Pinot Off The Beaten Path
Written by Bonnie Graves
Historically associated with France’s Burgundy region – most notably, unmistakably pinot. From Austria to New Zealand to the UK to the Côte d’Or, or “Golden Slope” – the pinot noir grape has had an ancient and varied evolution in the wine world. The six acres planted by the Zellerbachs in 1953, later part of the lauded Hanzell Winery in Sonoma, are considered to be the oldest plot in the United States with seminal plantings in Oregon and in the Finger Lakes happening shortly thereafter. But pinot was slow to catch on with American consumers, who initially favored cabernets and zinfandels, until a movie called “Sideways” re-established the grape in the minds of many. In the years since, California and Oregon have seen an explosion of pinot noir both in terms of acreage and brands. But where else does pinot thrive?
For lovers of this grape, a grape known for being finicky to grow and transcendent to taste, getting off the established pinot path is a great way to fully experience its many expressions. Pinot noir thrives in more marginal climates, and most particularly needs a strong diurnal shift to ripen while preserving trademark acidity. Warm days need to be offset by cool nights, and threats like mold, hail, frost, under-ripening versus burned skins, etc., all combine to make pinot noir farmers nervous. But when the microclimate is right, pinot noir can be epic.
Below are five bottles of pinot noir from places you might not expect. Each is made in small-lots, by hand and by winemakers who favor minimal intervention. Each of these speaks of its place, its “terroir,” with unique aromas and textures that are still unmistakably pinot. From Austria to New Zealand to the UK to Chile to South Africa, these pinots are worth seeking out:
Global warming is a key factor impacting many winegrowing regions; for Austria, typically a bastion of white grapes like riesling and grüner veltliner, it means that the potential to produce reds like pinot noir is expanding dramatically. As the vitis vinifera ripening band moves inexorably northward, places like Austria’s Thermenregion are making unexpectedly spectacular pinots. A favorite producer is Johanneshof Reinisch, where a trio of brothers are making waves just thirty minutes south of Vienna. With vines that are over twenty years old planted on limestone soils, the Reinisch pinots have beautiful, herbaceous notes of cedar with cherry and anise.
2017 Johanneshof Reinisch, “Grillenhügel” (Thermenland, Austria) SRP $35, www.circovino.com, www.j-r.at
Another winegrowing region directly impacted by warming trends is in the United Kingdom, not an area typically associated with making wines, although mead and whiskey and beer have done just fine. Master Sommelier Laura Rhys is the Global Ambassador for Gusbourne Wines, located at the estate in Kent which dates to the year 1410. Her mission in tandem with winemaker Charlie Holland is to convince the world that English “fizz” and the pinot noir that often goes into it can be world-class. While much of their proprietary pinot is made into Champenoise-inspired bubbles, their still pinot noir is well worth ferreting out if you can find it.
2018 Gusbourne Estate, “Boot Hill Vineyard” (West Sussex, UK) SRP $70, www.broadbent.com/usa, www.gusbourne.com A far cry from the chalky soils of Kent is the tiny Chilean region of Limarí, where a pocket of coastal limestone has proven perfect for pinot noir. The Legado reserva bottling from producer De Martino is an example of why sommeliers try wines blind – you’d never guess this amazing pinot is from a mostly unknown region in Chile and that it only costs about $20. It’s that good. With winemaker Marcelo Retamal recently named international Winemaker of the Year, the cat is out of the proverbial bag. Concentrated notes of red fruits and purple violets with a hint of forest combine in a medium-weight pinot noir that way over- delivers for the price and then some.
2018 De Martino Reserva, “Legado” (Limarí, Chile) SRP $20, www.broadbent.com/usa, www.demartino.cl
Heading around to the other half of the Southern Hemisphere, we arrive at New Zealand where pinot noir has quickly established itself as a contender to its flagship friend, sauvignon blanc. While the bulk of NZ’s exports are still fairly inexpensive grocery store whites, winemaker and Master of Wine Steve Smith has tirelessly championed quality over quantity. Steve pioneered Craggy Range, one of New Zealand’s most successful wineries, before partnering with investor and friend Brian Sheth in 2017 to launch Pyramid Valley. Farmed biodynamically, the wines from their two estate vineyards in North Canterbury and further south in Central Otago are impeccably pure expressions of just how great Kiwi wines can be. The 2018 pinot noir from Otago, widely considered to be one of the premium sites for the grape across the globe, is exceptionally silky with aromatic notes of lush cranberry spice, orange peel and juniper, and is also entirely vegan.
2018 Pyramid Valley Estate (Central Otago, New Zealand) SRP $50, www.pyramidvalley.co.nz Lastly, if ever there were an unsung country making amazing wines that aren’t exported widely enough, it’s South Africa. Wine importer TRUWINES is looking to change that as founder Jesse Balsimo’s mission is to bring small-lot, family-farmed wines from South Africa to the States. While chenin blanc and pinotage - South Africa’s homegrown favorite - remain the most widely planted white and red grapes, the pinot noirs coming out of cooler climate parcels continue to impress. Oak Grove’s location in Elgin, a smaller subdivision of the Western Cape of South Africa, features south-facing slopes at nearly 1500 feet above sea-level, and its wines are remarkable. The 2018 Groenlandberg pinot noir is an homage to the Green Mountains that tower above.
2018 Oak Grove, “Groenlandberg” (Elgin, South Africa) SRP $50, www.truvino100.com, www.oakvalley.co.za/wines/groenlandberg