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Great Pinot Noir is Not Simply Terroir

Pinot noir grapes ready for processing
© AFP/ Alain Julien | Pinot noir grapes ready for processing
A Franco-Australian pair challenge the Burgundian notion that great pinot noir is all about the vineyard, by creating some weird and wonderful pinot blends. Sarah Ahmed reports.

If I had a dollar for each time "holy grail" and "pinot noir" are mentioned in the same sentence, I’d be a wealthy woman. Many a winemaker has succumbed to the siren call of this famously provocative variety, which can dazzle and dismay in equal measure.

The traditional consensus is that Burgundy’s vignerons have set the benchmark for pinot noir, with their prowess widely attributed to an intimate grasp of the minutiae of their terroir, developed over many centuries. Terroir, meaning a sense of place, reaches its ultimate expression in the Cote d'Or region, where neighboring sites and villages are considered to give divergent wine styles.

But not everyone is buying into Burgundy's terroir-focused approach.

Take Loire-born Alain Rousseau and Barossa boy Nick Glaetzer, whose highly unconventional approach to making Frogmore Creek’s flagship pinot noir in Tasmania formed the basis of a presentation at the 2012 International Cool Climate Symposium in Hobart.

Made by self-titled “egotistical winemakers who can’t keep their hands off in the cellar,” Frogmore Creek Evermore is a blend of pinot noir components subjected to different winemaking techniques, including co-fermentation with gewürztraminer, chardonnay and pinot gris. Dried pinot noir grapes were also used for the blend, which were produced by cutting the cane when the fruit was ripe – thereby cutting off the water supply to the grapes, allowing them to raisin and concentrate.

By showcasing the final wine together with its component parts, which were harvested from the same block at the same time, the pair challenged received wisdom that great pinot noir is made in the vineyard.

According to Glaetzer, “the terroir journey for pinot noir doesn’t have to stop at the vineyard gate.” By using different techniques “to grab layers” and build complexity, he says, “the final Evermore blends have always been superior wines compared to any components.”

It’s an approach which met with the approval of the audience at this year's 12th Annual World of Pinot Noir Seminar; namely that it matters more for a wine to taste good than to reflect its place of origin.

Winemakers Alain Rousseau and Nick Glaetzer
© Frogmore Creek | Winemakers Alain Rousseau and Nick Glaetzer

Not that Glaetzer and Rousseau are dismissive of terroir. For Rousseau, winemaking can accentuate or reduce the difference between geographical areas. In the case of Frogmore Creek, which undertakes contract winemaking for others as well as making estate wines, he maintains that “even if we influence the wine during different winemaking practices by lifting up the flavor and aroma profiles, we can still see the link to each area.”

What’s more, some of Frogmore Creek’s techniques are commonplace in France, where even the Burgundy Wine Board accepts that the concept of terroir encompasses “technical skill, choice of tools and methods.”

While I suspect that Frogmore Creek’s co-fermenting and dried grape techniques would provoke rather more than a Gallic shrug (though rumor has it that co-fermentation with pinot gris originated in Burgundy), I have sympathy with Glaetzer’s contention that “Burgundy’s 'legal' practices of chaptalization, de-stemming, adding stems and carbonic maceration etc. are not really all that different to co-fermentation." As the saying goes, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and whether conventional or otherwise, winemaking techniques can have a profound influence on the sensorial and structural profile of pinot noir.

For example, Glaetzer reckons that carbonic maceration, which is most commonly used in Beaujolais to give its red wines lifted aromas of blue fruit and banana, tends to be one of the strongest components, producing pronounced floral notes and – if used in conjunction with natural yeasts – funkier, savory notes on the mid-palate.

Other methods, such as adding grape stems to the fermentation tank along with the berries, and the rather unconventional technique of co-fermenting red varieties with white varieties, can provide lifted aromatics, but also modify the wine's tannin structure.

The dried grape component, which Glaetzer describes as “masculine,” builds body by increasing sugar by around one baumé, equivalent to almost 18 grams of sugar per liter and one percent of alcohol.

And here’s a final thought. In support of his argument that the terroir journey for pinot noir doesn’t have to stop at the vineyard gate, Glaetzer cited a paper by Olivier Gergaud and Victor Ginsburgh, in which the academics showed that “technological choices in viticulture and winemaking affect quality much more than natural endowments, the effect of which is negligible.”

So might it be said that, because Old World producers’ methods are more constrained by appellation regulations, New World pinot noir winemakers may be better equipped to find that holy grail? For Glaetzer, it’s at least important to challenge the prevailing trend in favor of single-site wines and acknowledge that winemakers also have a role to play in making wines more exciting.

L-R: Filling a wine press with pinot noir grapes, Champagne-Ardenne; a fermenting tank at Artesa Winery in the Napa Valley
© AFP | L-R: Filling a wine press with pinot noir grapes, Champagne-Ardenne; a fermenting tank at Artesa Winery in the Napa Valley

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