jamie goode's wine blog: Chile and Pinot Noir

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Chile and Pinot Noir

On the main wineanorak site I've just posted an article on Cono Sur's Pinot Noirs. This Chilean producer has led the way with Pinot, making a very respectable and affordable entry-level wine that's widely available in the UK. But the question I am asking is this: can Chile make a world class Pinot Noir?

My answer (which can be disputed on a number of levels, not least, what constitutes 'world class', and who gets to decide?) is potentially, yes, but not yet. The problem I get at the moment is a sort of herby greenness, which is usally allied with sweet fruit. The combination of sweet ripe fruit with greenness is not a wonderful one. It's verging on Pinotage. The Cono Sur Pinots I tasted are nice wines that are good value for money, but they are not yet world class.

What does Chile need to do with Pinot Noir to take the next step forward? I think vineyard work is the answer. Somehow, winegrowers need to achieve homogeneous grape ripeness. The problem at the moment seems to be that as well as sweet, pure fruit with a degree of elegance, there is some green fruit getting into the same wine. I suspect winegrowers are leaving the grapes on the vine quite late in order to get ripeness, with some grapes getting very ripe and some barely ripe, resulting in the greenness plus relatively high alcohol levels.

How can this be achieved? I can only make suggestions that are guesses: I haven't seen the vineyards. The first is to look at yields. Chilean vineyards ripen late; perhaps lower-yielding vineyards would ripen earlier and more evenly. I'd look at how irrigation is used: if it's necessary, then I'd insitigate regulated-deficit irrigation where it is turned off at certain points to encourage proper ripening and higher quality fruit.

Then I'd look at getting the vines in balance. Perhaps they are too vigorous? Perhaps the day-night temperature differential is resulting in delayed physiological ripening and high sugar levels. Could work with the canopies be in order? Is there a need to address vine spacing? Could organic/integrated management/biodynamic principles help with vine vigour and balance? Who knows. I'm sure these are questions that Chilean winegrowers are already asking, if they are honest about where their wines are at the moment.

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At 11:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Try Villard. Best Chilean pinot I've had. French maker I believe.

At 12:01 AM, Anonymous Doug said...

I have to say that I don't see the point of Pinot Noir that doesn't taste of Pinot Noir. (But maybe I idealise this grape more than all others!)

Pinot Noir is difficult to get right even in the right climates (which seem, in general, to be marginal climates). Alto-Adige, for example, is on the same latitude as Burgundy, but there is very little quality Pinot Noir being made there as it is too hot and dry. Only on north-facing side in a couple of parts of the valley does it seem to flourish.

These are the questions that I would ask.

Is Chile too warm? Does it have the right microclimates to create balanced Pinot and have these microclimates been identified? If the wines are alcoholic is that a result of poor work in the vineyard or poor selection of the site in the fist place?

Are the soils appropriate? Pinot Noir generally prefers limestone-clay, occasionally red glacial soils. What about the mineral content and ph of the soil?

Clonal selection?

Yields? If they are getting uneven ripening they should be harvesting and selecting by hand, not something that happens a lot in Chile at present. I've always associated Chile with higher than average yields. In New Zealand, for example, where the Pinot vines are still relatively young the yields are often lower than in Burgundy (ranging between 18 - 40 hl/ha).

Use of oak? Pinot is a delicate grape. Gentle extraction is key (gravity feeding, pneumatic press) and maturation either in stainless steel or used barrels or new barrels with a light toast is preferable than young vines (as I presume they are) being given a full oak treatment.

Finally, a very general point. In my experience winemakers rule in Chile. Everything is about control from yeast selection to acidification there are a multitude of manipulations because of the target markets and price points. Pinot Noir is a grape that mustn't be over-manipulated hence the work must be done in the vineyard, and thenceforth when beautiful quality grapes are harvested, the wine should not be unmade by too many elaborations in the winery.

At 10:55 PM, Blogger Jamie said...

Thanks anon, I will.

Doug, quite agree - vineyard work is the key, and Pinot Noir is very fussy (but is Merlot just as fussy? I'm beginning to think so, simply because there's so much bad Merlot made - or maybe it's just a third-rate grape).

Tried the Chileans again tonight and they weren't really shaping up too well, with the organic in conversion showing worst.

At 8:29 AM, Blogger Summertown said...


We had the Leyda 'Lot 21' 2005 on our monthly selection last month. Compared favourably to many good NZ and Burgundies I've had.

Considering its amazingly diverse latitudes and altitudes, it's ability to have low cost hand picking to ensure grape ripening consistency and its openess to cutting-edge wine making it is surely just a matter of time before more great Pinots emerge.

It would be my first destination for Pinot Terroir Hunting expedition!

Rob Malcolm
Summertown Wine Cafe

At 9:53 AM, Blogger Peter May - The Pinotage Club said...

If I understand you correctly, you are saying that green fruit is been used to make the wine and you ponder the solution. Wouldn't the solution be sorting tables?

I am confused with you saying the herby greeness "verging on Pinotage" because you seem to be saying that whereas it is a viticulture/winemaking fault in Pinot Noir but a characteristic of Pinotage.

I find the whole question over what grape varieties should taste like fascinating. The unspoken theme is that Chile Pinot Noir doesn't taste like Burgundy, therefore there is something wrong. There probably is, but it would be interesting (and impossible now) if ones first experience of Pinot Noir was from Chile (e.g. if it didn't survive phyloxera in France) -- would Chile then be the standard for the variety -- or would it not have been planted elsewhere.

At 9:10 PM, Blogger Summertown said...


