Pinot Noir takes so many forms; I decided Monday at the Mémoire & Friends wine fair in Zurich to ask a small number of producers who make more than one Pinot Noir for details about the differences. Here are a few notes:
Clones and styles
Weingut Wolfer, Weinfelden, Thurgau, near Lake Constance. Martin Wolfer (whose English is very good. He’s part of a young generation of Swiss winemakers who have traveled and worked abroad).
The Pinot Noir Sélection 2017, CHF21, is made from Swiss clone Pinot Noir grapes, with a fair bit of green harvesting done in summer to reduce yield significantly. Natural yeasts are used and the wine is matured for 12 months in oak barrels of which 90% are 3-5 years old and 10% are new. This is a very likeable, soft and easy Pinot, accessible: a light bright red colour, classic Pinot nose of fresh red fruits and a clean, straight mouth where the fruit is present but doesn’t overwhelm.
The Pinot Noir Grand Vin 2017, darker in colour, is a true winner for me. CHF31. Made in 60% new oak, with Burgundy grape clones – the berries are smaller, says Wolfer, which means not just that the fruit is more concentrated but also that the whole process of getting from grape to wine is slower, that the tannins need more time to soften, with an end result of an elegant Pinot Noir that has a fine touch of spice.
Assemblage Sequana 2018, with Pinot as just one of four grapes: Regent, Léon Millot (Piwi or new disease-resistant grapes), Garanoir, Pinot Noir. This is a decidedly New World wine, juicy and all fruit, not particularly complex, easy to drink. CHF22
The land, the soil, and time
Möhr-Niggli, Maienfeld, Graubünden. Another winery where English is spoken; Matthias and Sina Gubler-Möhr spent some years in California. They make Pinot wines in Maienfeld, but some of the wine is from Basel because of family – Matthias is originally from there.
To start, their basic Möhr-Niggli Pinot Noir 2018, CHF22, spends 10 months in oak and is a light, fruity and very pleasant Pinot. Moving on up to the beautiful Pilgrim, the 2017 is not yet bottled, so in Zurich I was tasting barrel samples that have been assembled – this is a beautiful wine, even at this very young stage. The vines, in Maienfeld, are relatively high, 550-600 metres and over 30 years old; grapes are handpicked, with a large proportion not destemmed. Large vats are used for fermentation and the wine matures in barrels for 16–18 months. Great complexity, dense fruit that verges on the wild, a slightly peppery finish. CHF42
GRAF Pinot Noir 2018 comes from a small patch of Basel red stone soil and it is not yet assembled; we’ll have to wait until March or April for the final version, but this early tasting showed great promise. CHF38
Clos Martha is from Basel limestone soil, a rich and complex wine, smoky notes and density give it unusual character – I had just tasted the 2009, a beautiful, classic 10-year-old Pinot. Along with GRAF, these wines show what the hillsides around Basel can offer, although it is one of the smaller Swiss wine regions. CHF42
To put their wines in perspective, Matthias reminded me that we have to talk about soil. This is what I wrote last February, shortly after visiting them, when I tasted their wines again in Zurich at the Parker Matter of Taste:
We had a good talk about the impact of soil. Geologically speaking, Basel is part of the northern Jura and the soil on the steep slopes where Clos Marta (2013, 2015 and 2016 all have 92 Parker points) grapes are grown is famously red. Matthias Gubler describes it as “old ocean soil”. It is rich in iron, poor in limestone and while there is some debate over the impact of the colour on the wines here, Clos Marta gives a wonderful combination of minerality, freshness, clear fruit and floral notes; the nose is superb. The best reference around for more information on this is a new book, in French and German, Stein und Wein/Roche et Vin.
The Graubünden Pinot Noirs are pretty consistently good and, with soil that changes only minimally throughout the Bündner Herrschaft, they have a similar style. I was pleased to see that what I consider high Parker marks for the overpriced and overrated reputation of Gantenbein wines (don’t get me wrong: they are very good) is being balanced out by high marks for equally good wines from other producers. These wines are not cheap, nor should they be, given the work behind them and the small terroirs, but most prices are more reasonable than what you see Gantenbein wines going for – there are different business philosophies at work here, rather than different quality levels.
Gentler oak, styles and time
Weinbau von Tschader, Reichenau, Graubünden
There’s a slow, steady changing of the guard going on here, and it’s very fun to see it reflected in the wines. The first time I had their wine I was visiting the family home and winery, Schloss Reichenau, as part of the annual meeting of the Mémoire des Vins Suisses. The castle and its setting on the banks high above the Rhine river, as well as the booming baritone voice of Gian-Battista, who is not a small person in any way, made a lasting impression, as did the wonderful food and an intimate concert. This is a home where history and so many aspects of culture – music, art, architecture, wine, food – and the von Tscharner family are tightly interwoven. Maybe it is living inside this framework that allows father and now son Johann-Baptista to make wines that are not rushed or hurried, that come to market late.
I tasted four of their Pinots, starting with the 2015 Churer Blauburgunder Johann-Baptista, a new style for the family winery, with just 10% new oak. It has a very rich and deep fruit nose, almost prunes, repeated in the mouth. Very elegant, holds great promise, a contemporary style I haven’t yet seen often. CHF32
The Jeninser Blauburgunder alte Reben 2016 is from old grapes, vines planted between 1961 and 1970, Gian-Battista tells me. It has a classic Graubünden Pinot beauty, designed to be drunk after aging: fermented in open tanks with wild yeast, matured in barrels for 28 months. The nose is a voluptuous mix of black currants and dark berries, with a luxurious, long finish. CHF36
The Jeninser Blauburgunder Mariafeld 2013 is a wine for which Gian-Battista is known, and I always assumed the name was a place name, but I was wrong: Mariafeld is the name of the clone. “Everyone said I was crazy when I planted this!” and his famous booming laughter rolls out. “In hot years it’s more elegant” than other Pinots, but it was not a clone with a reputation for great Pinots; he has proved them wrong. The wine spends up to 46 months in large oak tanks , then two years in used barrels where the acidity is softened. This wine is just now being released. The nose was all raspberries and cherries, astonishing to me that the fruit is still so evident after this much time in wood, but the wine is round and complex, mature, lovely. CHF40
Churer Blauburgunder Gian-Battista 2015, the cellar’s wine that is part of the Mémoire des Vins Suisses, where each member winery contributes one wine to be aged and reviewed annually by the group, to study how it is evolving. Earlier in the day I tasted the 2009 vintage and found it, sadly, to be a bit worn and tired. Here we see a clear change in style, with the father telling me that his son (who designed the first of these four) refers to it as an “older style, bigger and rougher, like my father!” It is indeed a wine from an earlier time in this century, made with 50% new oak, fruit that is rich and chewy (love the mouth), a classic now but I understand the son’s desire to make a somewhat more toned-down Pinot. Lucky us, we get to try all of these styles.