Meaningful experiences: talking about Pinot Noir

I was invited to give the keynote address at this year's British Columbia Pinot Noir Celebration this week. Here's an approximate transcript of what I said in two parts - the introductory address, and the concluding remarks.

Photo courtesy of  Christina Rasmussen

Photo courtesy of Christina Rasmussen

Introductory address

Thank you very much for inviting me here to speak to you today. It's my unfortunate duty to travel the world tasting wine for a living, and it's a burden I do my best to handle with dignity. That duty has brought me here today, and I'm delighted to join you in celebrating Pinot Noir. It seems to me that there are more festivals and tastings dedicated to this particular variety around the world than any other. Why is that? There must be something special about the variety.

One of those things is Pinot Noir's ability to express a sense of place. Other varieties can do this too, but Pinot Noir is particularly adaptive to terroir, and can produce hugely different wines from vineyards that are within a few feet of each other. It is a great example of what makes wine so compelling to taste the variation that Pinot Noir can achieve.

It's also difficult to get right. There are only a few places in the winemaking world where Pinot Noir really excels. It requires specific climatic conditions, it is susceptible to disease, and it only becomes interesting when the conditions suit it perfectly. That challenge is something which increases its appeal, I think.

Another reason Pinot Noir is special is its sheer deliciousness. There is a range of flavour in Pinot Noir that is unlike any other variety, and it can produce wonderful, esoteric, sometimes even quite challenging flavours. Experiencing those flavours and aromas is something that makes Pinot Noir so treasured.

There's also something else which is equally important, I believe: Pinot Noir can provide a meaningful experience; something that triggers an emotional response. Other varieties can do this too, sometimes, but Pinot Noir is particularly adept at it. People often talk of a Pinot Noir epiphany - that pivotal moment when tasting a Pinot Noir that flicks the switch and converts the drinker into a Pinot lover. [I wrote about this in The Pinot Of No Return.] It is an instinctive, gut reaction - and whether you've had one or not, I think it is the possibility of that response, the quest for that kind of feeling that makes Pinot Noir so compelling.

I've heard people describe being brought to tears by Pinot Noir. That's happened to me with really bad Pinot Noir but never with a really, really good one, sadly. But maybe that will change today ... and it's that possibility which makes it an exciting variety.

Wine in general, and Pinot Noir in particular, offers a tangible expression of something in an increasingly virtual world. We spend much of our time online, interacting with screens rather than people, so this gathering is a great example of why Pinot Noir enthrals us - it represents a snapshot of a time and a place that can be hugely different around the world. 

I've been asked to talk about my experience of Pinot Noir. I've been lucky enough to taste fantastic examples from California, Australia, Oregon, Chile, South Africa - even the UK, and Canada of course. There's also a place called Burgundy which makes some quite good examples. All of them are very different, and not always necessarily better or worse than one another. Burgundy does not have the monopoly on quality - yes, some of the best Pinot Noir comes from there, of course, but that doesn't mean other regions are not capable of equalling that quality.

Which brings me on to British Columbia. I've had the opportunity to tour the region this week and taste lots of different varieties. It is clearly a very diverse region, and also a relatively young one in terms of wine production. It is capable of greatness in many styles, and there is no doubt of the ambition and potential of the winemakers here. Can BC Pinot Noir stand alongside the best in the world? Well, that's something we are going to find out today - there is a great selection of Pinot Noir to taste, and I'm sure we will all have our own favourites. I'll talk more about the wines at the end of the event.

So, when you are tasting the wines today, remember that the ones which give you that emotional response are the ones that make Pinot Noir so great - regardless of price or label. I'd be delighted if you came and told me about your experiences throughout the day. So with that, I will wish you a fantastic afternoon of tasting Pinot Noir and I look forward to talking to you again later.

BC PN agenda.JPG

Concluding remarks

Thanks again, everyone, it has been a fantastic day of tasting and it has been a pleasure to meet so many people and experience so many Pinot Noirs. I wanted to give you my impression of British Columbia Pinot Noir, so here goes.

Firstly, it can't grow everywhere here, and I think people need to be honest about that. This region can be very warm and Pinot Noir is at its best from cooler sites. There is still a lot of discovery happening in BC, and producers need to be brave in making changes if they've got Pinot Noir in areas that are too warm. Figuring out terroir is a long-term process - perhaps a never-ending one - and it can be very challenging (and expensive) to find the optimal sites. 

Another point worth making sounds quite mundane, but it's actually really important: the technical standard of the wines today is really high. Making Pinot Noir that has no faults, has good balance of acid, alcohol and tannin and gives an authentic reflection of the characteristics of the variety is no mean feat, and there is clearly a great deal of expertise among the winemakers of this region. 

More generally, I would advise everyone not to worry about the perceived fashion for particular styles of Pinot Noir. There are lots of different ways to make great Pinot, and no doubt each of us have our own favourites. For winemakers, those will undoubtedly be an influence on the style produced - but I would urge them to let the terroir do the talking, and to make the Pinot Noir that comes naturally from the grapes, not to try and manipulate the result into something because it is a popular style from California or Burgundy or wherever.

Also, don't be fooled by high prices or flashy marketing. The most expensive Pinot Noirs in the world are not always the best.

British Columbia is rightly proud of itself, it seems to me. You have great natural beauty here - both in the landscape and in the people, you are all terrifyingly good-looking - a friendly spirit and a great sense of co-operation and open-mindedness. Expressing those qualities through Pinot Noir is the ultimate goal, because wine isn't just a reflection of soil and climate, it's also a reflection of personality.

So, is there a typical attribute common to all Pinot Noir from British Columbia? Well, they tend to have ripe fruit, often with reasonably high tannin. They also have high acid, although that's more of a feature of Pinot Noir in general. Some people have mentioned a character of sage brush, the local woody herb that grows wild throughout the region - but I suspect that is slightly fanciful. As far as I can tell, there is no unique quality that British Columbia Pinot Noir exhibits - but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

There was a recent BBC article entitled What is Canada really good at? which celebrated Canada's achievements on the 150th anniversary of confederation. For British people the BBC is pretty much a bible, so this is what we all think about you. First on the list was entertainment - specifically singers and comedians. Next was inventions - apparently IMAX cinema was invented here and for all you DIY fans, the Robertson pattern screwhead also came from Canada. 

Medicine was on the list - both insulin and stem cells were discovered and pioneered by Canadians. Space exploration was on the list - most notably Chris Hadfield, the astronaut who recently broadcast from the International Space Station and sang Space Oddity.

Ladies and gentlemen, I regret to say that BC Pinot Noir was not on the list of things that the Canada is really good at. In fact, wine didn't make the list at all. 

And that's exactly why events such as this one are so important. British Columbia is still a young wine region, but the results are already fantastic, and showing huge potential. Spreading the word about Pinot Noir and coming together to taste and discuss the wine is exactly what is needed to help evolve the winemaking culture here, in the quest for crafting Pinot Noir that gives us meaningful experiences. And when those experiences are shared in an atmosphere such as this, there couldn't be anything better.

So, in conclusion, I wish to propose a toast to one of the things that makes Canada great. Please raise your glasses for the Robertson pattern screwhead. And Pinot Noir!