I Am Trying To Break Your Heart: Some Thoughts On Pinot Noir

I want to hold you in the Bible-black predawn You're quite a quiet domino, bury me now Take off your Band-Aid because I don't believe in touchdowns What was I thinking when I said hello? -Wilco,I Am Trying To Break Your Heart Calling Pinot Noir the Heartbreak Grape has been a thing for many years. Marq de Villers wrote abook about it in 1993 and he didn’t coin the term; growers and winemakers have called it that for years. The grape and the wine gained significant notoriety in 2004 when the film Sideways came out; the famous scene when Miles waxes poetically about Pinot Noir sent sales soaring, while Merlot sales plummeted. The simple reason Pinot Noir is a heartbreaker is that it’s harder to grow and trickier to make into wine than other grapes. It’s thin-skinned, to begin with, and tightly clustered, meaning it is susceptible to rot and mildew. It does best in cool, coastal climates, so there’s a double whammy: grow a thin-skinned, tightly clustered grape where it’s foggy and rains a lot, and, well. Now add clones to the mix. Pinot Noir is prone to mutation and because it has been cultivated for centuries, there are hundreds of different clones in vineyards worldwide. Each behaves a little differently; France set about organizing and cataloguing Pinot Noir clones and today there are more than 50 officially recognized clones in France. There are numerous clones in the US as well, called heritage clones, all derived from budwood brought over from Burgundy. This variety of source material makes decision making regarding planting, training, and pruning difficult right from the start. It has also made for awkward and uncomfortable tasting room experiences. Ask a tasting room host about clones and prepare yourself for an onslaught of numbers like 777 and 828 and names like Calera and Pommard. Most winemakers will tell you that difficulty in making Pinot Noir is generally the result of poor decisions in the vineyard and/or a lack of attention to detail in the cellar. If picked too early or over cropped, Pinot Noir grapes can make thin, lackluster wine; prune too heavily and leave it hanging and you’ve missed the sweet spot. But if you get the grapes right, and you don’t bang it around with too much interventionist winemaking, and you pay attention to the wine as it lays in the barrel, then you’re on to something. At its best, Pinot Noir is elusive, ethereal, and downright sexy. It creeps up on you slowly; it’s at once delicate and powerful, iron and velvet. So, yes, heartbreaking for a wine taster desperately trying to conjure up adjectives to adequately describe it. Burgundy, as dark with power as with wine…greedy, rich Flanders. These are the same lands in which the splendour of painting, sculpture, and music flower, and where the most violent code of revenge ruled and the most brutal barbarism spread among the aristocracy.” —Johan Huizinga, The Autumn of the Middle Ages, 1919 The Pinot Noir grape originated in the French region of Burgundy. The violent, convoluted history of the region and the Byzantine makeup of the vineyards there are the stuff of legend. Benedictine and Cistercian monks tended Pinot Noir vines in what became known as Burgundy beginning some time in the 2nd century; one of the most famous vineyards in the world, Clos de Vougeot, was planted in 1336, almost 450 years before Columbus set sail. The Cistercian monks were meticulous, and kept detailed records of the performance of the vines in various soils and vintage years, and noted how different farming practices yielded different results. Thus was born the concept ofterroir,which says that the nature of a wine will be determined by the relationship of location, soil, climate, and the hand of man. The region was in seemingly constant turmoil, with one landholding, ruling family overthrowing another. By the time of Napoleon, vineyard holdings had passed from the church and had been so widely sub-divided that some growers owned only a row or two. Heartbreaking indeed, for the growers and for any student of wine trying to understand, or afford, Grand Cru Burgundy. Today, for example, Clos de Vougeot is farmed by 80 individual growers within its 125 acres; a bottle of Domaine Leroy Clos de Vougeot from a good vintage will run you about $3,000. Wine in general is deeply rooted in history and culture. But Pinot Noir is without a doubt the wine that conjures up the most emotion, the most gravitas and yes, the most heartbreak.