Thin Skinned Burgundian Pinot Noir

Clos de Vougeot

Like Darwinian evolution, finding the right place to grow grapes requires a lot of trial and error.

Pinot Noir grew like a weed through much of pre-history France and, as far back as 200AD, the Romans raved about the red nectar it produced.

However, serious attempts at growing quality Pinot Noir in Old World wine regions didn’t gain traction until a certain group of viticulturists arrived on the scene with the time to experiment.

While the Visigoths and Huns were clubbing themselves to death all over Europe, Benedictine and Cistercian monks locked themselves away in hillside monasteries in the French region of Burgundy.

As well as copying Bibles and praying for eternal salvation, the monks were good gardeners who painstakingly bred various clones of Pinot and ran trials on different soils and micro-climates. In fact they even built a completely walled vineyard, the Clos de Vougeot, to ensure the uncultured drunks outside couldn’t get at their Pinot.

Through centuries of painstaking work they discovered the mystery behind the legend, that Pinot Noir is a temperamental variety to grow.

Why? Pinot grapes have some of the thinnest, finest, gossamer-like skins in the grape world, which means that they split easily. Too much rain, hail or harsh sun and cracks open up, oozing sugary juice which feeds fungal infections like grey rot and botrytis. That means rotten grapes and rotten wines.

The answer: plant Pinot in a cool to cold climate that doesn’t receive a lot of rainfall and has low humidity.

However, like all fruit, Pinot will only ripen when it is sunny. So within your cool region you need to find the sunniest place, preferably a northern or eastern slope, where your vines can bask in the warmth like an old dog.

Soil type is also critical and needs to have moderate to low fertility to rein in the vines’ natural growth and be of a free draining nature to keep diseases at bay and make the vine drive deep to catch every last drop of rain.

Burgundy’s Côte d’Or is such a place. Known as the Slope of Gold, it is probably the most expensive 50 kilometres of land in the world.

It is here that the most fabled Pinot Noir vineyards are based – classed as the Grand Cru vineyards under the French appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) system of regional naming protection. This is another topic for another time: how the monastic estates were split up and handed back to the people during the French Revolution; how these have now been split and split again by subsequent generations; how the growing of grapes in every French wine region has been tightly controlled by the AOC since the early 20th century.

Suffice to say there are just 24 Grand Cru Pinot Noir red wine producers, all of which are in the sub-region of Côte de Nuits which runs from Dijon to Corgoloin. Clustered along the hillside, the vineyards all overlook the beautiful Saône River, which incidentally provides a popular pilgrimage route for red wine drinking canal boat holidayers.

Thanks to the immutable economic law of supply and demand, the rarity of the wines they produce (not to mention the quality) makes Grand Cru Pinot Noir eye wateringly expensive.

Mention just the name, and you are likely to evoke nostalgic sighs from those who have been lucky enough to taste a glass….and immediate recollections of lovers and friends the bottle was shared with. As part of your Pinosity journey, try to talk your partner (accountant, bank manager) into the need for a magnum of 2002 DRC La Tache at around $10,000, or a more modestly priced 2003 DRC Richebourg for $3500, or even a 2004 DRC Romanee-St.Vivant for a snap at $1850.

Then you’ll find out what thin skinned really means.