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Pinot Noir: Is Bigger Better?

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From Aberrant in Oregon to Wren Hop in California, hundreds of pinot noir producers have descended on the Bacara Resort & Spa in Santa Barbara for the World of Pinot Noir. It's the kind of event that makes it clear the world of pinot noir is really more of a galaxy; just as somehow the simple word "dog" encompasses everything from bulky bulldogs to beauteous borzois, pinot noir seems to be having (or perhaps always is having?) its defining moment. What is exactly too big, too small, or just right as the expression of this most finicky, fabulous, and fine of wines?

In the 1990s the battle over pinot noir ripeness intensified. There was the predominant school of Big Flavor, as critic Jon Bonné dubs it in his The New California Wine, striving for huge fruit-forward wines spurred from picking the grapes as late as possible (the longer grapes stay on the vine, the higher the sugar levels), which also means higher alcohol levels, as much of that sugar ends up alcohol. The pinot noir battle often got turned into a New World/California/Big/Upstart versus Old World/French/Refined/Traditional battle, but that over-simplified things -- what simple dichotomy doesn't. A handful of California winemakers strove for an elegant, light-on-its-feet balance; a handful of winemakers in Burgundy went big and toppled.

Participants in the World of Pinot Noir have their opinions on this long-simmering issue, of course. "On the pinot spectrum from austere to syrah-infused, I'm somewhere closer to the first, but not at the end of the spectrum," says Sara Schneider, Wine Editor of Sunset Magazine, and moderator for the event's Hollywood and the Vine panel. "I'm not opposed to pinot getting as ripe as it needs to to have really appealing fruit flavors. (I don't like it to hurt when I drink pinot.) So I don't have any kind of exact limit on alcohol levels. I think a wine should be the most appealing wine that vineyard can produce that year. That said, I don't like the padded-up plush bombs that are shameless attempts at yum factors. They don't do food any favors. And they're not very much like pinot noir."

A similar note was offered by DLynn Proctor, Winemaking Ambassador of Penfolds Australia, and one of the sommeliers featured in the doc SOMM, "Simply put (being PC), I prefer pure pinot noir. Clean, linear, varietal flavors and characteristics with anywhere from some to all whole bunches. Whole cluster makes me happy!" Proctor is referring to the fermentation process, also argued about: should a winery include the stems -- that is whole cluster -- in portions of the fermentation? The answers gets geeky, so I won't bore you, but whole cluster either adds complexity or reduces color. Such disagreements are why winemaking is an art and not a science, or perhaps I mean a rhetoric.

(If I may allow myself a huge digression, how cool must it be to be an ambassador of wine? "I come to you from the country of grapey goodness!" you could tell people. Or you could say what Proctor says, "It's a big job and a wonderful job title, too. I only have North and South America to look after! It gives me the chance to assist in making wine with the team and engage in all aspects of sales and marketing. One day I'm pressing, another day de-stemming; the next day I'm giving a master class for global media, and the next day I have a bag of goodies for somms and retailers." Compared to this, we are all in the wrong jobs.)

How big should pinot be? Would a wine-tasting Goldilocks find her perfect pinot noir amongst the too big and too small? Tune in next week after this columnist gets to test a whole bunch and report back. (OK, my job isn't that bad either.)

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