I once heard it said that if you want your heartbroken make Pinot Noir. I think the wine’s delicacy is a thin veil over vineyard quality and skilled management. Winemakers repeatedly give people the impression that Pinot Noir is one of the hardest grapes to grow and produce. How true is this? Is Pinot hard to make? I don’t think so, with caveats.
As a plant physiologist turned winemaker, I tend to strip understanding of a thing down its core then build up from there. Pinot Noir is still a grapevine like any other grapevine and there are certain vineyard aspects that we know contribute to higher quality wine: cool-ish climates (cool relative to normal ripening temperatures for a variety – cool for Syrah is warmer than cool for Pinot Noir), free draining soils, avoiding climatic extremes, etc. These all apply to Pinot Noir and if you find yourself in a vineyard with these broad characteristics you are more likely than not to produce quality fruit. And with Pinot the basic axiom for all quality wine is true: great fruit can be ushered into great wine.
Beyond these basics, it has been my experience that Pinot is quite easy to work. Flavors arrive in the grape early and taste great, it tastes great when fermenting, tastes great when
aging, isn’t as prone to stinky/savory notes like Syrah that need time in barrel to resolve, doesn’t tend to go through “dumb” periods in barrel or bottle, and generally requires little intervention. Making Pinot doesn’t require frequent handling and intervention; it really is a watch and wait wine.
But if we believe in democracy, don’t we believe that the majority is correct at least some of the time? And if so, then why do so many people think Pinot is hard to make unless it is actually difficult to make? As noted above, I think the answer is that Pinot’s delicacy is a thin veil over site quality and deft management. You can be exposed – and thus heartbroken – very easily by Pinot Noir. This is for a couple of reasons. First, true believers in Pinot tend to hold the wine in such high regard because when it is great it is ethereal. All of the best wines of my lifetime have been either red or white Burgundy. When the high is high, there is a long way to fall. I’ve heard it said about relationships that expectations kill. Just as we are at times careless with the burdens we lay on loved ones, we set the bar so high with Pinot that it is tough to ever meet our desires. Parenthetically, this is not an argument to lower expectations but merely an explanation for frequent disappoint.
But the challenge is not merely psychological. The second reason Pinot breaks your heart is that while I do believe it is easy to make, it may be one of the least forgiving varieties to winemaking vagaries and as such the easiest to mess up. The thin veil worn by Pinot exposes winemaking errors: picking too early, too late, too much oak, too much extraction, poor site selection – I could go on – more so than other varieties. There is less you can add, less tricks to employ, that don’t show themselves in some manner in the final wine. Pinot Noir is easy to make, and easy to mishandle; the margin for error is small.
Finally, as with its cellar handling, the thinner skins of Pinot Noir make it susceptible to
heat spikes and temperature extremes. I think this is one reason growing quality Pinot in California has been such a challenge. Sun, sun, and more sun greet the grapes all summer. If you have Pinot approaching harvest in the first two weeks of September (hello Russian River Pinot), you are still in a window where the likelihood of a California heat spike is high. The problem is, at that point of ripening, most grapes are no longer pumping water into the berry to counter balance the normal loss of water through evaporation. Therefore, if a spike in temperature arrives and your grapes are still hanging, you might see potential alcohols increase 1.5-2.0% in a mere 2-3 days through water loss. That could impact your delicacy, structure, and balance, and those elements are largely what Pinot is all about. Cabernet, Syrah, and other varieties not only resist dehydration better, they tend to ripen later in parts of California and are not as close to that window where heat spikes are more likely to occur.
Pinot Noir gives no quarter. Our hearts break perhaps because we unfairly burden this little child with lofty expectations, but it is also because Pinot holds a mirror up for us to view our own folly and skill with uncomfortable transparency.