One of the world’s best-known grapes is also one of the hardest to select. Adam Lechmere gives more than just a Sideways glance to pinot noir
The wonderful film Sideways is more than a decade old. One measure of its enduring appeal is that the (vastly inferior) stage version has just had a six-week run in London; another, that Californian pinot noir winemakers still talk about its seismic effects on their industry. The central character, the shambolic Miles, loves pinot.
‘Its flavours, they’re just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and… ancient on the planet…’ he says, adding possibly the truest thing about pinot noir. ‘It can only grow in these really specific, little, tucked-away corners of the world. And only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it.’
So true but but a custom honoured more in the breach than the observance. Just as every actor wants to play Hamlet, every winemaker wants to produce pinot noir, even if they have terroir quite unsuited to this most pernickety of grapes. Plant pinot where it’s too hot, and more often than not it turns to jam; some growers pick as early as they can to overcome that problem, resulting in thin and astringent wines.
Others let the grapes hang, producing alcoholic fruit bombs. A group of Californian winemakers were so depressed by the quality of pinot being grown in unsuitable parts of the state that they started the In Pursuit of Balance (IPOB) movement, dedicated to producing pinot at its best.
The taste descriptors most used for pinot are ‘light’, ‘ethereal’ and ‘fresh’. Fruit flavours range from red cherry and raspberry to blackberry; there should be earth, truffles, button mushrooms, mouthwatering acidity and soft tannins.
And where are those specific, tucked-away corners of the world? The one essential is climate. Pinot must be allowed to ripen slowly: if the weather’s too warm, acidity levels plummet before the grape has developed flavour. But if it’s too cold, those haunting aromas never get a chance to come through. Burgundy has been acknowledged for centuries as the perfect place for pinot. Then there’s the cooler parts of New Zealand – to my mind, Martinborough produces subtler expressions than the more famous Central Otago.
Rainy Oregon can work wonders, as evidenced by the number of Burgundians who try their hand there. Then there’s the Sonoma coast (the birthplace of IPOB) and further south in the Santa Maria Valley and Santa Rita Hills (where Sideways is set).
Germany is second only to Burgundy in elegance (and it’s half the price) and Chile is also capable of producing beautifully subtle wines, like the Grey from Viña Ventisquero and Errazuriz’s Wild Ferment (below).
You’ll also find some excellent pinots from Australia’s Mornington Peninsula and in England, where you have to choose with extreme care (Gusbourne’s version is very good).
It’s a wide list but interestingly enough, great pinot isn’t as diverse in style and flavour as other grapes. It always has traits in common.
In Chile’s Atacama Valley, the driest desert on Earth, Ventisquero makes a wine called Tara. It would be difficult to find a landscape more different from Burgundy’s, yet there is still a shock of recognition: that bright red cherry, minerality and velvety texture could be Côte de Beaune.
Henri Prudhon Le Sentier de Clou Vieilles Vignes Saint-Aubin 1er Cru, Burgundy 2012, £18
Red cherry and truffle nose, red fruit palate, gripping tannins and fresh acidity. Try with roast chicken.
Available at:The Wine Society
Karl May Spatburgunder Rheinhessen, Germany 2014, £12.99
Wild strawberry nose translates to rich red cherry flavours, hints of allspice, robust tannins and a juicy finish. Perfect to have with duck.
Union Wine Company Underwood Pinot Noir, Oregon 2014, £12.99
Lovely smoky bacon nose, then it’s all wild red fruit, earth and fresh acidity. Enjoy with a shredded beetroot salad.
Available at:Marks and Spencer
Coney Pizzicato Pinot Noir, Martinborough 2014, £16.99
Violet perfume, minerality and velvet tannins with sharp acidity make a compelling combination. Pair with barbecued quail.
Errazuriz Aconcagua Wild Ferment, Chile 2014, £16.20
Fresh, cherryish aromas, more cherry on the palate with restrained tannins. Enjoy with a hard cheese such as Gruyère.
Available at:Hatch Mansfield
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A Little Dream of a Restaurant in Toronto
I almost never walk into a restaurant and think, “I’d like to work here.” But that’s exactly what I thought last night at Canis, a small dream of a restaurant in Toronto.
There are only 30 seats, but the eight people in the kitchen and dining room work with such quiet pleasure, you long to join them. There’s a sense of easy camaraderie, confidence – and pure pride in the food they’re serving.
With good reason. Chef Jeff Kang has his own way with ingredients, layering flavors with originality and assurance. I get the sense he tastes in his mind, knows exactly what he’s going for, wanting each dish to offer up a surprise. I found myself eating slowly, savoring the way the flavors ricocheted around each other. There was not a single time I said, “I wish this had more….”
The restaurant is small, spare, restful. The wines are all organic, and thoughtfully chosen. Every object seems carefully chosen. (Just look at those butter knives!)
The menu is seasonal, and changes regularly. But last night I began with a little amuse bouche, a tartare tartlet laced with cured egg.
The bread was dense, chewy, full of character, and the spreads made me keep coming back for more.
But it was with the first dish that I really began to take notice of how fine the food here is. Swordfish arrived looking like a limp orchid, sliced into delicate pearly petals. Served in a black bowl, it was cradling sliced cucumbers (the texture echoed the swordfish), and crunchy black radish laced with sharp little sparks of salmon roe. Tying it all together was a clear, gentle beef broth, a kind of garum made of meat.
Albacore tuna was fish in a completely different mood. Dense instead of silky, the tender fish was gently smoked, and served with an astonishing array of sweet and salty components. Little leaves of artichoke – the tender white bits close to the heart – fluttered across the top, along with tiny pickled grapes. Underlining it all was a base of alliums, cooked down and charged with spice so there was both sweet and heat. It was a remarkable dish, the flavors changing with each bite.
These are the grapes – immature – and pickled like capers:
One of the especially pleasant aspects of Canis is the the way the staff interacts with the diners. At some point every one of the cooks left the open kitchen to deliver a dish he’d made, as if he wanted the pleasure of watching you experience it. I couldn’t help smiling as I ate this roasted squash – almost meaty – with its ruffle of charred kale. The sauce? Peanut miso. The contrast? Caramelized whey.
Meat – it might be lamb or duck, or in my case the richest chunk of meat, a short rib with the texture of velvet. On the side, roasted Jerusalem artichokes and white chanterelles.
“Do you prefer sweet or savory dishes?” Jeff asked as the meal started coming to a close.
“Not a sweet person,” I said. And so he served me that milk sorbet above with its brilliant crimson crown of fermented grape ice. It’ was a lovely way to finish a meal, especially interspersed with bites of this hibiscus financier.
So often at the end of dinner, late at night, you glance into the kitchen and see the cooks rushing to clean up, buzzed with adrenaline and eager to get out. Not at Canis; there was an almost meditative pace as the evening ended, and I looked up to see Jeff and his sous chefs standing around the counter in the kitchen as if reluctant to leave.
I got the feeling they couldn’t wait to come back tomorrow.
I certainly understood.
Written by Ruth Reichl