turning them over and looking at their bellies). 

The French pronunciation of “Noir” contains a brief uvular trill, sort of like a “rolled R” (R) at the end (“Nwah-rrr”), a sound that seldom appears in English. In North America our natural tendency is to read the “r” at the end of a word as a rhotic consonant: when we say “Noir” it rhymes with “Gwar” (or “Drakkar” if you nasty). It’s a perfectly normal way to approach those words in Anglophone Canada or the US – heck, even the name of the Oregonian valley where the Pinot is grown is properly Americanized: we rhyme “Willamette” with “dammit”, not “vinaigrette”. 

And yet the tendency in Oregon is to pronounce “Noir” like the French, but without the trill that closes the word: I kept hearing “would you like to try some Pinot Nwaahh?”. I understand the desire to try and respect the original name, but to French speakers it’s actually a shade creepy, however inadvertently:  

You see, “Nwaahh” isn’t just a swing and a miss, it’s an actual French word, and that word is “Noix”, which means “Nuts”. Pronounced this way, you are saying “would you like to try some Pinot Nuts”, and no thank you I would not. 

It’s ok to speak English. It’s ok to speak non-English words with English sounds, you were born with them and those are your tools. By saying “Nwaahh”, you’re not approaching France, you’re not even missing the turn-off, you’re taking an entirely different turn-off to Nut Town, and it’s weird. 

Please please let me back in I love your wine. 

Let’s start in Oregon and move outwards from there: 

USA 

Ken Wright Cellars Canary Hill Vineyard Pinot Noir 2017, Eola-Amity Hills. It’s been too long since I could get any of Ken Wright’s wondrous juice; a living legend in Oregon, he was a founder of the seminal Panther Creek and one of the original prophets of single-vineyard winemaking on the west coast. There’s no overarching style to Ken’s wines (other than, like, “good”), he lets the ground speak in his stead, and the Canary Hill has a lot to chirp about (I’m sorry). Bright red fruit and tropical notes with ferrous tinges, burnt orange, a fairly voluptuous mouthfeel, this is good to go, majestic and magnificent. Welcome back, Mr. Wright, you got, like, hotter while you were gone. 94 points Wine Spectator, 2 6-packs available, $100.98 +tax 

Elk Cove La Bohème Vineyard 2017, Yamhill Carlton. Willamette’s highest vineyard (800ft) is also one of its most expressive and floral – you can practically smell it as you walk through there – with violets and lavender taking centre stage in front of a chorus of singing cherries, closing off with vanilla, black pepper and garrigue. One of the first families to plant vines in Oregon (way back in 1974, which gives them Elder Scrolls status), the Campbells practice a fairly severe green harvest in the La Bohème vineyard, and the reduced yields bring piercing concentration and energy to this 2017, counterbalancing the capital “P” Prettiness on the nose. 6 bottles available, $74.98 +tax 

Resonance Pinot Noir 2017, Willamette Valley. Although French families like Chapoutier and Barons de Rothschild pursue projects all over the globe, Burgundian fixture Maison Louis Jadot has only this one remote winery, a surprising measure of restraint considering who their winemaker is. Jacques Lardière was chief winemaker at Jadot for decades until 2012, when he left Burgundy to help start this Willamette project called Resonance. If you can picture a hyper-caffeinated Albert Einstein with a French accent, speaking only in poems and visiting multiple dimensions of time and space while in mid-sentence, you begin to get what it was like attending his seminar back in 2011. I speak English and French but Jacques continually existed in the middle, weaving historical anecdotes with visual analogies for tasting notes straight out of Yellow Submarine – it was an amazing, untethered experience, although I did at times wonder if I should have instead taken the Blue Pill. Resonance is every bit a Lardière wine, blending Yamhill-Carlton and Dundee fruit into an éclair of bright red fruit surrounded by a savoury, herb-informed frame. Pomegranate, rhubarb and tobacco lead into an earthly palate of cherry and roses. Bright and tannic, it’s safe and fun to drink now but should gain Elegance Points® as this decade unfolds. #19, Wine Spectator Top 100 of 2020, 93 points Wine Spectator, 3 6-packs available, $61.98 +tax

Citation Pinot Noir 2005, Oregon. Although the creation of new AVAs is an arduous, political affair, it is widely expected than one of Willamette’s next additions will be the Mount Pisgah region, at the southern end of the Willamette AVA, south-east of Eugene. Here the Willamette’s oldest volcanic rocks are covered by a thin veneer of marine sediment, the combination of which adds elevated acidity and longevity to Pinot Noir. Witness this 2005 Pinot from Citation, sourced from Pisgah and further south, with broad shoulders and deep wells of mushroom, cinnamon, ripe cherries, orange peel and earth. Leather and tea surround the fruit, and the tannins have softened to more of a vibe than a sensation. It isn’t often that we’re able to try aged Oregon Pinot that isn’t the fruit of our own patience, this is a real treat. 2 6-packs available, $110.98 +tax 

WALT “La Brisa” Pinot Noir 2016, Sonoma Coast. Who is WALT and what does WALT want? While the sad news is that there’s no actual dude-named-Walt involved, the awesome news is that this is Napa star Kathryn Hall’s sister winery – “Walt” was her maiden name – not sure why it’s in all-caps except maybe her mom and dad used to shout a lot. Judging from how ripe this Sonoma Coast Pinot is, what WALT wants is two things: lots of root beer and for us to be happy. Violets and minty notes permeate the chocolate-covered black cherries and sarsaparilla, the nose and body are generous, but the finish lifts nicely and just makes the runway of Elegant-town. Since many of Kathryn’s offerings clock in at well over $200 per bottle, WALT is an opportune way to experience her wines within a certain sphere of reason. 2 cases available, $62.98 +tax 

