Is pinot noir becoming too popular? Some vineyard owners are concerned that the variety's increasing popularity is leading to the advance of cheaper, higher-yielding versions.
Known as "the heartbreak grape," pinot noir is very susceptible to changes in the environment. The Drinks Business spoke to several top producers in Oregon, where many of the U.S.'s most respected pinot noir grapes are grown.
Jason Lett, the owner of Eyrie Vineyards in McMinnville and son of David Lett, the first person to plant the variety in the Willamette Valley in 1966, expressed worry about the growing demand for pinot noir around the world and the impact it has had on local production.
Highlighting a growing demand for Pinot Noir from consumers around the world, Lett warned: “There’s a danger that people are going to start making it cheaper and cheaper.”
To illustrate this shift within Oregon, Lett confirmed that Pinot Noir vineyards were beginning to appear on the fertile valley floor of the Willamette Valley, rather than being restricted to the hillsides. “The battles dad fought about planting grapes in the right place are still being fought today,” he commented.
Many wine producers are staunchly against planting on the valley floor, where the grapes are more susceptible to frost and disease. Others say that the soil in the valley is not suitable for high-quality grape growing, and that the hillsides offer better drainage and better access to sunlight.
Professional wine judge and writer Jessica Yadegaran drives this point home in a recent piece for Contra Costa Times:
One reason people love pinot noir so much is because no other grape variety is as reflective of soil and climate. It is truly a shape-shifter, and even short differences in distance can yield wines of very different characters.
Yadegaran continues that Oregon's long growing season and cool temperatures make it the best place to grow pinot noir outside of its native Burgundy, in France.
The question of how best to grow pinot noir grapes adds to the already-lively debate over the variety, which is expressed wildly differently in the U.S. and in Burgundy, and from vineyard to vineyard.
The Baltimore Sun notes that bottles of pinot noir in France are made with only that grape, but in California, for instance, it need only contain 75 percent pinot noir. The differences don't end there:
In warm New World growing regions, the juice often needs to be acidified in order to heighten piquancy, whereas in Burgundy, the juice is often chaptalized in order to reach a stable alcohol level.
New World winemakers tend to use cultured yeasts and inoculate their fermentations achieving clean, straightforward flavors. Burgundians use wild or natural yeast strains for complexity of flavor.
And lastly, New World winemakers adorn their pinot noirs with much more oak than in France; some even finish their bottlings with a little residual sugar (a practice not followed in Burgundy).
All things considered, pinot noir's popularity has dramatically increased over the last two decades. The Sacramento Bee notes research from the Demeter Group, which puts it as the third-most popular red wine in America behind cabernet sauvignon and merlot.
Some of pinot noir's increased popularity could be attributed to the 2005 film Sideways, which mentions the varietal positively throughout. In 2010, South Coast Today wrote that sales of pinot noir increased by 16 percent in the first three months after the film's release, with some reports showing that increase as high as 46 percent.
Step 1: Getting Hooked
Once you’ve started to enjoy wines, you can’t help but get curious about what else might be out there. In the early stages, people will tend to stick close to home, trying other <a href="http://www.snooth.com/varietal/zinfandel/" target="_hplink">White Zins</a> or other <a href="http://www.snooth.com/tag/sweet/" target="_hplink">sweet whites</a>, but there comes a point when the budding wine geek tries a glass of something different and POW! On goes the light bulb. There are epiphany wines and then there are epiphany wines. These first wines tend to be a bit less memorable in many ways than the wines that tend to set up our future favorites, but they do hold the key to opening that door. Photo courtesy of <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/fairerdingo/2484496524/" target="_hplink">Raider of Gin</a> via Flickr/CC
Step 2: Trying Everything
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Step 3: Loving Everything
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Step 4: Loving Power
