The Journal and Jacques Scott continue the popular series dissecting wine varietals to see just how they differ when produced in different parts of the world. How can wine made from the same grape taste so different? Just how does the terrain and the winemaker impact the end product? And are these differences discernable? This month we put the noble Pinot Noir grape under the spotlight.

Blind tastings are always a challenge for wine experts and enthusiasts alike to see if their senses of sight, taste and smell are in good working order, and this month’s tasting held at Bacchus restaurant was indeed a real test for tasters Paul McLaughlin, Sergio Serrano and Lee Royle from Jacques Scott (the experts) as well as yours truly (representing the enthusiasts).

Pinot Noir is a tricky little grape to grow and only produces in small quantities in specific areas of the globe. It likes relatively cool climates and is highly susceptible to diseases of the vine, so much so that it has gained a reputation in the wine world for being particularly difficult to grow (wine expert Jancis Robinson calls Pinot a “minx of a vine”.)

Its birthplace is in Burgundy, France, where the best examples produce sensational wines full of elegance, versatility and finesse, with elements of spice, earthiness, dark forest fruit and truffle on the palate.

Fruit forward cherry and berry-laden New World examples can be found as far a field as Marlborough in New Zealand and California’s Napa Valley as well as Chile’s Leyda Valley.

“As a general rule, Old World Pinot Noirs are elegant, refined and subtle while New World Pinot Noir varieties are darker in colour and full of fruit,” Lee explained.

For our blind tasting each bottle was carefully wrapped in napkins to hide its identity and numbered. Tasters were then presented with each wine to be carefully pondered over to really get to grips with the nuances within each glass.

The Wines

Wines tasted (in no particular order) were:

  • Montes Alpha, 2007 (Chile) CI$19.99
  • Joseph Drouhin Côte de Beaune, 2007 (France) CI$32.99
  • Principiato (Italy), 2007 CI$13.99
  • Acacia, Napa valley (California), 2008 CI$22.99
  • Babich Marlborough (New Zealand), 2006 CI$18.99

Decisions, Decisions

First poured was a light purple-coloured wine that had a delicate nose of strawberries and red currants. Gentle and light, this wine was definitely an Old World contender but needed to open up more to offer its full potential before tasters were content to make their suggestions.

We enjoyed a dish of portabello mushrooms atop polenta with a delicate smattering of beans from the excellent Bacchus kitchen which helped bring out the earthy tones of the wine to the fore.  A beautiful baked Brie served with a ginger marmalade also allowed the tastebuds to fully appreciate the subtle nuances of this wine.

Sergio declared this an easy first choice and had his bets stacked high on this being the Joseph Drouhin Côte de Beaune.

The next two wines on the agenda were further delicate expressions of the Pinot Noir grape that were refined and subtle and lacked the fruity oomph of a New World wine but could have possibly lent themselves to New Zealand’s Marlborough region.

It was a tough call between Italy’s Principiato, a value-for-money wine from northeast Italy’s Tre Venezie region full of dark black cherry aromas and flavours, and Babich’s Marlborough vineyards, where they produce a medium bodied Pinot Noir full of fresh red fruit to be found on the bouquet and warmed with darker plummy flavours that linger on the spicy finish.

Our server Simone brought to the table a fantastic array of lunchtime dishes to assist us with our decision-making, including a light and delicate tuna caprese salad, an Angus beef 12 oz burger with all the delicious trimmings and an elegant steak oozing flavour with a mushroom sauce that tied into perfectly with the earthy flavours of the wine.

The final two wines were easier to decipher, both having a deep dark red appearance and a plummy fruitiness that shouted New World to the tasters.

Tasters did have to decipher however whether the wines were from Chile’s Montes winery, which produces a lively and generous Pinot Noir, with balanced oak aging and dark cherry and ripe berry notes, or California’s Acacia winery, where their Pinot Noir wines are layered with back and red fruits and spicy notes with silky tannins and a long finish. A tough choice to make.

The Results

After a period of wine tasting and food enjoyment the wines were able to take on more of their own particular expression, which was an interesting exercise in itself. The first wine opened up beautifully, revealing a soft roundness and balance that suggested to all tasters that it could be nothing else but the elegant and delicious Côte de Beaune, a true expression of the greatness of Pinot Noir. Silky and well balanced, the earthiness of this wine really gave it away to all who tasted it.

Most tasters (three out of four) discerned the second wine to correctly be the gentle and well structured Principiato, while the slightly more astringent Babich was voted as the third wine in our blind tasting.

Everyone correctly guessed number four as the Montes Alpha, a slightly more aggressive dominance of fruit and tannin swaying the voters down towards a southerly production, while all correctly guessed the final wine to be the slightly softer California Acacia, “a fruity bombshell” as Paul put it.

Wine enthusiasts, if you want to explore all the nuances of your favourite grape, a blind tasting is definitely the way to go.  Get a group of you together and all bring a bottle and discover aspects of your favourite grape that may have been hiding from your tastebuds all along.

April, 2010 (The Cayman Islands Journal)