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Pinot Noir: Persnickety princess of Burgundy
By John H. Isacs

ONE of the great truisms in the wine world is "nothing is easy in Burgundy." This is especially true of the region's greatest red wine variety, Pinot Noir.

This grape is notoriously sensitive to excessive heat, wind, frost, planting density, pruning procedures, soil types, fermentation methods, yeast types and about every aspect of making wine. Pinot Noir vines are also quite susceptible to a variety of diseases and pests.

So why would anyone in their right mind even contemplate cultivating this difficult grape? Because when things go right, Pinot Noir wines from Burgundy can be some of the most complex, intriguing and fragrant wines of the world, with younger wines offering a broad range of fresh red and black fruit flavors and more mature Pinots having seductive earthy and savory qualities.

The earliest documented proof of winemaking in Burgundy was in AD 1 by the Romans, however, it is now widely believed that the Celt tribes inhabiting the region before the birth of Christ were the first to cultivate vines.

By the end of the 6th century, the wines of Burgundy were famous throughout the Roman Empire and were often used as a currency for trading. In the Middle Ages, Benedictine monks compiled meticulous instructions on the cultivation, pressing, fermentation and aging of Pinot wines.

Pinot Noir wines reached a new zenith of popularity and quality during the period of the Dukes of Burgundy from 1364 through 1477. This is sometimes referred to as the golden age of Burgundy when the magnificent court of the dukes rivaled that of the kings of France and the succession of dukes actively promoted the wines of Burgundy.

Philip the Bold (1364-1404) passed a law forbidding the planting of Gamay, the other red variety in Burgundy, declaring it unfit for human consumption.

From the Renaissance to modern day, the commercial success and prestige of Pinot Noir wines from Burgundy has continued to grow and today they are some of the best and most prized wines in the world.

I love to say that trying to make Burgundy simple is exceedingly difficult. In other words, understanding the wines of Burgundy may be the most difficult cognitive task in the wine world. There are more than 600 appellations and sub-appellations and countless producers. The space allotted to this column permits me only the most rudimentary of explanations.


The most simple way to understand the quality levels of Burgundy Pinot Noirs is to understand that wines from smaller or more specified areas are better. The most basic wines are labeled as Bourgogne Pinot Noir and can be made of grapes from anywhere in Burgundy.

Burgundy AC wines comprise over 50 percent of total production with grapes from less renowned areas and vineyards. Yield and other winemaking requirements for this generic level of Burgundy are also less stringent.

The next step up the quality ladder is village-level wines that are named after the village like Pommard, Beaune or Chambertin. Approximately 35 percent of Burgundy's Pinot Noir production is village-level wines.

The quality of Bourgogne AC and village-level Pinot Noir wines ranges from pretty awful to very good. Picking the right producer is everything.

The seriously good red wines of Burgundy start with Premier Cru wines. Premier Cru reds are produced from specific vineyards that have been rated high-quality vineyards and comprise about 12 percent of Pinot Noir production in Burgundy.

The labels of these wines specify the village of origin and often, though not always, the name of a single vineyard. The quality of Premier Cru wines varies, with the worst not as good as top village-level wines and the best often on par with Grand Cru wines.

The highest-quality designation of Pinot Noir wines in Burgundy is Grand Cru. These wines only amount to about 2 percent of production. Grand Cru wines have the name of the Grand Cru rated vineyard on the label along with the producer and in some cases a sub-climate or smaller area within the vineyard. Grand Cru wines are the most profound expression of the terroir of Burgundy and also the most expensive.

Recommended producers

Knowing the quality levels of Pinot Noir wines in Burgundy is a good start, but when buying these wines you must also know the producers. A dirty little secret about this exalted grape and wine region is that there are still too many bad wines.

Top producers with wines at all quality levels available in Shanghai include Louis Jadot, Joseph Drouhin, Bouchard Pere & Fils and Domaine de Montille.

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