Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. ‘Nuf said. Unless you’ve been under a rock or drinking Colt 45 since you were 12, you know these two grapes. They are the two main grapes of Burgundy (if you’re lookin’ at a bottle of French wine don’t be confused by the term “Bourgogne”-its’ just the French trying to complicate matters by using their fancy French language). In contrast to Bordeaux, Burgundy wines are generally not blends. Burgundy has many sub-regions (called “AOC’s”) and is home to some of the most expensive and fancy-pants wines known to man. From all the hype I’m guessing Burgundy is where Jesus turned water into wine during some of those missing years.
The reason for having many sub-regions is a question of Terroir (there go the French being fancy again). Terroir has an implicit effect on the taste and quality of the wine. One famous aspect of Burgundies Terroir is its Limestone soils. In 1522, some dude named Erasmus wrote: "O happy Burgundy which merits being called the mother of men since she furnishes from her mummeries such good milk". Wine and mummeries. Good stuff.
Terroir can be understood simply as a “sense of place”. Terroir is essentially at the foundation of the French system for classifying wines and is the model for designating appellations (specific geographic areas) and for wine laws around the world, so I guess we have to pay attention to the French (you’d think after being around for so long they’d have come up with some real culture. Like Football). Another way to look at Terroir is that wine is often described as having certain characteristics (flinty, cherry, aromatic, like licking asphalt). Those characteristics can be traced to the Terroir, which is the sum of the effect on the wine from the soil, climate, vineyard placement, grape, human interaction, etc.
Burgundy has 5 wine growing regions. Often it will appear on the label which will at least get you started with identifying French wines. These regions are:
- Côte de Nuits
- Côte de Beaune
- Côte Chalonnaise
Pinot Noir is a light grape/wine which pairs with a lot of foods. It’s a fickle grape (see Miles from “Sideways” babble on about it, below) so the flavors can vary from year to year. In addition, the terroir (I hope you’ve been paying attention) has a great effect on the taste, evidenced by the variety of flavors from different regions. A few examples:
FRANCE: brown paper bag full of mushrooms or wet leaves along with dirt, and maybe roses and cherries. Sounds kind of like my compost bin, late summer vintage.
CALIFORNIA: Bigger flavors than France in general. California Pinot Noirs are lush and more fruit-forward (as are many California wines when compared to their European counterparts). Look for flavors ranging from sweet black cherry to black raspberry to vanilla, clove, caramel, even coca-cola. Really? Maybe I’ll just have a rum and cherry coke instead.
OREGON: usually a little lighter in color and texture than California Pinot Noir, and typically more tart. Cranberry, bing cherry along with some earthy characteristics as well: truffle, mushrooms, etc. It’s probably gluten-free since everything in freakin' Oregon is.
Miles from “Sideways” waxing poetic about the Pinot Noir grape (and metaphorically, about himself): “Uh, I don't know, I don't know. Um, it's a hard grape to grow, as you know. Right? It's uh, it's thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early. It's, you know, it's not a survivor like Cabernet, which can just grow anywhere and uh, thrive even when it's neglected. No, Pinot needs constant care and attention. You know? And in fact it can only grow in these really specific, little, tucked away corners of the world. And, and only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it, really. Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot's potential can then coax it into its fullest expression. Then, I mean, oh its flavors, they're just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and... ancient on the planet.”
OK. It is a commune (town) in Burgundy, and is the birth place of the grape as far as those who give a s*#t can tell. To add to the confusion, Chablis is a region that’s Burgundy adjacent (sort of like Hawthorne being Manhattan Beach adjacent) and produces chardonnay (called Chablis). Chardonnay is one of the most widely planted grapes in the world. It’s pretty easy to grow and relatively neutral, usually taking on flavors coming from the Terroir (You frickin better know what Terroir means by now) or from oak (which we’ve come to know and love in California). A good example of Terroir: many Chardonnays (called white burgundies or Chablis in France) derive more flavors from the soil then the sun (due to it’s cool climate), hence they tend to be more flinty and steely. In addition, the majority of Chardonnays from France are unoaked, especially those from Chablis.
California chardonnays are a whole other deal. We usually taste more fruit (often due to warmer weather) and perhaps vanilla, butter, and a softer and sometimes thicker feel - winemaker influences coming from aging in oak, and a secondary fermentation known as malolactic fermentation. A turning point in the recognition of California wine was the famous 1976 Judgment of Paris blind tasting (see the movie Bottle Shock) where a 1973 Chateau Montelena (Napa Valley) was the big winner. Sorry French people. At least you still got your snails and frog legs. And let me know if you want me to send over a few packs of disposable Bics for the ladies. I’m just sayin…