You're so right. I think Jamie did accidently step on a landmine when saying the greeness tasted like Pinotage - lets face it when you call your website, "Wine Anorak", you can't be too surprised when you get someone picking you up who is from no less august an institution as the "Pinotage Club" on that one!

We've got to have a bit of a laugh at ourselves, we Wine Geeks! Geez, I'm trying not to get any of my Friday night curry or Loaker Gewurtztraminer on the keyboard as I type!

We had a great (very un-green) Pinotage - the Groot Constantia 2005 - on our Monthly Selection last month next to the Leyda Pinot Noir, so how's that for coincidence? Both sold very well in the context of allowing people to taste without imposing geographic and varietal stereotypes to get in the way. No way either would be plucked off the shelf just looking at their labels: one would immediately assume the worst. We sold about 15 cases of each. With tasting we overcome so much bullshit.

But I particularly like how you frame the core issue, "I find the whole question over what grape varieties should taste like fascinating." Indeed. Being Australian I describe it as the "Vegemite dilemma". Look Australians who have been brought up on Vegemite love it. As if to prove the point, you can find it on almost all Tesco/Sainsbury/Asda supermarkets because (disturbingly perhaps) there are enough ex-pat Aussies (like me) in this country who buy the stuff to justify its existence. Yet to any reasonable palate it is clearly disgusting (or so lots of friends tell me). To Australians it is both delicious (because we are force-fed it as children) and a parochial statement of identity.

For Europeans replace Vegemite with their regional wine style.

For many upper/middle class English you can do the same. The father passes his (Vegemite) wine taste on in a part-charming, part-bigoted way and hey presto a lot of bad Bordeaux or Burgundy can be off-loaded at inflated prices. Of course there is great wine being made in both regions, but because of the Vegemite dilemma it is harder to find good value - and hennce many wine geeks (wrongly) shun the whole region.

If you or your fellow club members are ever in Oxford, do pop in. I can't guarantee a Pinotage on the list every month, but at least an open mind and (equally importantly) plenty of open bottles...

Rob Malcolm
Summertown Wine Cafe

At 2:09 PM, Anonymous D said...

I think we need to keep this debate in proportion. How much great Pinot is currently being made in Chile? One or two pretty good wines. Perhaps there is a future for it - who knows? How much is being made in Burgundy? Hundreds of fantastic wines, some as good as anything you'll ever drink including terrific value Bourgogne Rouge and less fashionable appellations (Givry, Rully) up to the millionaire DRCs and Musignys. (And plenty of lousy wines too, it has to be said). But also so many different styles, according to the diverse locations of the vineyards (often dozens of 1er cru wines each with their distinctive flavour). Given the prolific concentration of quality and variety here it is not unnatural to suggest that Burgundy, on the whole, has the ideal soils and climate for propagating what is notoriously a most difficult grape variety.

Reading some of the postings you might have inferred that Jamie had said something controversial. Was he stating the Pinot Noir tasted green, all Pinotage is green, ergo the Pinot tasted like Pinotage? No, I think he was making the point that the herby sweetness of the wines reminded him of a certain characteristic in many Pinotages which is not the character you might expect or would look for in Pinot Noir. If he had said Shiraz or Cabernet it would have amounted to the same thing. I'm sure Chilean Pinot Noir will not taste exactly like wines from the golden slopes of Burgundy but it should still remind us - when we are tasting it - of the essential properties of the grape.

Two ideas to reinforce. Regional wine styles are important, but that presupposes the wine is being grown in the right region and made sympathetically in the winery in the first place. If a Pinot Noir from Argentina, for example, has high residual sugar and high alcohol and is then aged in new barriques (and tastes very similar to, say, a Shiraz) is that a positive expression of Argentinean terroir or a suffocation of the nuances of the grape variety?

Secondly, I think we should shed a lot of preconceptions about the so-called Old and New Worlds. It's not an adversarial contest about who makes better wines. Some French growers can be very snobby, but their insularity and chippiness is often equally matched by certain Australian winemakers. These attitudes are born of a mixture of bullish patriotism and blithe cultural ignorance. Generalities are so reductive (like wines under screwcap - couldn't resist that!). Take a country like Italy: as Prince Metternich himself said: "Italy is just a geographical expression". Ultimately wine-making is a global enterprise and oenology is a science. This a strength and a weakness. You can easily taste New World styles in Europe and Old World styles in the New World. There are French winemakers in Chile and South Africa and Americans working in Italy, Germans in New Zealand and Australians in France - a process of constant exchange. However, whilst standards might improve everywhere the risk of creating homeogenous products also increases. The great winemaker is curious, questing, eager to taste and happy to experiment. Winemakers are only a one part of the equation; it's the places that matter, the vineyards where the wine comes from, and it's important to respect and celebrate the qualitative differences (as long as we are talking about quality) between different regions and countries.

At 4:10 PM, Blogger Jamie said...

Sorry about the Pinotage comment. There are some good ones, but not many. I think it's a viticultural issue, not that the grape itself is intrinsically bad.

At 9:07 AM, Blogger danny said...

Hi my girlfriend and I have a love affair with tabli pinot noir and wondered if anyone knows any shops our merchants where we can get it as the only place we have seen it is in our local gastro pub

At 5:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cono Sur Pinot just plain rocks! http://www.conosur.com/en/our-pinot-noir/our-pinot-noir/?language=en

At 8:18 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Alto-Adige, for example, is on the same latitude as Burgundy, but there is very little quality Pinot Noir being made there as it is too hot and dry"



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