These were the words I used when I introduced a Pinot Noir at a recent wine tasting we hosted at Alchemy. My (somewhat deliberately controversial) statement raised a few eyebrows, and caused at least one guest to sharply draw her breath in disbelief. Now before you call me out on my own prejudice, given that the theme of this blog is to challenge preconceptions, let me explain…
I can't quite recall the year, it must have been in the mid 2000s, that I found myself on a work trip to France. I'd spent a fair amount of time in Paris over the years, so decided to explore the famous wine regions of the most famous wine producing country instead. Ever optimistic and with a tendency to do too much, I planned a trip that would take me to Burgundy for a couple of days, after which I would head over to either Champagne or Bordeaux. Spoiler alert - I cut my trip short and went back to Paris after Burgundy. Crazy I know, but I will reveal all.
After a train ride from Paris through rolling green hills and medieval villages, I found myself in Dijon, described by Lonely Planet as the "dashingly handsome capital" of the region. Perhaps that's where the trouble started - although historic, elegant and even pretty in places, I did not find Dijon to be dashingly handsome. I was traveling alone and hoped to find some life. With a few hours to kill before dinner, I strolled the streets, took in some sights, and eventually settled for a traditional restaurant where I enjoyed rich Burgundy cuisine, washed down with a rather disappointing glass of Pinot Noir. I admittedly did not have a lot of money to spend, and dismissed the underwhelming wine to lack of budget (even though it was NOT cheap by our standards). It also worried me a bit that the town seemed quiet, too quiet. I tried a few bars after dinner, but they were all closed or looked like they needed to be closed.
Thanks in part to my inability to find "life" (read nightlife), I was up early the next day and made my way to Beaune, the beautiful and quaint wine capital of the region. Cobbled streets, countless wineries and achingly beautiful vineyards lifted my spirits. Further buoyed by the prospect of sampling some world famous wines, I embarked on a tasting mission. The first few attempts left me unimpressed. I eventually made my way to the underground cellars of Château de Beaune where the wines from Bouchard Père & Fils (founded in 1731) are stored. What an extraordinary experience - miles of underground cellars where I was allowed to explore, unaccompanied, with Burgundian tasting cups in hand. A lit candle atop a wine barrel signaled wherever wine was available for tasting. I treasure this experience and the rich history I was allowed to share in. But, with some exceptions, I genuinely did not like the wines! (A little advice - if you ever visit, take the time to learn how to pronounce Beaune - even the bus driver who was driving from Dijon to Beaune, with one stop only, in Beaune, refused to "understand" when I asked him to confirm that the bus was going to my intended destination. The French may be notorious for this kind of attitude, but I have not encountered this in too many places France. Perhaps Beaune, and Burgundy in general, are too up their own behinds.)
In 2009 I had just moved to New York. Hannes, a friend from Johannesburg, was in town for a few days and we met for dinner at Spice Market, a restaurant in the Meat Packing District. He ordered the wine - much to my dismay, a Pinot Noir from Sonoma. And it was incredible! I was so relieved to finally be drinking a Pinot Noir that I liked! While typically light, this example had some body, distinct Pinot flavours and more importantly, complemented the food heavily influenced by flavours from the East.
For the past few years I've watched the growing popularity of Pinot Noir in South Africa with great interest. Actually, that's not true, I've sampled the growing popularity with great interest! Local wine makers are creating extraordinary wines using this fickle grape, especially in our cooler climate areas. The wines remain light, true to character, but with enough body and structure to keep me interested. I can't think of anything better than a chilled glass of Pinot Noir on a warm Durban day, when I just don't feel like drinking white wine. Pinot Noir and many other light red varietals are perfect for our climate and we really should be drinking much more of it. We stock some amazing Pinot Noirs in The 'Other' Room (as well as some Cinsault, Grenache and others perfect for summer sipping) and I often challenge patrons to try these.
So, back to my story. I left Dijon after another evening of fruitless strolling, and was so disappointed that I decided to skip Champagne and go straight back to Paris. I changed my flight and returned to South Africa a day early.
At the time, we were still exposed to very heavy wines in South Africa. So perhaps my palate just could not appreciate the sensitive, light Pinot Noirs for which Burgundy is famous. I had also already developed an aversion to the heavily oaked Chardonnays we were tortured with for so many years, and Chardonnay being the primary white wine from Burgundy, I barely had the desire to try them. Perhaps the timing wasn't right. Perhaps my mood wasn't right. But just maybe I really don't like Burgundy wines.
Obviously I can't make such a statement without contradicting my own views on wine enjoyment. My subsequent experiences have reminded me of a few insights:
- Keep trying, and revisit previously dismissed options. I would never have ordered that Pinot Noir in new York, but I'm so glad Hannes did.
- Although I'm not shy to drink a glass on my own, wine is for sharing. Experiences are for sharing. I suspect that much of my mediocre Burgundy experience was due to the fact that I was traveling alone.
- Wine enjoyment is a journey, and what we like changes over time.
Thanks in part to Hannes placing that order in New York, I'm enjoying a glass of B Vintners Black Bream Pinot Noir right now. Claimed to be Burgundian in style, the wine is medium-bodied , with a salinity that I love. Thanks bud, you changed my life. This wine is amazing, and if it is Burgundian in style, I sincerely hope that I get an opportunity to visit Burgundy again to give it another chance, preferably with some good company, and out of season when the locals are actually there.
I'd love to prove myself wrong.
(P.S. I started writing this piece a few days ago. I'm happy to add that today I shared a bottle of gorgeous Oak Valley Chardonnay with my friend Michael over lunch at Mundo Vida in Umdloti, overlooking a choppy ocean. The scallops were seriously good - one of the best Durban dining experiences I've had in a while. And surprisingly, I enjoyed the Chardonnay!)