Jay Youmans, Master of Wine, delivered a spectacular webinar last week as part of the French Wine Society's Burgundy Master-Level Certificate program.
His presentation clarified and categorized the multitudinous expressions of pinot noir in the New World and explained why they are so different from red Burgundy (Old World pinot noir).
"The movie 'Sideways' has catapulted the pinot noir grape to stardom," stated Youmans, "but the grape is fickle and it remembers everything that you do to it. Winemaking practices have tremendous impact on the final look, feel and flavor of pinot noir."
Many producers, both in Burgundy and around the world, boost color by allowing a "cold soak" before fermentation begins. In this step, the crushed grapes are allowed to macerate in their juices allowing for the extraction of more pigment. But, some New World producers go beyond extraction to actually add color by using juice concentrate.
In Burgundy, France, the grape in the bottle is pinot noir. In California, for example, a wine labeled pinot noir need only contain 75 percent of that grape. The balance can be comprised of something else.
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).
Once you add in the viticultural variables such as climate, soil, clones and crop yields, the picture becomes even more complicated.
The result? Very different expressions of pinot noir.
Youmans divided the New World styles of pinot into five different categories:
• Dark, extracted and polished (lots of tannin, oak and fruit … almost Syrah-like)
• Fruit-forward (big emphasis on fruit, often finished with some residual sugar)
• Generic (lacking varietal character, blended with other grapes, altered color, oak)
• Ripe and jammy (over-ripe fruit, high-alcohol, almost zinfandel-like)
• Burgundian in style (moderate alcohol, moderate acid, earthy and complex)
True Burgundy is different still. It is not densely pigmented, nor as fruit-forward, nor as high in alcohol as New World offerings. Oak, if present, is subtle vs. overt.
Red Burgundy has more acidity and more minerality. This is coupled with a tannin profile that can be quite astringent. Both the acid and the tannin require a few years in the bottle to soften and mellow.
Lastly, the flavor profile of red Burgundy tends toward earth and spice vs. fruit and vanilla.
If you would like to put Youmans' webinar to the taste test. I highly recommend Drouhin Chorey-les-Beaune 2009 as your Old World benchmark. The Klee pinot noir from Oregon would serve as a nice foil. They both run approximately $25.
Note: Youmans teaches about wine in Washington at the Capital Wine School. To learn more about his classes, go to capitalwineschool.com.