Heartbreaking or heartwarming?

Like saying goodbye to an old friend, Lorne Eckersley rues the fact that this might be his last bottle of the 2013 Pinot Noir Reserve.

August 16, 2019

When I began to develop a fascination with wine nearly three decades ago I never walked into a bookstore without searching out wine books. I gradually amassed a decent collection, and some were particular favourites. I was especially drawn to the stories behind the wine, and few held a greater appeal than The Heartbreak Grape: A Journey in Search of the Perfect Pinot Noir by Marq de Villiers.

Pinot Noir has a bit of a reputation to overcome. Fans of big, hearty reds like Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel often aren’t happy with the lighter—both in colour and mouth feel—of the much thinner-skinned Pinot Noir. And it has, over time, gained a reputation as being a bear of a grape to manage in the vineyard.

The author had been so smitten by glass of Calera Pinot Noir from Central California that he took it upon himself to search out the story of the maker, Josh Jenson, and his Calera Wine Company. Before he established his winery, Jenson undertook to find perfect conditions for the growing of Pinot Noir grapes, and it was not an easy search. When he did finally succeed in establishing a successful vineyard, Jenson proved to be just as obsessive about his winemaking practises, and Calera continues to enjoy a great reputation for exceptionally fine Pinot Noirs. His was a great story, and a successful one at that.

What makes Pinot Noir such an attraction for its legions of fans? I alluded to it being lighter than many other red wines, but that does not mean it lacks of flavour and character. “Earthiness” is a common descriptor, but when I talk about my favourites (like our now sold out 2013 Pinot Noir Reserve), I nearly always mention the word “barnyard”. The word often elicits a double-take from people less familiar with these wines. Hearing the words “When I put a glass of Pinot Noir to my nose and smell barnyard, I’m a happy man,” can, admittedly, be a little off-putting. I hasten to add, “A very clean barnyard!” For me, Pinot Noir is more than just earthy, it’s almost primal, taking me back to times long before I was born.

I have come to describe Pinot Noir as Baillie-Grohman’s flagship wine. Before we sold out of sparkling wine, I referred to our Blanc de Noirs Rosé, Tête de Cuvee and Pinot Noir Terraces as our Holy Trinity of Pinot Noirs. To my taste, these are all exceptionally good wines. Throw in the Reserve versions (the 2015 Reserve is now available in our tasting room, but I did recently see some 2013s on the shelf in the BC Liquor Store at the mall – other stores might still have some, too) and it serves as a great lesson in winemaking, in how the same grape can make dramatically different wines.

I recently asked winery co-owner Petra Flaa, whose great interest is in the vineyards, if Pinot Noir is a “heartbreak grape” here at Baillie-Grohman. “Not at all,” she said, going on to explain that the clones planted here seem perfectly suited to the location and that it is one of the least demanding of the half dozen varieties planted. Once vineyard workers began to use the trellising system that is now used for all of our Pinot Noir vines, the vines thrived and the grapes are invariably of high quality.

Winemaker Wes Johnson concurred. He returned home from New Zealand, where he worked at a winery for the (our) winter, just in time for a 10th anniversary celebration with staff and wine club members. Among the wines we tasted were a number from our wine library, including the 2009 Pinot Noir, Baillie-Grohman’s first vintage. We were doing blind tastings, and there is no chance I would have guessed that the sample that set my taste buds a-tingle was 10 years old. The colour was bright red, with no sign of brown around the edge, which indicates that the wine is oxidizing. It was very fruity and fresh tasting. It did lack the “barnyardy” characteristic, but hey, those vines were less than three years old! That the barnyard nose was evident in the Reserve made only four years later is a testament, I think, to the suitability of our site for this wonderful grape.

As an aside, I want to point out that Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris grapes are not distinct grape varieties, but rather arose from variants in Pinot Noir vines. Some varietals are particularly susceptible to morphing. Pinot Noir grapes have been grown domestically for more than 8 centuries, and it seems that grapes including Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay originated from Pinot Noir vines. Who’d-a thunk, eh? I saw evidence of a vine morphing right here in the vineyard years ago when a cluster of Pinot Noir grapes was pointed out to me—it was a mix of fully ripe purple grapes and fully ripe green grapes. Quite amazing to see.

When Bob Johnson and Petra Flaa made the decision in 2007 to bank heavily on Pinot Noir in their initial planting they could not have predicted how well those vines would do. Next year, when six more acres of vines are planted, a good chunk of that vineyard will be Pinot Noir. That’s great news for lovers of the heartwarming, occasionally heartbreaking, grape.