Making sense of Matt Kramer, Pinot Noir 2013 keynote

Pinot Noir kicked off with two contrasting keynote speeches, the first of which was delivered by Matt Kramer of the US publication The Wine Spectator, and author of a string of books whose titles frequently begin with ‘making sense of…’.

Kramer’s delivery is polished and engaging. He begins by talking about Burgundy, the ‘mother house’. ‘It is where we all start, and in a strange way it is where we all end up.’

For Kramer, the key aspect of Burgundy’s history as a wine region is that in the past the people who began making it were, as he puts it, ‘drenched in spirituality.’ The vineyards were cultivated by Cistercian and Benedictine monks and nuns. These religious orders were also responsible for winegrowing in the Northern Rhone, the Loire, Champagne and the Mosel, and Kramer argues that this religious aspect is what is chiefly responsible for each of these regions having just a single grape variety for red and a single one for white:

‘You can make a more reliable wine by blending but for the most part there was no blending where the monks were. They confined themselves because they wanted to hear the voice of God through the voice of the land.’

This attempt to hear the voice of God through wine resulted in the subdividing of the land: the impulse to demarcate terroir in this way is deep. He likens the Cote d’Or to Stonehenge, in that it is the creation of a deep religious impulse, with the intricately subdivided vineyards of Burgundy being a homage to spirituality in a similar manner to those remarkable standing stones.

So given all this, Kramer asks, can atheists make great Pinot Noir? He asserts that the scientific method takes us only so far and no further.

‘Burgundy has something that no other world wine region has yet achieved,’ claims Kramer. ‘In Burgundy, 2+2 = 5. How did they get the extra 1?’

‘Cause and effect, science and rationality, have taken all the wine growing regions at an accelerated rate to get to 2+2 = 4. It is no small achievement.’ Kramer posits that to get the extra 1 requires a loss of control, a ‘deference’.

Kramer then focuses on specific clones of Pinot Noir, planted in separate blocks, and harvested at optimum ripeness, which he asserts is not the way to make great Pinot. ‘What results from this? A stunning uniformity of flavour and ripeness whenever these practices and plantings are done.’

He likens this to an orchestra missing instruments.

‘If your vineyard doesn’t contain 20+ clones of Pinot Noir, intermixed, you will never achieve the shadings and nuances necessary to make great Pinot Noir.’ Kramer argues for picking all at once, some underripe and some overripe, to create complexity.

‘You need to accept you cannot control for greatness. None of us likes to give up control. Deference is not easy, but when I look at the finest Pinot Noirs, they are all creatures of profound deference.’

Kramer then goes on to talk about biodynamics. ‘Do I believe in biodynamcs? Not really. Am I opposed to it? Not at all. It is a liturgy.’ He suggests that to make great Pinot, you need a liturgy, a few hymns and maybe a stiff drink. ‘Biodynamics gives people a way of putting words to actions, and a way of finding the fellow members of the congregation.’

I enjoyed Matt’s talk, but disagree with the idea of planting a vineyard of mixed clones. For Pinot Noir in New Zealand, having underripeness and overripeness in the same wine is not a desirable goal. It happens anyway, even where blocks are planted with intention of being homogeneous. I suspect the very best Kiwi Pinot Noirs are made from fruit that is pretty homogeneous, and has just achieved ripeness. The idea of achieving complexity with fruit showing a spectrum of ripeness levels might be fine for Sauvignon, but not for Pinot.

I would argue that Neew Zealand winemakers need more control, not less. They’re doing really well at the moment, and the Pinot Noirs are improving fast. Some of them are great. I don’t doubt that the scientific approach will help them get even better: the key issue isn’t control (and losing it), but the destination that is in mind. What is greatness in Pinot Noir? What are winegrowers aiming at?

6 comments to Making sense of Matt Kramer, Pinot Noir 2013 keynote

  • Hi Jamie,

    At Folding Hill we have about 10 clones across our 10 acres of PN. Ripening by our crude assessments does not vary across the clones but flavour profiles definitely do and add complexity in flavours and allow some creativity in blending the final wine. Not too much difference in tannin/structure across the clones.

    Other things being equal, on a given site, yield is most important determinant of quality in my opinion.

    Cheers
    Tim

  • Chris Williams

    Having grown and vinified Pinot Noir at Meerlust for 15 years, I think there is some truth to what Matt Kramer has said, not only for Pinot Noir but for all varieties. The only problem is that multi-clone vineyards of Pinot Noir hit the high notes once every 5-6 vintages, the others being good but not great. Mono-clonal plantings of Pinot hand the blennding power over to the winemaker,and takes it out of the hands of chance(in this case, nature), the complexity of which is often daunting. So there are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches. Where I would completely agree with Matt is growing great Pinot is a calling, not a job, and messianic zeal is required to understand and grow great, trancendental Pinot Noir. It’s a journey which I feel I am still on, and the destination is the journey!
    I thoroughly enjoyed reading Matts’ thoughts on this, and your own Jamie. Most thought provoking piece on wine I have read for a long time, as these days there seems to be a general consensus developing on the production of fine wines which is far too simplistic in my view.

  • I publically and respectfully challenge Wine Spectator columnist Matt Kramer to a public debate either in person or via webcam (he may choose moderator) to discuss his ridiculous assertion that atheists cannot make good pinot noir. You said it, Matt, now do you have the balls to debate a pinot noir winemaker who is also an atheist? Or of course you can realize the stupidity of your statement and apologize. If you know him or someone who knows him, ride his ass on this. I want a debate and won’t rest till I get one! i promise I’ll be nice to him, not his batshit ideas. Pass it on and let’s get this to happen.

    Does he not know that there are 4x the atheists in France than in the US?

  • Alex Lake

    No particular comment but just wanted to say how much i enjoyed reading this post (and the comments). I wouldn’t claim to be an expert, but think I may be slightly closer to Matt than Jamie on this….

  • S.M.

    Hello Mr.Goode

    Thanks for your in depth insight into Pinot Noir NZ 2013, it is educational to have someone else giving insight into Matt Kramer’s speech there.

    I am just beginning to learn about Pinot Noir and all of its many nuances and clones, so I don’t have anything scientific to add to this conversation.

    But from an outside perspective to me the key seems to be getting the right balance between being involved as a wine maker or oenologist. While counter balancing that approach with letting the soil and terrior express themselves in the fruit and ultimately in the wine itself.

    Cheers!

    Solomon Mengeu

  • Rebecca

    It is a very interesting article Jamie thanks for sharing this here, it is such a great question and one that us winemakers would love the answer to? how do the greats of Burgundy get to 5 when all the rest of us get to 4, that is the universal wine question!

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