It could have been the potion making class at Hogwarts: a gothic room, with soaring windows and vaulted wooden rafters across the ceiling, tables lined up in rows, laden with vessels of mysterious liquids. But instead of beakers of magical ingredients, these were tasting glasses of pinot noir, carefully laid out in a labeled semi-circle on a white placemat. This was the Pinot Noir Boot Camp, the second session of the 2009 tasting series at University of Toronto’s atmospheric old Hart House.
The students were an attentive bunch, and there was a sense of anticipation as the professor for the night took the front of the room, Norman Hardie, famous for making some of the best pinot noir in Canada out of his eponymous winery in Prince Edward County. Before any winemaker can attempt to tackle turning the heartbreak grape into wine, they are first challenged with finding the best site for a vineyard. Hardie spent many years traveling to the globe’s best pinot noir wine regions, working with some of the premier wine makers and searching for the site of his own vineyard. After six times around the globe, he ended his search 200 kilometers from where he started, just outside of Hillier in Prince Edward County. The Pinot Boot Camp was a grateful side product of Hardie’s tours around the world, as he was able to select fine examples of pinot noir from six different regions. As an added bonus, the passionate and verbose Afrim Pristine of the Cheese Boutique co-hosted and provided lively insight into three cheeses (Cru de Champlain fermier cheese, Clochette gioat cheese, and 4 year old Thunderoak Gouda), and capitalizing on pinot’s natural affinity, three different forms of duck: prosciutto, rillette, and foie gras.
In Norm’s introduction to pinot noir, he explained that pinot noir is most prized for having a combination of delicacy and richness. Those that are more restrained and poised, he pegged as “feminine-feminine” wines, while those that veer into more brawny barnyard aromas, or muscular earthiness, he terms “feminine-masculine”, but either way, pinot always starts with a feminine delicacy. Pinot noir grows in tight fist-size clusters and has delicate skins, which creates some unusual challenges in the vine growing conditions. The thin skins make the grapes extremely sensitive to disease or too much sun, while the tight clusters can limit air flow, also making it prone to disease. If there is too wide a fluctuation in the water levels, when a drought is followed by rain, the grapes can swell with water and burst. To prevent this, pinot is best grown on a mixture of limestone and clay: the clay retains the moisture while the limestone regulates the flow of water, and forces the roots to go deep into the ground, providing stability for the grapes, an environment of neither feast nor famine.
The tasting started with the benchmark for pinot noir, a Burgundy, the 2005 Vieilles Vignes Morey-Saint-Denis from Nicolas Potel. Because of the sensitivity of pinot, the territory for optimal growing in France is quite small. Just 200 kilometers further north, pinot is only good for Champagne, while further south, the terroir changes and the vines shift to gamay noir, and syrah and Grenache of the hotter Rhone valley. Pinot noir needs to be grown on the edge, and it finds that edge in Burgundy. The Morey-Saint-Denis had firmness, and an inner tension; the flavours were light, but lasted on a long finish, the hallmark of a well made wine. It was lovingly paired by Afrim Pristine with a foie gras mousse, where the fat worked perfectly with the backbone of acidity in the wine.
Once you have found the right terroir, to be a great pinot region, you also needs to have a culture of pinot-heads to share all the insights into vine growing and wine making. One such region is the Central Otago, in the southern half of New Zealand. In the last few years, pinot has almost replaced sauvignon blanc as the world’s favorite grape export from New Zealand, and alot of this has to do with the quality of the wines coming from the Otago. The fruit will usually be ripe and dark, due to the high UV exposure of the sun, but their challenge is to achieve phenolic ripeness, the secondary ripening process that generates complexity of flavour through changes in the tannins from grape skins, seeds and stems. Often warm regions have no problem getting sugar ripeness, but the complexity of flavour is missing because it’s not phenolically mature. You can grow a red strawberry in January in California, but it just doesn’t have the depth of flavour you expect. The 2006 Carrick Pinot Noir that we tasted was a great example however, providing good bang for the buck, and some of the herbes de provence accent in the nose that is typical of Otago.
Side bar from http://www.wineanorak.com/ripeness.htm
“Winemakers commonly make a distinction between two rather separate ripening processes, known as phenolic ripeness and sugar ripeness, although this distinction is contested by some. Phenolic ripeness (also referred to as physiological ripeness) refers to the changes in the tannins that occur in grape skins, seeds and stems. Sugar ripeness refers to the breakdown of acids and accumulation of sugars. In the classic northern hemisphere regions, grapes are typically harvested by sugar ripeness. In many vintages it’s a question of getting the grapes as ripe as possible before autumn rains set in, and usually the phenolic ripeness is satisfactory where yields have been kept sane.
