A Horizontal Tasting of Eight 2008 French Pinot Noirs

In January I was in Milan and I attended another wine tasting event organized by the local chapter of the Italian Sommelier Association: whenever I can, I participate in these events because they are very well organized and the association often signs up producers or interesting personalities in the wine world, which make these gatherings entertaining and always educational.

This time the event revolved around an international grape variety and a wine that is the bread and butter of fellow wine blogger Jeff, AKA the drunken cyclist: if you know Jeff and follow his excellent and entertaining wine blog (and if you do not, I think you should) you know that I refer to Pinot Noir, a wine/grape variety of which Jeff is definitely an expert. On the contrary, I am no expert of Pinot Noir, although I like good Pinot Noirs from Burgundy, the US and Italy (Alto Adige) and I particularly like the grape variety in the context of a good Champagne or Classic Method sparkling wine such as a good Franciacorta. If Jeff reads this post, he may weigh in and share his thoughts on the subject.

Anyway, the guest of the event was Prof. Moio, an Italian agronomy professor who spent a few years in Burgundy (admittedly the “purest” region in the world for growing Pinot Noir) to research Pinot Noir and particularly its varietal (or primary) aromas and its fermentation and aging (AKA secondary and tertiary) aromas as well as their perception by the human brain from a chemical standpoint. It goes without saying that, considering the area in which it was performed, no research would ever be complete without a fair share of practical testing in the field! 😉

Jokes aside, he presented the findings of his chemical research which, leaving aside some very technical stuff, were pretty interesting. I will pass on just a few points that I found noteworthy (you will notice a few technical wine terms – if in doubt, please check out our Wine Glossary):

  • As you may know, the main part in a grape berry where primary aromas reside is the skin (hence some white wine producers nowadays make their whites undergo a short maceration phase so as to maximize the extraction of terpenes, the molecules that are mainly responsible for the varietal aromas of wine)
  • The research conducted by Prof. Moio isolated four molecules that are present in the skins of Pinot Noir grape berries and are responsible for the main varietal aromas of Pinot Noir: these molecules release scents reminiscent of cherries and red berries
  • The release of the aromatic molecules of wine (a specific type of esters is one of the main carriers of aromas) is faster in wines with lesser structure and conversely slower in more structured wines that have a greater dry extract: this is the chemical reason why Grands Crus (which tend to be more structured and therefore release aromas at a slower pace) tend to have a longer finish than generally less concentrated Appellations Communales
  • The human brain categorizes those molecules that carry one single scent (for instance, pineapple) associating them with a sort of “image” to be able to recognize that same scent on future occasions; however, when different molecules carrying different scents (for instance, pineapple and peach) are present at the same time (as is often the case in wine) then one of two things may happen: either the brain tells the two different scents apart correctly and associates them to the correct “mental images” or it combines the two scents together generating a third and different “mental image” (say, apricot) – according to Prof. Moio, this is why different people who sniff the same glass of wine may have different perceptions of its aromas.

But enough chemistry now, and let’s move on to the best part of the event, that was obviously the wine tasting part! What we did was a horizontal tasting of eight different Pinot Noirs of the 2008 vintage, all of which came from the Cote d’Or (the best area in Burgundy for growing Pinot Noir) and specifically four of them came from Cote de Nuits (the northern part of Cote d’Or) and the other four from Cote de Beaune (the southern part of Cote d’Or).

Clearly, this tasting had no scientific meaning, especially because different winemaking styles (and therefore the secondary and tertiary aromas that derive from the winemakers’ choices) influenced the final bouquets of the wines that we got to sample. However, it was a nice way to introduce us to certain producers and appellations and to show us a sample of Pinot Noirs coming from the two subzones of the best area in France (and admittedly the world) for that kind of wine.

Jumping to the, like I said, non-scientific conclusions of our tasting experience, it was apparent from the limited sample we got to try that, among the eight wines that we tasted, Pinot Noirs made in Cote de Beaune tended to retain more distinctly the varietal aromas of Pinot Noir compared to the wines made in Cote de Nuits where secondary/tertiary aromas of fur tended to be more evident and sometimes to overwhelm the delicate red berry varietal aromas. My personal ratings of the eight wines I tasted that night seem to by and large confirm that conclusion as the Cote de Beaune wines generally fared a little better than the Cote de Nuits ones.

Just for clarity, I am by no means implying that therefore Cote de Beaune Pinot Noirs are better than Cote de Nuits Pinot Noirs (where 24 out of 25 of the Grands Crus can be found): all I am saying is that, among those 8 wines that I tasted, I happened to personally like the Cote de Beaune Pinot Noirs a little better than their Cote de Nuits counterparts (although, as you will see, I liked the Gevrey-Chambertin Pinot Noir of the Cote de Nuits quite a bit).

