Best Wine Regions for Burgundy Fans
Traditional cellar buildings in Niederösterreich, Austria.
1. Willamette Valley, Oregon, US
In 1965 David Lett ignored the experts and backed his own, carefully researched hunch that Oregon’s Willamette Valley could be the next best place after Burgundy to cultivate Pinot Noir. Just 14 years later, his Eyrie Vineyards 1975 South Block Reserve Pinot Noir finished in the top 10 of a global Pinot Noir tasting. A swiftly arranged rematch saw the same wine placed a very close second to Joseph Drouhin’s 1959 Chambolle-Musigny. There was no great outcry of publicity at this success, but it’s no coincidence that by 1987 the Drouhin family had founded their own Willamette Valley venture. Oregon was firmly on the world wine map!
Other producers soon followed and today this beautiful corner of Oregon has built a focused reputation for Pinot Noir, alongside some equally compelling Chardonnay. Cooler than California, but benefitting from reliably dry summers, Oregon has proved itself capable of capturing that haunting Pinot Noir aroma, balancing delicacy with plenty of capacity to age.
Success hasn’t spoiled the notably friendly, collaborative atmosphere of this wine region, which shines through at events such as the annual, highly recommended, International Pinot Noir Celebration in McMinnville. Early pioneers such as Eyrie, Elk Cove and Adelsheim are still going strong, but they’ve been joined by a new generation of stars, including Antica Terra, Cristom and Rose & Arrow.
2. Baden, Germany
If you don’t associate Germany with Pinot Noir then wake up! This country is the variety’s third largest producer and many of the examples being made today are thrilling, albeit frustratingly difficult to find abroad. The warm, sunny region of Baden, sandwiched between France and Switzerland in Germany’s south-western corner, has emerged in recent decades as a particularly thrilling source of Pinot, or Spätburgunder as it’s known round here.
Forget any thoughts of thin, pale, acidic reds. These days Baden Pinot (not to mention the excellent examples also found in the Ahr, Rheingau, Pfalz and Franconia) is all about bright, ripe cherry fruit, its purity complemented by intensity, depth and perhaps a touch of savoury spice. Charming top notes are often accompanied by an underlying seriousness of structure that signals the significant ageing potential of these wines.
For a benchmark example of just how good Baden Pinot Noir can be, seek out the distinctively terroir-driven wines of Bernhard Huber. Don’t stop there though. Explore the rich, structured style of Fritz Wassmer; the toned, gastronomic expressions from Franz Keller – who also makes pretty serious Chardonnay – and the alluringly silky, perfumed wines of Hanspeter Ziereisen.
3. Hemel en Aarde Valley, South Africa
There aren’t too many spots in the glorious Mediterranean climate of South Africa where Pinot Noir can truly thrive. A scenic 90-minute drive from Cape Town takes you down towards the southernmost tip of Africa. Here, just a few kilometres inland from the whale-watching town of Hermanus lies the breath-takingly beautiful Hemel-en Aarde Valley, which in the last 30 years has become firmly established as a serious hub for top class Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
You won’t find large scale production here. This is a region dominated by boutique family-run businesses united in their ambition to show the world just how fine South Africa’s wines can be. There’s no danger of mistaking this landscape for Burgundy, but these ancient, clay-rich, shale soils combine with fresh sea breezes and, as you head up the valley, considerable altitude to create perfect conditions for elegant, cool-climate wines.
Early pioneer Hamilton Russell continues to boast a strong track record, especially for its mineral-driven Chardonnay. Another established name here is Bouchard Finlayson, its Galpin Peak Pinot Noir flagship today up against exciting competition from the next Finlayson generation, whose Crystallum wines are crafted from fruit grown higher up on the Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge. Other arrivals such as Newton-Johnson and Ataraxia have firmly cemented this region’s reputation.
4. Martinborough, New Zealand
New Zealand may be most readily associated with its distinctive Sauvignon Blanc, but the country’s talents extend well beyond this calling card. Superb examples of both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay can be found in various corners, but the North Island region of Martinborough has a status that far outstrips its diminutive geographical size.
Located not far from Wellington on the southern edge of the North Island, Martinborough is a charming colonial village that since the 1990s has been heavily shaped by its thriving wine industry. Quantities may be small here, but quality is high. That vibrant, plush expression of Pinot Noir found in so many parts of New Zealand today is typically tempered in Martinborough by a sophisticated, savoury undercurrent. There’s real texture, depth and structure to these wines, yet rarely heaviness. Martinborough is also a place to look for grown up Chardonnay that combine flinty energy with satisfying weight.
Many of the producers here are small, selling their limited supplies of high value wine directly from the cellar door or via heavily subscribed mailing list. If you manage to secure some Kusuda or Dry River then congratulations. Rather more widely available are big names including Ata Rangi, Palliser and Martinborough Vineyard.
5. Yarra Valley, Australia
Most of the Australian mainland is simply too hot for Pinot Noir – this is Shiraz country after all. The exception lies in the regions surrounding Melbourne, where southerly latitude combines with cooling ocean and mountain influences to create the conditions for truly elegant, charismatic expressions. Located just an hour’s drive from downtown Melbourne, Yarra Valley is one of the largest, oldest and most highly regarded of these. Pinot Noir dominates production here, with Chardonnay a short distance behind.
The cool conditions of Yarra are evident in the delicacy of these Pinot Noirs. Australia has no problem generating generous fruit, but the best Yarra producers make sure ripeness doesn’t overwhelm their wine’s sense of place, nor the alluring array of flavours and textures contained in these bottles.
So, where to start? Mount Mary is a Yarra producer with justified cult status. Former employee Mac Forbes set out on his own back in 2004 and is now widely recognised as one of the stars of the region, if not country. Other producers challenging preconceptions about Australia’s ability to produce truly terroir expressive Pinot Noir and naturally stylish Chardonnay include Timo Mayer, Hoddles Creek, Santolin and Giant Steps.
6. Niederösterreich, Austria
No, we’re not still talking about Australia – read the heading again: this is Austria. Best known for its Grüner Veltliner, too few wine lovers turn to this corner of Europe for top class reds, never mind Pinot Noir. They’re missing a treat. The variety has a small but longstanding presence here and today excellent examples can be found dotted across a number of regions. In particular, certain corners of the large Niederösterreich area, perhaps most notably Thermenregion, as well as Carnuntum, Kamptal and Vienna, are all cultivating an exciting niche in Pinot Noir.
There’s a reason you don’t see a huge amount of Austrian Pinot. Conditions in this continental climate can often prove rather too warm for top quality Pinot Noir, and there’s history of producers further smothering this sensitive grape’s personality with excessive oak. Increasingly, however, they’re getting the balance just right to create Pinot Noir that is generous but not at the expense of freshness and expression.
An excellent place to start your Austrian Pinot exploration is the graceful, lightly spiced wines of Thermenregion producer Johannishof Reinisch. Meanwhile, within the city limits of Vienna, Wieninger makes charming yet structured Pinot Noir. From there, head upstream along the Danube to Kamptal, where both Willi Bründlmayer and Loimer show that their talents and terroir can be successfully channelled well beyond Grüner Veltliner and Riesling.
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