In warmer regions the growers get better results picking by phenolic ripeness, because this often trails sugar ripeness. Warm regions have no problem producing grapes with high levels of sugar and thus potential alcohol, and here the challenge is to get grapes to reach phenolic ripeness without making wines with heroic alcohol levels and no natural acidity. It’s no good picking earlier at 13 degrees potential alcohol in order to avoid an alcoholic wine, because if the phenolic ripeness isn’t adequate the wine will have an unpleasant green, unripe flavour to it.
Are phenolic ripeness and sugar ripeness independent of each other? Clearly not; at the very least, there’s a correlation. But it does seem that phenolic ripeness is more related to hang time than sugar ripeness is; by this, I mean sugar ripeness seems more tuned to the sunlight and warmth of the particular vintage, whereas phenolic ripeness is less closely tied to these vintage conditions. I suspect this is quite a controversial statement”.
The third wine was from a region I had never tried before, the 2006 Galpin Peak pinot noir from Bouchard Finlayson in South Africa. It is grown in a valley near Walker Bay, cooled by breezes from the Atlantic Ocean, and sheltered by mountains which results in warm summers and mild winters. The wine had a weighty but gently smoky flavour that worked well with both the smoked duck prosciutto, as well as the Cru du Champlain, raw cow’s milk cheese from Quebec.
We then moved back to the northern hemisphere, to the clay soils and wet climate of Willamette Valley Oregon, to try the 2007 Adelsheim pinot. While Norm was disappointed with its more overt use of oak than he thought was necessary, the cedar smokiness could appeal to some palates. To Norm however, it was out of balance: Pinot needs to be balanced right from the start, it can’t evolve its way out of it with cellar ageing. As Norm pointed out, just like kids, if pinot starts out unbalanced, it will just grow up worse. We were encouraged to try pinots from other fine producers in Oregon, such as St.Innocent, or Evesham.
While the terroir may not be as exciting further south in California’s Santa Barbara region, the climate is perfect for growing pinot, with valleys that funnel cool air in off the Pacific Ocean to balance the heat of the California sun. The 2007 Au Bon Climat pinot was made by one of the original pioneers of Santa Barbara pinot, Jim Clendenen, and had the hint of eucalyptus that Norm cited as a common trait in pinots from Santa Barbara. It also had more sweetness than the other wines, which worked well with the richness of the aged Thunderoak Gouda. I found it also had a sharp pomegranate note that I associated with some of the more unusual clones used to make pinot in California. When pinot was first planted in the new world regions, many areas used clones that came out of Switzerland which had good specs for growing in the area and worked well on paper, but in practice don’t provide the complexity and balance that you get out of the classic Dijon clones from Burgundy.
Fortunately when Norman Hardie set up his vineyard in Prince Edward County, he was able to plant Dijon clones right from the start. This shows in the balance of his wines. At 10.2% alcohol, his 2007 County Pinot was the lightest in body and colour of the night, yet it had a poise and persistency of flavour that was really appealing. As an added bonus, he also poured a sample of his flagship wine only made in great vintages, the 2007 Cuvee L pinot, a blend of top grapes from his County vineyard, and top sites in Niagara. It had a depth of colour and flavour that is going to take a few years to fully unveil, but it will be a beauty.
After the formal tasting, guest were encouraged to mingle and enjoy another glass of their favorite wines of the night. With the expertly chosen selections, it was a difficult choice to narrow it down to one favourite. A wonderful event, both educational and entertaining, and especially great value given the average price of the wines must have been close to $50 and the cheese and duck plate from Cheese Boutique was worth at least $15 by itself. The weekly tasting series at Hart House is heartily recommended for those who want to enjoy exploring some new tastes in an atmospheric environment. Future sessions will feature cocktails, unusual wines from new regions, teas, and finally sparkling wines in December to kick off the holiday season.
Hart House announced its 2009 Tasting Series which brings together a cross-section of renowned specialists passionate about sharing their tasting knowledge with attendees. This series will run from 7:00 pm to 9:00 pm every Thursday night in the Music Room at Hart House beginning October 29th through to December 3rd, 2009. Indulge your senses and learn how to best appreciate a variety of wines, spirits, beers and teas.