Looking for something more generally leads to the "bigger is better" period of wine-geek evolution. <a href="http://www.snooth.com/wines/black/" target="_hplink">Black wines</a>, <a href="http://www.snooth.com/articles/wine-reviews/syrah-review/" target="_hplink">intense wines</a>, packed with fruit -- these are wines that make you sit up and take notice, that hit you over the head and slap you a round a little bit! And you know what? You like it! Each new favorite wine is an experience that beats your previous high, until it doesn’t. Until a wine just gets to be too much: too intense, too alcoholic, too much! Photo courtesy of <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/mr_t_in_dc/4183854194/" target="_hplink">Mr. T in DC</a> via Flickr/CC
Step 5: Loving Complexity
Once you tire of getting smacked around by your wine -- but, of course, the occasional smack around continues to be a treat, right? -- you start looking for more in a different direction. The intensity of fruit and overt oakiness of many wines becomes monotonous and tiring. What else is there? Well, for starters, some complexity. The kind of complexity only <a href="http://www.snooth.com/varietal/" target="_hplink">grapes</a> can give, and only grapes that aren’t cropped too low and extracted to hell in the winery at that. Here is where you start to consider the differences between the new world and the old, not just the wines but also the techniques both in the vineyard and the <a href="http://www.snooth.com/articles/tag/cellar/" target="_hplink">cellar</a>. This is also the point of no return, for if you have arrived here, your geek status is assured! Photo courtesy of <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/champd/6494363061/" target="_hplink">ChampD311</a> via Flickr/CC
Step 6: Loving Elegance and Finesse
Now this is not to say that people who arrive here love only elegance and finesse (two words with rather nebulous meanings after all). But once you’ve experienced a certain number of wines you tend to find that what you really want are complex wines that are not tiring to drink. In many circles that means <a href="http://www.snooth.com/region/france/burgundy/" target="_hplink">Burgundy</a>, in others <a href="http://www.snooth.com/region/italy/piemonte/barolo/" target="_hplink">Barolo</a> and <a href="http://www.snooth.com/region/italy/piemonte/barbaresco/" target="_hplink">Barbaresco</a>, but a fine argument can be made that wines like <a href="http://www.snooth.com/region/france/burgundy/beaujolais/" target="_hplink">Beaujolais</a>, <a href="http://www.snooth.com/region/france/loire/pays-nantais/muscadet/" target="_hplink">Muscadet</a>, and <a href="http://www.snooth.com/wines/etna+rosso/" target="_hplink">Etna Rosso</a> meet these criteria just fine. So, let’s make sure we don’t make this into some financial argument where we all end up drinking expensive wines and see that as some badge of honor. Photo courtesy of <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/49333775@N00/268982858/" target="_hplink">The Shopping Sherpa</a> via Flickr/CC
Step 7: Back to Your Roots
In many cases, the final step toward full-fledged wine geekdom involves a return to one’s roots. Simpler wines that work with one’s menu choices, easy drinking off-dry German wines, wines that make one go "yum" instead of "hmmm" -- these are all likely finds in the wine geek’s cellar. In many cases this is simply the result of years of exploration and discovery, and many of these wines tend to be the simpler wines of the greatest producer. Who can resist the allure of a Village <a href="http://www.snooth.com/region/france/burgundy/" target="_hplink">Burgundy</a> or <a href="http://www.snooth.com/varietal/barbera/" target="_hplink">Barbera</a> from the world’s greatest producer? Not a complete wine geek! Photo courtesy of <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/mroconnell/3269904850/" target="_hplink">ryanovineyards</a> via Flickr/CC
Wine Lover or Wine Geek?
So, you're a wine geek, but what kind? Are you The Weasel? Or perhaps The Gourmand? And have you ever pulled a Nixon? Head to our slideshow <a href="http://www.snooth.com/articles/commentary/wine-lovers/" target="_hplink">Wine Lovers - and Geeks</a> to find out. Whichever kind of wine geek you are, if you want some tips on talking the talk, check out <a href="http://www.snooth.com/articles/commentary/wine-nose-1/" target="_hplink">Wine Nose</a> to learn more about wine descriptors, from caramel to cat's pee. Read more wine news and reviews at <a href="http://www.snooth.com/" target="_hplink">Snooth.com</a>. You might also like:</em> - <a href="http://www.snooth.com/articles/summer-beers/" target="_hplink">Summer Beers</a> - <a href="http://www.snooth.com/articles/7-unusual-wines-for-pork/" target="_hplink">7 Unusual Wines for Pork</a> - <a href="http://www.snooth.com/articles/red-wines-for-summer/" target="_hplink">Red Wines for Summer</a>