Pinot Noir: A Noir Metamorphosis

Saturday, 01 April 2017 13:11

Pinot Noir has undergone one of the most incredible stories of change, evolving from a simple and fruity wine that found its place in basic segments in the early years of the millennium, to a highly ambitious
and complex variety that not only aims at conquering higher segments, but at making its point heard.

The following story could well be the plot of a new novel.

Following the success of the Hollywood flick "Sideways" in 2004, a true fever for propagating Pinot Noir invaded or fields. The phenomenon not only expended the area planted to over 4,000 hectare -almost half of them in coastal locations like Casablanca and San Antonio-  but also brought about a new paradigm: a Latin-blooded, warm, noisy and voluptuous wine country was suddenly able to trap elegance, fragility, freshness and depth in a bottle.

The rush was greatly promoted by British critics, most of whom have a slant for lighter and fresher wines. The reincarnation of this Bordeaux variety along the Chilean coast fully met their three commandments: good, nice and affordable wines. Without the complexity of their great European cousins but with undeniable freshness and briny character, the wines received enough accolades to boost the ego of producers, encouraging them to look beyond the primary strawberry and raspberry flavors.

I have to admit this: I never jumped onto the bandwagon. I thought the trend was excessive and negative. As we all know, Pinot Noir is a niche variety that is adored by experts but still not fully understood by ordinary consumers. It is too minimalist, even arrogant and elitist for a world where the common pocket prefers to taste greater concentration, more alcohol, body and sweetness for the same price.

On the other hand, cultivating it is far from easy. The wines produced outside Burgundy taste like poor imitations or develop different characteristics that are considered undesirable for the category. In order to produce its best attributes, Pinot Noir requires a number of conditions: older vines and low yields that do not dilute the fruit. Put simply, it is not commercially profitable, especially to the eyes of those growers who dreamed of making a fortune overnight without realizing that taming it is a really long-term challenge.

Lastly, I kind of figured that coastal soil and ocean freshness were not enough. Pinot Noir is a delicate creature, although its best versions have a firm structure that supports the fruity, spicy and earthy flavors. The less abrupt temperature differential between day and night in coastal areas has a negative impact on the medium palate. So producers must be aware of the intense work required both in the vineyard and the winery to achieve the right balance between freshness and tannins. Yes, we all seem to agree. It is not an easy lover.

TRICKY COAST

Cono Sur was one of the first Chilean wineries to make a bold bet on Pinot Noir. Not only did it place its chips on Ocio, the first top of the line for this variety. It also built much if its image from it. It seemed a risky move, but it was well supported by the old vineyards located in Chimbarongo (Colchagua). Adolfo Hurtado, general manager and winemaker, explains that the vineyard is a selection of the clone Pommard brought over from California in 1968. Those plants have adapted and propagated along the country and are at the base of the winery’s success with this variety. Today, the company produces more than 6 million bottles, Bicicleta being the most popular Pinot Noir in England.

“It is not an easy variety to market, but Chile has lots of potential. The decisive factor is the combination of cool climate, little rain during the harvest period and great luminosity. This has been the reason for the success of Chilean whites and Pinot Noir,” he affirms.

Cono Sur sources its Pinot Noir grapes from five different locations: Casablanca, San Antonio, Chimbarongo (Colchagua), San Clemente (Maule) and Biobío, to produce six different lines: Bicicleta, Orgánico, Reserva Especial, Single Vineyard, 20 Barrels and Ocio. But Adolfo Hurtado likes to single out the grapes from Casablanca, for the ocean influence and, very especially, the age of the grapevines. “You cannot really expect anything before 10 years. You have to learn to play the waiting game,” he sentences. The combination of Pommard and clone 777 produces great color, red and black fruit, nice structure and intensity. Unlike San Antonio, where the flavor profile is more red, floral and meaty, Casablanca is synonymous with strength and juiciness.

Gonzalo Bertelsen, general manager and winemaker of Viña Casablanca, shares this opinion. The winery produces three lines of Pinot Noir: Cefiro, Nimbus and Pinot del Cerro, each one with its own philosophy. While Cefiro is produced on the lower flatlands of Tapihue and La Rotunda and explores the floral and delicate side of the variety, Nimbus is born on the hillsides, achieving higher concentration and complexity.

“These are all small lots fermented in open tubs and, to a lesser proportion, in barrels. As the grapes are more concentrated, extraction is key. We cannot afford any excesses, so we have migrated from the old horizontal open tubs to vertical stainless steel tanks. The idea is to reduce the part of the wine that is in contact with the cap. We came to the realization that fermenting in small, artisanal containers is much better, because we were extracting too much,” he explains.

The time of harvest is another critical factor. The window between fresh and overripe fruit is very narrow in the case of Pinot Noir, especially if the goal is to bottle wine without correcting it for acidity. And this is a major challenge for an ambitious wine like Pinot del Cerro, whose grapes grow on the steepest slopes of the valley with very different exposures. Picking at the right time is crucial to obtain expressive fresh fruit marked by the granite and the intensity of the Coastal Range.

Marcelo Papa, winemaker of Concha y Toro, has traveled the country extensively in search of the best Pinot Noirs. Traditionally based in Casablanca, he has three vineyards with two very different conditions: on one side, red, clayish soil with a granite base that is typical of the Coastal Range, with clay percentages of approximately 30% and some gravel in the subsoil. Clay produces great structure and granite hardens the tannins a bit. In Casablanca, the fog lifts earlier than in Limarí, making the valley more luminous for the production of fattier wines of heavier structure. On the other side, we find sedimentary soil, a regular feature of the flatlands of Casablanca, with more sand and less clay. “In general, the Pinot Noirs growing in these areas tend to be very fruity, round and smooth. They are lighter and more elegant than those produced on clay soil,” he concludes.