To finish up this long post, these are my favorite wines among the eight 2008 Pinot Noirs that we tasted (along with their approximate prices in the US):

1. Volnay, Domaine Marquis d’Angerville (Cote de Beaune) ~ $70

By far the best of the eight, at least to me, with aromas of blackcurrant, red berries, cherry, and hints of tobacco and fur. In the mouth it had good structure and it was smooth and tannic, perfectly balanced and with a long finish. Outstanding Outstanding

2. Aloxe-Corton, Domaine Tollot-Beaut “Les Vercots” Premier Cru (Cote de Beaune) ~$50

Nice bouquet of blackcurrant, red berries, licorice, hints of menthol. In the mouth it had good structure and concentration and it was noticeably tannic. Very Good Very Good

3. Gevrey-Chambertin, Domaine Trapet Pere et Fils (Cote de Nuits) ~$55

Nose of blackcurrant, redcurrant, fur, soil, tobacco, violet. Tannic and balanced in the mouth. Very Good Very Good

4. Chambolle-Musigny, Domaine Bruno Clair “Les Veroilles” (Cote de Nuits) ~$90

In the nose this wine started very subdued and it took a while for it to open up nicely into a bouquet of blackcurrant, red berries, violet, slight hint of fur. In the mouth it had plenty of structure and concentration, along with tannins that still felt quite aggressive, suggesting that it would be best left aging a while longer. Good Good

5. Chassagne-Montrachet, Domaine Bruno Colin “La Maltroie” Premier Cru (Cote de Beaune) ~$75

The nose of this wine did not convince me completely, as tertiary aromas of oak and tobacco were predominant and tended to overwhelm the primary aromas of red berries. In the mouth, however, it proved to be a solid wine, smooth, tannic and with a long finish. Good Good

I will not mention the remaining three wines we tasted as honestly I was unimpressed and I would not recommend buying them.

Have you had a chance to try any of the Pinot Noirs mentioned above? If you did, what do you think about them?


15 thoughts on “A Horizontal Tasting of Eight 2008 French Pinot Noirs

    1. Stefano Post author

      Chiara: so good to hear from you! I am flattered to have such an important producer follow my blog! 🙂
      I think you are doing a fantastic job at La Scolca and I plan on reviewing one of your excellent wines in the near future.
      Thank you for taking the time to comment and for your kind words.
      Take care

  1. talkavino

    Very interesting post, Stefano – lots of information! The research part about brain not being able to differentiate between two ( or more) different aromas is very interesting – I understand that this is the way it is, but it makes you feel better when you can’t find that “crazyberry” which the other person says is very present : )
    I didn’t have taste any of the wines you mentioned – I love Burgundy, but I drink the least of it, as you have to spend north of $30 to find anything even remotely enjoyable.
    You conclusion about better Pinot Noir coming Cotes de Beaune is somewhat surprising – if you look at the concentration of Grand Crus for Pinot Noir, I believe all of them are in the Cotes de Noir part with Aloxe-Carton being the only exception as Grand Cru for both Red and White. But – having said that, you were the one drinking the wines, so I can’t argue with your conclusion : )

    1. Stefano Post author

      Hi Anatoli,
      Thank you for your comment.
      Regarding your last observation, don’t get me wrong: the point of my post was certainly not to diss Cote de Nuits Pinot Noirs (actually, I liked the Gevrey-Chambertin one quite a bit)!
      As I mentioned in my post, I have little personal experience with Burgundy PN’s to begin with and mine was simply an observation regarding those eight specific wines that we had the opportunity to taste that night, so it was, like I said in the post, an extremely small and let’s say statistically irrelevant 🙂 sample.
      I just meant to share my personal, non-scientific conclusions about what we tasted that night, so they should be taken for what they are worth! 🙂
      Take care

  2. armchairsommelier

    Fascinating wine chemistry, Stefano! I think I would have paid more attention in chemistry class in college if I’d known you could apply it to wine! Pinot Noir is my favorite grape. It’s elegance in a glass. :o)

  3. the winegetter

    Cote de Beaune and no wines from Pommard??? Shame on you. 🙂 I am with Anatoli here. My experience with Burgundy Pinot Noir is very limited just because of the price tag. It pretty much stems from me spending a weekend with my host family in Dijon or Morey-St-Denis (in the heart of Cote de Nuits) and drinking as much as I can (but without taking notes or anything, because that would be rude)…

    I also agree with Anatoli that Cote de Nuits definitely seems to have more Grand Cru. Pommard, for example, one of the striking examples of Cote de Beaune, has not a single Grand Cru vineyard, but 19 Premier Cru…!

    But frankly, I love them all be they from Cote de Beaune or Nuits.

