Opinion: Can Pinot Noir, Besides Burgundy, Age?

Opinion: Can Pinot Noir, Besides Burgundy, Age?

My post defending California Pinot Noir on Monday stirred up quite a bit of discussion. Good comments about Burgundy vs. US wines got me thinking about aging. It’s accepted that well-balanced wines, not blockbusters, are the wines that are supposed to age well.

So how does this apply to Pinot Noir?

Wine connoisseurs generally agree that Pinot Noir does not usually age well. Nor, for that matter, do most wines of the world. We writers frequently say that most California or Oregon Pinot Noir should be drunk within four to five years of the vintage date, which is not a long time, compared to the 10 or 20 years that good Cabernet Sauvignon can age.

But then anyone who’s had a well-preserved bottle of old Burgundy from Domaine de la Romanee Conti or Maison Leroy or a handful of others, knows that in fact Burgundy can age for a long time. Ten years easily for a good vintage, sometimes 30 for a good vintage and outstanding vineyard, even 50 or 100 years for a truly great bottle.

One of my earliest memorable experiences with mature Burgundy was a 1971 Musigny from Louis Jadot that my wife and I drank during a long dinner at a restaurant tucked away in the Burgundy countryside in 1986 with Pierre Henry Gagey, Jadot’s then winemaster in training. The wine was 15 years old, rather pale and slightly brown in color, but amazing in aroma, with a bottle bouquet that was all perfume, cinnamon, new leather and cranberry. It tasted fresh and lively, very palate-cleansing (uh oh, I’m geeking out on the terminology here) and satisfying at the same time.

I have to say not many memories of great, mature bottles of US Pinot Noir pop right up in my mind. In late 2006, however, I participated in a vertical tasting of Saintsbury, a Carneros Pinot pioneer, and had a great time tasting vintages back to 1986.

The regular Saintsbury 1991 was still terrific. The Reserve Saintsbury 1999 was the best wine of 21 poured, in my view.

The oldest wines had evolved dramatically over the years, developing an exotic, new-leather bottle bouquet that totally set them apart from newly released Pinot Noir. This transformation is the payoff for those few wine collectors who try to age Pinot Noir.

I was fascinated by the oldest, most mature wines because they were just so unusual, distinctive and complex in aroma, and wonderfully smooth and mellow in texture. You could find fault in them if you tried — a little madeirization here, a little Brettanomyces barnyard smell there — but to me these nuances added to the overall mystique of an aged wine, like the pungency of a blue cheese or gamey taste of wild venison: unique and distinctive sensory experiences that you don’t get to enjoy every day.

The Saintsbury tasting reinforced that Pinot Noir can age, and sometimes California Pinot Noir does, indeed, age well. I’d like to hear from you any raves on other Pinots from California or Oregon that have stood the test of time.

Published on February 20, 2008
Topics: AgeingOpinionPinot Noir