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In Pursuit of Great Pinot Noir

Long before the term The Heartbreak Grape was coined to describe the fickle nature of Pinot Noir, pioneering California winegrower André Tchelistcheff explained, "God made Cabernet Sauvignon whereas the devil made Pinot Noir."

His point being, with Cabernet you know what you're going to get. Pinot Noir can be like the Milton-Bradley party game, Twister. It can tie you up in knots. That's certainly the case for winemakers and consumers who are looking to discover Pinot Noir from emerging regions in Ontario and British Columbia.

According to Henry of Pelham's winemaker Ron Giesbrecht many vintners are just starting to fully understand Pinot Noir's place in Niagara's vineyards. The same opinion is commonly heard from B.C.'s talented Pinot producers, notably CedarCreek, Quails' Gate and Nk' Mip Cellars.

"We saw ourselves concentrating on other things first," explains Giesbrecht, who counts Pinot Noir among his favourite wines to drink. "The more we understand what we are doing, the more we begin to think it is a good area for us. Our region is suited to this."

From a winemaking perspective, Pinot demands a greater investment of time and money in the vineyard and at the winery, which is why few of the best examples are what you would call a bargain. For instance, Pinot Noir benefits from aging in new French oak, the most expensive wood barrels on the market.

A real downside to Pinot Noir's Hollywood moment is many consumers are likely to be less than bowled over by Pinot Noir's delicate and diminutive flavour profile. "People like big," said Giesbrecht, who classified Pinot as a hard-sell even to bona fide wine lovers. "Pinot Noir comes in relative sizes, but put against other varieties it is lighter."

Classic Pinot Noir characteristics are strawberries, cherries, damp soil or compost, and barnyard or horse stables. Newcomers should know that the gamy or rustic aromas are more pleasant than they might seem on first blush. But all Pinot discussions start and end with texture or mouth-feel. Great Pinot is round with a velvety suppleness and a deep penetrating flavour.

The grape's native land is Burgundy in France, which shares some climatic conditions with both Niagara and British Columbia's cool-climate growing regions. Canadian vintners are starting to produce some amazing Pinot Noir, often only in small batches that are snapped up by a cult following. Le Clos Jordanne, Tawse, Norman Hardie Wines, Lailey Vineyard and Hidden Bench Vineyards and Winery certainly fall into that cult category. They seem to be en route to establishing a benchmark from which consistently good wine will flow.

Wines of the Week:
DeBortoli Wines 2006 Gulf Station Pinot Noir
Yarra Valley, Australia $19.80 (015511)
Canadian vintners aren't the only ones trying to unlock the secret to consistently great Pinot Noir. Australian winemakers have been struggling with Pinot Noir for years. They are consistently able to deliver nice red wines that are labeled as Pinot Noir, but that lack the convincing character you except from the challenging varietal. This fine example from the cooler Yarra Valley region is better than most Australia Pinots, offering a sense of brightness (cranberry and cherry fruit stand out) and subtly - Australia reds are often many things at once, subtle or delicate isn't a typical tasting note. (LCBO Vintages)

Reif Estate Winery 2006 Pinot Noir
Niagara River, Niagara Peninsula $14.95
Reif's estate-grown bottling conveys some of the paradoxical character that makes Pinot Noir such a puzzle. It's a lighter style red wine that comes across with real intensity and character. Typical red cherry fruit flavours are enhanced by spice and earthy notes that add winning complexity, particularly for the price. There's also the characteristic Niagara acidity that comes across on the palate - Niagara Pinot's tart expression is best enjoyed as a food wine. Enjoy with duck or mushroom lasagna.

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