For Cristián Aliaga, winemaker of William Fèvre Chile, extra care must be taken with the harvest window in coastal valleys, as it is very short. “In just two days your grapes can change a lot. You can spend some time waiting for the flavors and ripeness to develop, but all of a sudden all you left with is overripe fruit. On the other side, in warmer valleys even if the cluster is well covered, the aromatic profile tends to shift towards menthol, with very little complexity and structure,” he affirms.

Francisco Baettig, technical director of Errázuriz, has placed all his chips on the fields of Chilhué and Manzanar, in Aconcagua Costa, the birthplace of Las Pizarras Pinot Noir, a wine that keeps getting closer to the Grand Crus of Burgundy. In his opinion, the Pinot Noir grown in Casablanca is somewhat richer and broader, with intense fruity notes but less complexity in the nose and mouth. “The Pinot Noir from Aconcagua Costa not only contains fresh, vibrant fruit, but also greater complexity, with light tinges of iodine, iron and blood. Besides its well-textured tannins, the wine develops greater minerality and a more vertical profile. The wines have more layers. I suppose the secret lies in the metamorphic rock, which contains some manganese,” he points out.

OPPOSITES ATTRACT

Marcelo Papa may have his hands in Casablanca, but his heart is without a doubt in Limarí, where he owns two vineyards: Quebrada Seca and San Julián. The first one is located on the northern bank of the Limarí river, just 18 kilometers from the ocean. The soil is of colluvial origin, with approximately 30% clay and abundant carbonate from a depth of 30 centimeters s down. The thick fog called camanchaca is often present and only lifts two hours or so later than in the inland part of the valley. “Under these conditions, the wine produced is brimming with light red fruit, great structure and tension, excellent acidity and a nice mineral character,” he says.

San Julián is located on the southern bank of the river, some 30 kilometers from the sea. The soil is of alluvial origin, with approximately 40% clay and abundant carbonate from a depth of 70 centimeters down. Here, the camanchaca that sets in during the night lifts a little earlier, so the wines are more structured and fattier. “With all due respect, Quebrada Seca is more like Gevrey while San Julián is more like Pommard,” he explains.

In the south (Mulchén in the Biobío Valley) the soil is red, with approximately 35% clay and angled stones from the Andes in the subsoil. Although we are almost a thousand kilometers south of Li- marí, the climate here is warmer and days are brighter. The lack of fog sends in more light through the valley, making the wines more exuberant. The clay content gives the wines their fatty and smooth texture and, unlike granite, the angled stones are no obstacle for the growing roots.

For Mr. Papa, the wines’ character is determined by five variables: more light, which increases fruit intensity; more red clay, which adds volume; more sand, which reduces the color and volume but increases smoothness; more granite, which increases hardness; and more carbonate, which adds tension and minerality.

Further south, in the area of Perquenco (Malleco), Cristián Aliaga faces much more extreme conditions. His wines have a totally different balance, which reflects clearly in the numbers. For example, the grapes in Casablanca or Leyda can easily reach 24 or even 25° Brix if the winemaker gets distracted. But in Malleco his wines have never gone beyond 21. 5° Brix. The grapes produce low sugar levels and the acidity is quite pungent, but the fruit ripens nicely and the wine develops a very wild character.

While in the central zone the emphasis is on protecting clusters from the sun, in Malleco one needs to pluck the canopy early on to help the clusters ripen and to prevent any sanitary problems, especially in very fertile soil, where the vines become excessively vigorous. Often times, the harvest is governed by the climate and not by numbers. The south is a region of early frosts and rain. If it rains for three consecutive days (100 to 120 mm), one has to harvest anyway.

“With regard to vinification, I am not sure if there are many differences. In cooler valleys, where tannins are rustic and harsh, extraction has to be very gentle and skin contact must be reduced. But the way in which you are going to macerate, ferment or inoculate (or not) is the winemaker’s decision. Personally, I prefer to make Pinot Noir without commercial yeasts and under 24°C. The amount of maceration of punching down will depend on the quality of the fruit,” he explains.

For Felipe de Solminihac, a partner of Aquitania and the winemaker of the celebrated SoldeSol line from Traiguén (Malleco), in cooler areas, Pinot Noir produces large quantities that need to be regulated. Otherwise, the wine may be too diluted and its tannins may be too salient. In Malleco, however, the low temperatures regulate production naturally. The smaller amount of c luster s and their reduced size help to obtain a wine of good concentration. In this region, yields hardly ever exceed 1.8 to 2 kg per plant.

In Mr de Solminihac’s opinion, the wine has very good color, low pH between 3. 338 and 3. 4 following the malolactic fermentation and, therefore, a natural acidity that is higher, richer and fresher. In Malleco the grape cycle is slower. Everything is slower. The plant begins its bud breaking process in late September or early October, while blooming and fruit set occur in December, preventing the clusters from growing too much. Veraison is in late February, once the heat is over and the solar radiation does not destroy anthocyanins. The grapes can keep their acids, especially malic and tartaric.

Ripening under low temperatures produces grapes of nice fruity flavors and aromas, mostly cherries, and a minerality that is profoundly marked by the clay soil on volcanic subsoil. Also present are aromas of the cool rain forest, like moist earth and mushrooms. “The Pinot grown in Malleco is fruity, mineral and rich in aromas. The mouth is fresh and round due to the high amount of malic acid transformed into lactic acid, good structure, finesse and aging potential. My experience is that wines develop increasing elegance and quality as time goes by,” he concludes.

Pinot Noir may well be a demanding and whimsical variety, but in the extremes of our viticultural geography it has reached its greatest potential, from the coastal sand to the rocky Andean hillsides, to the carbonate soil of the north to the red lands of the deep south.