GERMANY 

Thörle Hölle Spätburgunder 2018, Rheinhessen. This is one of the two top rated 2018 Pinots in Germany, a grand statement from a country whose talent for ripe, generous, timelessly structured Pinot is rivalled only by their skill in putting dots on top of letters. Called Spätburgunder locally because “Pinot Noir” is much too short and easy, the variety is only 5-10% of the Rheinhessen’s output, but it often finds its way into some of the best, limestone-rich plots like the hills around Saulheim (Riesling tends to favour the red slate soils), where young brothers Christoph and Johannes Thörle have helped give rise to a New Wave of German Pinot: Burgundian in build (thanks, limestone!) but more Oregonian in fruit profile – decidedly non-rustic. The 2018 Hölle (loosely means “Heart of Hell”; a different Hölle than the famous Mosel Hölle vineyard, for all you Hölle-Monitors out there) is brilliantly bursting with dark cherries, garrigue and an almost tangible minerality. Freaking gorgeous now, I imagine that it’ll be stunning in 3-4 years; tightly allocated by the winery, I only got these 2 cases. 99 points James Suckling, 2 cases available, $80.98 +tax 

ITALY 

Giulia Negri La Tartufaia Pinot Nero 2017, Langhe. Riding a wave of buzz since she took over her family’s 150-year-old La Morra winery (boasting the highest altitude in Barolo) at the age of 24, Giulia Negri has carved out a nice side hustle by releasing non-Barolo wines made of Chard and Pinot, grown on the north-facing slopes where Nebbiolo is forbidden. Violets and roses surround the tart red cherries, the tannins are considerable and may take a couple of years to stop obscuring the gentler cinnamon and white pepper vibes on the finish. Like a Nuit-St-Georges in build, but less ferrous and more floral. 6 bottles available, $50.98 +tax 

FRANCE 

Confuron-Cotetidot Vosne-Romanée 1er Cru Les Suchots 2007, Burgundy. A wondrous find from 3 Presidents ago, sourced from a Premier Cru surrounded on nearly all sides by the Grand Cru vineyards of Richebourg, Romanée-St-Vivant and Echézeaux. Brothers Yves and Jack run the cellar now (their parents choose to work the vines cuz vines don’t talk), but their lineage traces back to the 1600s, when the Confuron family was primarily known for vine propagation (they even have their own Pinot clone called Pinot Confuron). This celestial 2007 is in partial hibernation but can be reawakened with a couple hours in a decanter, whereby a heady brew of flowers, mushrooms and black-hearted berries shall swirl and resurrect, jarred by licorice, thyme, game and the desperate angst of a love forlorn. ARISE, young Suchots! Arise and greet this new world! Someday you may die but today is not that day…..    that got away from me, apologies. Um this wine is really good. 6 bottles available, $315.98 +tax 

Robert Groffier Chambolle-Musigny 1er Cru Les Sentiers 2017, Burgundy. One of the reasons I’m so stoked to do what I do right now is the quality and breadth of producers and categories available to me that were a mere dream just a couple years ago. Case in point: Robert Groffier, a cult Burgundy producer that collectors have been asking about for years, available to offer for the first time. Now run by grandson Serge, Groffier runs some of the best plots in Burgundy’s exclusive crus (Amoureuses, Bonnes Mares), and has scaled down new wood aging in favour of sensuous, more emotional wines (everyone says “we let the vineyards speak through the wine” but it’s in Burgundy where this phrase is most literal). Their 2017 Sentiers offers a mineral, slightly smoky take on the cru, boosting the raspberry and nutmeg notes nicely. 5 years out from Drinktown, the stony finish should integrate with the fruit beautifully by then. 5 bottles available, $370.98 +tax 

NON-STOP CLASSIC HITS 

What follows is a brief listing of some wines that fit this theme and have previously been written about, but featured again for the benefit of those who’ve recently joined my Collectors List and may have missed ‘em the first time. If anyone requires more info, I’m happy to send over the original blurb to you. 

Kosta Browne Pinot Noir 2018, Sonoma Coast. 94 points Jeb Dunnuck, 6 bottles available, $194.98 +tax 

Sea Smoke Southing Pinot Noir 2018. Sta. Rita Hills. Not yet rated, 6 bottles available, $154.98 +tax 

L’Usine Pinot Noir 2017, Sta. Rita Hills, 93 points Robert Parker, 93 points Wine Spectator 12 bottles available, $99.99 +tax 

Until next time, Happy Drinking! 

POSTSCRIPT 

The world of wine would look very different indeed if it weren’t for Steven Spurrier, the British wine writer and educator who sadly passed a couple days ago. Besides organizing the seminal Judgement Of Paris in 1976, which changed the planet’s perception of New World winemaking when French judges blindly favoured Californian wines over French labels, he also founded Decanter Magazine, a distinct voice in the sphere of wine reviewing providing a distinctly Euro take on wines (whilst still using impeccable English) in a sea of American-centric publications (Wine Spectator, Robert Parker, Wine Enthusiast and James Suckling are all based in the U.S.). His understated and humble tone, which masked his vast depth of knowledge, will indeed be missed. R.I.P., Steven, and say hi to Alan Rickman. 

Share: