Pinot = Syrah?


In Dan Berger's latest Vintage Experiences he relates a conversation with a fellow judge, and East Coast Burgundy junkie, who indicated concern about California Pinot Noir and the current fad to blend these with 24% Syrah to obtain more color at the expense of covering up nuance. I was with him all the way until he stepped off the cliff of absolutism: "Color in Pinot Noir ought to be pale, not black. If you see a black Pinot, something is wrong."

Simplistic truisms are almost never true in the wine world, and Pinot is even tougher to nail down than most grapes. This guy may know Burgundy, but he sure doen't know Pinot. While I share his concern, he should have more respect for the variability of which Pinot is capable.

Dan, take this boob to Flowers Winery. The Pinots there in sight of the Pacific Ocean are black as the darkest Syrah, and not only are they pure Pinot, but they are wonderfully expressive of its possibilities of character nuance. Still, I do not usually enjoy them as finished wines, because they have such unrefined tannin, and that is because these special grapes don’t respond well to Burgundian methods.

I question whether this guy’s palate training on French wines qualifies him to evaluate California Pinot winemaking practices. I myself would like to see California wines deliver more energy, nuance and depth, and I believe GrapeCraft principles to be helpful: mineral energy from living soil, soulfulness through refined structure.

But that's just me. California has few terroirs which will give us Burgundian wines, so we have to explore other styles we are capable of and for which the market has appetite. The main question is “What is the style?”, not “How is it made?”

Syrah or no Syrah, most California Pinots are going for The Big Wine rather than the ethereal nuances of Burgundy, the more so since Sideways dragged all those trend-conscious Merlot drinkers into the game. I'm not enthusiastic about this path, but neither was I happy when the Oregonians went into an internal shell for two decades, during which they made a lot of substandard wine. Yet they finally emerged with a wonderful and distinctive style that's all their own.






Haven't read Berger's piece so I'm not sure if its Berger or the other judge that has a problem with the color of Pinot (and its blending with Syrah). But the blending of these two varieties is not new, certainly not in Australia. The great Maurice O'Shea (largely unknown outside of Oz) was doing this in the 1920s, and making great wines of considerable longevity.

From the McWilliam’s website “The ability of Australian winemakers to blend different varieties has been an important factor in wine quality and their international success. This wine is the result of another successful blending process initiated by Maurice O’Shea in the early 1920’s. Maurice consistently used Pinot Noir and Shiraz in a whole range of wines he produced during his wine making career. The wines such as Henry I, II, III, Prince Henry and Mount Henry were all blends of these two varieties. In recent years, tastings of these blends from vintages back into the 1940’s showed wines of considerable complexity and flavour given their maturity. The name Henry comes from one of O’Shea's life- long friends Henry Renault, who had a wine and spirit business in Sydney.”



Clark, I have a sense that Dan is thinking of more than the pale - vs - inky color issue.

Beefing up Burgundies and Bordeaux with Syrah is an old trick. I can agree that on one level, the finished stuff in the bottle is what will need to be sold so if it needs Syrah to make it a more marketable wine, so be it. I have also seen dark, nearly inky 100% Pinots. I think those wines tended to push my limits of ripeness tolerance.

However, we should take a look at this from a purist point of view: Many producers these days seem to slather Pinot noir with Syrah and then try to tell us that black, inky wines with tons of black pepper and blueberry are 100% Pinot noir.

It becomes a matter of principle: if the Syrah comes to so dominate the blend (in color, aroma or texture), is it not a stretch to label it as a varietal rather than something else, a blend for example?

Mark V Marino:


First I agree Mike that this blend is not new especially in Australia. If these guys are experts on Burgundy, I think they must have had Chateau Pommard and Romanee Conti, both very big Pinots that are dark in color to start. Many really big, long-lived wines are rather dark and dumb in their youth.

Is it not the length of time on the skins which is the biggest factor in color extraction?

I do agree what the higher the sugar in the fruit, the more justification to leave it on the skins longer, as a high alcohol rose is an oxymoron, no?

I think anyone that looks at the color of a young Pinot and assesses it on color alone is a rather narrow minded individual. Now if the wine is 2 years old and brown that is another story...

Dear Mark:

I agree with your sentiments. Unfortunately the recent influx of Merlot drinkers into the Pinot market is just a fact of life, and it is changing the styles winemakers produce.

A couple corrections of technical matters. Actually, extra time on the skins extracts tannin, not color. Color comes out fast, and extraction is complete in the first few days of skin contact. The extraction is not into solution (anthocyanins are practically insoluble) but into copigmentation colloids. Since these colloids are less stable at high alcohol, much color is lost at the completion of high brix fermentations.


Mark V Marino:

Yes , I read these comments before and I too am amused because if one goes to Burgundy and tastes the wines all made out of Pinot Noir the first thing that is apparent is the tremendous variety of wines that are made from Pinot Noir. It has a very large range of possibility I am just surprised at the comment as some of the great Burgundies start out pretty big and are dark like Romanee Conti and Chateau Pommard I guess however this is up to interpretation, obviously.



As a card carrying West Coast Burgundy junkie, I can agree with my East Coast alter ego that I am usually put off at the get go if I observe an inky bluish/black color when I pour a glass of red Burgundy or any pinot noir. I won't rule out that richly colored wine can be excellent -- think '90 La Tache in its youth, for example. But generally speaking I see heavily extracted, seriously high toast oaked Burgundies that are the color of a big, bad fresh bruise, not the sparkling brilliant raspberry/rouge color I expect to see. I don't make my final judgment based on appearance, but the appearance is immediately off putting nevertheless. And as anyone who has had a bottle of red wine from Dujac or Mugnier (or an Oregon pinot from Thomas or DDO) will know, a relatively pale colored wine may be anything but pale in the nose and on the palate.

Then there is the sad fact that Burgundy for many years was adulterated with Rhone wine (or any other wine that would lend color, alcohol and weight on the palate) to mask overcropping; poor, underripe vintages; or just to manufacture the volume required to meet demand and make more do re mi. I recently had a bottle of '66 Bouchard Richebourg I purchased a decade or more ago. Nicest bottle of mature Cote Rotie/Cote d'Or blend I've had in a while. I mean that seriously. The wine was very enjoyable, but I am reasonably certain I was drinking a blended wine, not pinot noir from Richebourg. It certainly carried itself well for a forty year old.

Which leads to Clark's point: if you're going to grow pinot in California, what can you do with it? You likely cannot make red Burgundy as we have come to know it. (I'd argue that the best of Oregon's pinot is thus far as close to "the real thing" as we've come in that regard). The soil ain't right. The climate ain't right. But you can make wine that has a style of its own and that has elegance and balance.

You sure as shootin' will not get there by blending large amounts of syrah or zin or whatever with pinot. You will not get there with 100% pinot wine that has lots of alcohol and chewy tannins, because the attraction of pinot is its ability to make wines of substance -- richly perfumed, full flavored, predominantly red fruited wines -- that are relatively cool and high pitched on the nose and weightless on the palate. If all you can do with pinot is make black, chewy, peppery wine that smacks of Chateauneuf du Pape, what is the point, other than there may be some marketing benefit at this "post-Sideways" moment to having the words "pinot noir" on the label?

A problem here is that American wine drinkers look for and laud amplitude. Size, horsepower. So put a reasonably elegant glass of DDO pinot or Thomas pinot next to a glass of "thick and rich" Kosta Browne or Bergstrom pinot, and dollars to donuts the majority of drinkers will immediately tell you how great the bigger wine is. Bigger is better, it must be. More is more. An SUV is better than a small coupe. A 6000 square foot faux chateau is better than a well thought out home of 1500 square feet. Of course these things are true. They must be.

But with pinot, it is not true. Of course thin weedy pinot is just that. Slender in and of itself doth not a good pinot make.

I love these lines from Jean Marc Roulot: "The expression of terroir is distorted by the overly-coveted, present-day obsession with concentration. Prioritizing the quest for concentration is, to my mind, tantamount to an admission of weakness. Does this mean that the palate is incapable of discerning anything below a certain extraction level? ... People are asking for concentrated wines because all of us sometimes lack concentration when tasting wine."

In short, you can always hear LOUD. Loud music, loud clothing and loud wine will not be ignored. But "loud" tends to obliterate most other attributes, whether it is harmonic complexity; quality of fabric, workmanship and design; or the distinctive perfume and flavor of a particular grape grown in a particular place in a particular vintage.

Dear Chambolle:

You are entirely right that the big worry is the obsession with bigness, but that doesn’t mean it is impossible to do otherwise. It is ye of little faith who have abandoned the California true at heart, leaving the field to no one but the cretins, who are also responsible for the sorry state of affairs.


Mark V Marino:

I first heard of Dan while is was working at the Press Democrat in Santa Rosa in 1985 through Rich Thomas a college Professor there. Although his experience is long as a wine writer I question his intent in reference to the color Pinot should be, I wonder his reasoning there. I have spent a bit of time in Burgundy in the late 1970's and early 1980's the one thing that still remains in my mind is the tremendous variability in the Pinot Noir grape. When one considers almost all the wine in the area is made from this grape and the wide variety of wines that result from the grape, it is a surprise that he would pick color as a point of determining the quality of a wine using that grape. Certainly it is just a matter of how long the wine was on the skins more than anything else. It does not convey the quality of the fruit beyond that it was ripe enough to extract color. I am not sure if this is an indication of a person taking a comment out of context or an ego thinking that their words are something to etch in stone...

Jerry D. Murray:


This reminds me of a set of conversations I have had over the years with winemakers and consumers alike. First as an Oregonian I want to take a stance on blending Pinot with Syrah. It is not the resulting style that bothers me but that these wines are largely entry level and drinkers new to Pinot Noir will come to expect ALL pinot to be dark and big. It moves what is acceptable 'varietal' character in a direction that Pinot itself cannot go. Here in Oregon we have much stricter labeling laws in terms of Pinot Noir ( there have been some recent changes with regards to other varietals ) so this is largely a CA issue. Yet it does effect us in the marketplace.

Unlike other varietals, especially syrah but also including many other Rhone, bordeaux and italian varietals, Pinot Noir doesn't have to make dark wines. Color stability in Pinot is in some regions an on going problem. The problem is that color tells us very little about what a Pinot Noir will be like in the mouth. There is this misconception that light color means light in weight and my experiences with Pinot Noir DO NOT bare this out.

Every winemaker has his/her priorities. For me color is low on the list ( texture and aroma being up at the top ). I use no enzymes or other additives to fix color, my only concern for the color of my wines is that they are not brown ( which does indicate something about the wine as you know ). I know many other winemakers that are concerned about color and I think this reflects the state of Pinot Noir as little as five years ago. Pinot was a fringe wine, most of the wine buying public was after Cab, Merlot etc. Consumers had identified dark colors as an attribute of serious wines. Pinot producers had no choice but to take steps to make pinot with deeper colors and blacker hues.

Even burgundy, the birthplace of lightly colored pinot noir is going through this change. The consultants in Burgundy are pushing more extracted wines using dry ice and high levels of SO2. They are dispensing enzymes like methadone. Why? Color stability. So in time there is a chance that Dan Berger's friend will live in a world that is free of light colored Pinot Noir.

I also think Clark makes a good point that is burried in his post. " California has few terriors that would give us Burgundian wines...". I think that CA has lulled consumers into thinking that a wines style is completely the result of winemaking descions. Climate and thus 'terrior' can often turn out to be obstacles to a wine style; thus Burgundy can only come from Burgundy. However if you pound on the square peg long enough you can get it through the round hole.