Wine Column: Challenges of the ‘heartbreak grape’

08/31/2011 11:25 AM |

When wine grapes were first planted on Long Island in the 1970s and ’80s, most growers chose to plant the most important grape varieties of France, including chardonnay and pinot noir. The chardonnay was universally successful as a variety that consistently produced high quality fruit on plants that were easy to tend, but pinot noir proved to be far more challenging, and many acres of this grape were ripped out, replanted to merlot, cabernet franc or more chardonnay.

Experience here proved pinot noir’s reputation as the “heartbreak grape.” Even in Burgundy, where the medieval monks who cultivated the Cote d’Or selected, bred and celebrated pinot noir as their finest red wine grape, the variety is difficult to ripen and even more difficult to make into great wine.

The viticultural problem with pinot is that berries in its clusters are tightly packed, so that if one single berry is damaged by insects, birds or fungus, the entire cluster will quickly rot. It also ripens sooner than most varieties, which should be an advantage, except that it’s the first to attract marauding pests like finches, robins, raccoons and bees. Given a choice between ripe pinot noir and slightly unripe anything else, you can guess where the pests will go. This applies to people, too; pinot noir fruit is exquisitely delicious, and a vineyard planted along a road where pilgrims stroll will be soon denuded, as happened along the route to Santiago de Compostela in medieval times.

When pinot noir succeeds as wine, there is nothing to compare with its aromatic allure, its finesse, subtlety, complexity, silken mouthfeel and nuanced finish. Unfortunately, these qualities do not come easily or automatically as the fruit, even undamaged fruit, is transformed by fermentation into wine. In many ways, it is highly unstable, and the techniques that might be used to stabilize one desirable quality may harm another desirable one.

The deep blue-black color of pinot noir fruit is a cruel ruse because the pigments (anthocyanins) that give it this gorgeous hue exist in equilibrium with a colorless version of the same pigment. Pinot noir is different from most other black or red vitis vinifera wine grapes in that it lacks amylated (stabilized) anthocyanins. I’ve seen a tank of pinot wine that was pitch black when it was first crushed but transformed into the equivalent color of cranberry juice after six months’ aging.

To add insult to injury, pinot’s tannins (astringent particles derived from skins and seeds) have shorter molecular chains than most wine grapes, and are bitter. Many winemakers cold soak pinot noir fruit before fermenting it, in order to extract softer tannins. But in reality, heat and alcohol are needed to maximize color, and the extra time in cold soak also gives the fruit extra time in contact with its seeds, which are the bitterest part.

Most pinot noir is encouraged to complete a secondary fermentation, transforming its sharp malic acid into buttery lactic acid. This effectively softens the wine, but also raises the pH, which further damages its hue. Barrel aging smooths out the edges and adds the flavors and aromas of oak to the wine; it also steals some of the delicate fruit aromas, and accentuates harsh tannins, thus requiring more time in the bottle to soften again.

Despite these challenges, or maybe because of them, the temptation to make great pinot noir has obsessed many winemakers, myself included. After trying for 27 years, with a few years of triumph and many of settling for a blanc de noir or Beaujolais style, I am still obsessed with how to make what every pinot fancier wants — that “iron fist in a velvet glove.”

On Long Island, a few wineries (including Borghese, Laurel Lake, Jamesport and Osprey’s Dominion) persist in producing pinot. The Old Field, Lenz and Sparkling Pointe grow it for rosé and sparkling wines.

In Cutchogue, Russell McCall has 11 acres of mature pinot noir, planted 15 years ago. He believes that the cluster stems must be brown before he harvests so he waits, anxiously, while birds and botrytis threaten his crop. He sorts berries for soundness and ferments in small containers, with punch-down of skins also done by hand. Following the methods used by Burgundian monks in the 13th century has, for him, proved to be the best way to create wines that are subtle, meriting meditation.

What better way to explore one of the world’s most compelling wines?

Ms. Hargrave was a founder of the Long Island wine industry in 1973. She is currently a freelance writer and consultant.

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