    1. Stefano Post author

      Hi Oliver!
      Thanks for your comment: I am afraid I must have not explained myself clearly enough in my post, which I am going to revisit to make it clearer that really I am in no disagreement whatsoever with you guys! What I thought I said, or anyway I wanted to say, is that *out of the eight bottles* that were part of the tasting (4 coming from the Cote de Nuits and 4 from the Cote de Beaune) those coming from Cote de Beaune generally had the varietal aromas more clearly perceptible and, personally, I tended to like them better than the Cote de Nuits wines we were presented. This by no means was meant to imply that Cote de Beaune PN’s are better than Cote de Nuits PN’s. I know that almost all of the Grands Crus are in Cote de Nuits (24 out of 25) and I wish I had an opportunity to taste one, which unfortunately I did not 🙂 Hope this makes sense, I’ll try to clarify this in the post too.
      Thanks again and take care!

    1. Stefano Post author

      Thank you, Jeff! I very much appreciate your blog and the quality of the information you provide, plus (as you know) your wit and humor in the non-wine related posts! 🙂

  4. the drunken cyclist

    Also, to jump into the fray a little here, I would say that your preference for the Côte de Beaune wines is perfectly understandable. I think that Anatoli’s and Oliver’s comments actually support your assertion rather than contradict it. Here’s why: In general, let me repeat, in general, many find the Côte de Nuits wines to be more “masculine” while the wines to the south are more “feminine”. This could also be interpreted as “muscular” vs. “softer”. Although you did not list the three you did not like (nor why you did not like them), I would hazard to guess that these wines were simply far too young. 2008 was a very good year in Burgundy and (again generally speaking) in good years, Côte de Nuits wines generally need a bit more time than Côte de Beaune. The fact that you mention the tannins in each of the notes tells me that even the CdB wines were likely far too young. For me, I prefer the Southern wines since a). they are considerably more affordable and b). they are much more approachable in their youth. Had the Côte de Nuits wines been from, say, 2002, I think you might have had a more favorable view. Maybe.

    1. Stefano Post author

      This is very interesting, Jeff, and (beside the personal consideration that I should probably see a shrink because now you made me realize that I like feminine wines 😉 ) I think you are right on the money. Once again, my experience with Burgundy Pinot Noirs is very limited, so here I am only talking about the eight wines I got to taste that night, but for most of them I sure had the impression of very prominent and sometimes edgy, aggressive tannins. Which made me feel (I mentioned this in the notes to the Chambolle-Musigny PN) that most of those wines would have benefitted from a few more years in the bottle to tame those tannins. For completeness, the three missing wines were (i) Fixin, Domaine Denis Mortet “Champ Pennebaut” which to me was an okay wine but nothing more than okay, with a subdued nose, great acidity and a short finish; (ii) Morey-Saint Denis, Domaine Meo Camuzet which was again okay at the most, with a very limited bouquet and honestly not much to be impressed of, and (iii) Pernand-Vergelesses, Domaine Antonin Guyon Premier Cru, which once again was okay, but had a very limited and subdued bouquet and a short finish – all of them had very evident tannins and felt a little unbalanced on the “hardness” side (tannins-acidity vs smoothness-ABV). I am fairly sure that, had they been a few years older, they would have tasted differently and most likely for the better. Thank you very much for taking the time to comment and share your knowledge of the subject.

  5. winingdaily

    Loved the chemistry lesson! I often feel like I’m not ‘getting’ a wine if someone else or several people in a tasting pick up something I didn’t. So this is reassuring. I know they say its subjective, but still, sometimes one can feel like a dunce. Pinot Noir is also my favorite and while I love a good Burgundy and have a nice Gevrey-Chambertain in my collection as well as having had some Côtes de Beaune Pinots, I have to say that I find new world Pinots, particularly from Willamette Valley, Oregon, and Carneros or Russian River Valley, California (as well as New Zealand) to be much more dynamic and matched with today’s modern cuisine. While a good Burgundy will pair beautifully with classic French cuisine, I find them lacking in excitement in many cases, or at least in my personal taste. The pricing is also an issue for me, and I had to shell out a pretty penny for that Gevrey-Chambertain. Even the Carneros and Willamette examples start at $30 for a quality bottle but are still more accessible than a Premier Cru Burgundy. I would never of course turn down a fine Burgundy, and I consider it also a personal responsibility to experience it (tough problem to have, I know) to have a comprehensive wine/region knowledge!

    1. Stefano Post author

      Thank you very much for your very well elaborated and thoughtful comment!
      I also very much like Willamette Valley Pinot Noirs. And I totally agree, it is interesting to try out wines made of the same varieties coming from different geographies and learn (in a pleasant way!) how they differ from one another. Leaving potential differences in winemaking styles aside, it is, if you will, a practical study of the concept of terroir! 🙂
      Thanks again for your comment.

  6. Pingback: Wine Review: Three First Drop Shiraz from Down Under | Clicks & Corks

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