In Search of Pinot Noir, Benjamin Lewin MW (2011)

Update 17.11.2011(16.11.2011)billn

In Search of Pinot Noir, Benjamin Lewin MW (2011)
2011, Vendange Press.

Benjamin Lewin is starting out on the road to be the prolific wine-book writer of our times – not bad considering he only published his first book two years ago; and no, I’m not including the repetitive annual titles where people are largely editors rather than writers – Benjamin writes real books, serious books.

Already delivered are What Price Bordeaux (2009), Wine Myths & Reality (2010), and now, hot from the presses, this title, In Search of Pinot Noir (2011). All of them offer a measure of critique and ‘grounding’, as opposed to a rehash of what has gone before, and they certainly do not lack for depth.

Benjamin earned his crust for about twenty-five years as a writer and publisher of books and journals in the life sciences area; his Cell Press publishing house was sold to Elsevier in 1999. A little cash, some skill and presumably also some free time allowed him to become a Master of Wine – and it shows in the attention to detail he brings to the page; each chapter has its own appendix of references – initially a little confusing until you realise you are looking at reference number 95 from chapter 3, not chapter 2 – but that’s an observation, not a complaint…!

This title has exactly the same (sub-dust-jacket) design as the previous books, with a hardback burgundy-coloured cover with a large, gold, italic title. Versus that last book (Wine Myths & Reality, 600 pages) this is more modest at close to 400 pages, though some of the text is unsurprisingly redolent of that last book, but nothing wrong with that where the info is pertinent, up-to-date and well thought out – and I think it is. And when I say up-to-date, I mean it – many of the notes that bookmark the chapters are from this year (2011), surprising then that he did not visit the new, rather plusher and less discrete offices of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.

And Benjamin’s conclusions; did he find his pinot noir? Well that would be telling, wouldn’t it(?) but I am incredibly impressed that he managed to make a side-by-side tasting of Richbourg and Romanée St.Vivant from both DRC and Leroy – and from multiple vintages too!

  • We should all be indebted to Benjamin for his reporting of the ‘other places’; in France there’s Sancerre, Alsace and Champagne, slightly further afield there’s England, Germany, Switzerland and Italy – and in a detail you will struggle to match elsewhere. This same can be said throughout his northern and southern hemisphere narratives – though there’s nothing from China, not yet anyway…!
  • There are almost 400 pages to this book, illustrated with many (annotated) google maps, graphs and tables. The list of sources will also keep you going for months, though the bibliography is relatively modest, if up-to-date.
  • Some of the book is given over to tasting notes which I admit I barely read, but they are there to illustrate certain points and as benchmarks for certain regions – the summary was in each case largely enough for me. This is certainly a reference book, but also one that you can read from cover-to cover without any fatigue. Half a dozen typos slip onto the pages – I only mention it because I found none in the 1st 100 pages of his Wine Myths & Reality book, with which I’m currently engaged.
  • Overall; if you at all interested in the title, then this is a ‘must buy’ book – bravo.
In more detail
  • There is neither foreword or introduction, rather a ‘preface’ from which in two sentences encompass much of the book. Initially discussing winemakers in ‘other’ places

    Or have they instead discovered an unexpected flexibility in Pinot Noir, with a potential to make top-notch wines that do not necessarily resemble burgundy, but which are excellent in their own right?
    Our search, of-course starts in Burgundy. Then it focuses on other cool climates in France… …before moving even farther north… (etcetera)

    All-told, Benjamin works his way through France Germany, back into France then Italy and Switzerland, even the UK then North America before switching hemispheres. I can’t say I fully understood why we started with France then headed into Germany before coming back to finish France – but hey. About ninety of the book’s pages are pure Burgundian commentary.

  • What follows is a personal selection of snippets that I found interesting, often they are the reported quotes of other people:
  • Page 15:

    When Pinot is picked overripe, the wines tend to taste the same, regardless of clone or site

  • Page 26:

    If you use too much whole cluster it will taste like a whole cluster wine and you lose terroir, but a touch lends a fine sense of texture.

  • Page 49:

    The economics of bottling yourself meant that you didn’t get paid until much later, so vignerons felt it involved taking a risk. Grower bottling spread slowly as people saw the results of their neighbour’s success.

  • Page 52, discussing AOC, the text has hints of Karl Marx about it:

    A major part of the argument was that the means of production should be regulated as well as the origin.

  • Page 55:

    Yet for my money, the sharpest increase in quality level when I taste Burgundy is going from village wine to premier cru.

    Interesting. Personally I have that impression between bourgognes and villages wines. Though I do think ‘real’ complexity is usually apparent only for premier crus and above when young, but it does trickle down to villages wines when older.

  • Page 101 : A quote from Dominique Laurent

    Like any good French artisan, I have no wish let alone need to discuss Pinot Noir… My experiences and research are secret from a commercial perspective and not to be published, do you understand my position? It would be sufficient for your book to give an umpteenth comment from a more or less well judged tasting. Every time I return to the subject it’s a can of worms… I have no wish to discuss a subject which has given me so much stupid criticism.

  • Page 157 :

    This is possibly the longest lived Pinot Noir of the Alto Adige. “Barthenau is like a diesel engine, it stats very slowly but it runs for ever”

  • Page 169 :

    The question in my mind was whether I would find genuinely interesting wines, in a range of styles reflecting location or wine-making, or whether it would be as Dr Johnson described the dog walking on its hind legs: “It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” How far can you stretch the elasticity of typicity before deciding that the wine is not Pinot any more?

  • Page 228 : Discussing vintages 1999 and 2002, Benjamin Lewin notes that “Robert Parker gave… …fairly similar ratings.” It would be better if he’d written ‘Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate…’ as we all know that Pierre-Antoine Rovani gave the ratings.
  • Page 231 :

    Looking back, Rod Berglund of Joseph Swan Vineyards comments that, “The oldest vines in the estate were planted in 1969. Anyone who planted Pinot Noir at that time was a visionary or a lunatic, and to say that they were a visionary is revisionist history.”

  • Page 234 : Quoting Jim Clenenden

    What is the point of going out and farming your vineyards so badly that you get to physiological ripeness only at 15.5% alcohol?

  • Page 298 :

    Wine is the only beverage that has the ability to reflect time and place, so why would you want to try to make every vintage consistent?

  • Page 234 : Quoting David Lloyd of Eldridge Estate

    The soils play a tiny role compared to what the French would believe

  • Page 313 : A nice discussion about the southern hemisphere more from corks to screw-cap closures.

Agree? Disagree? Anything you'd like to add?

There is one response to “In Search of Pinot Noir, Benjamin Lewin MW (2011)”

  1. Paul jacobson12th April 2012 at 9:27 amPermalinkReply

    What I like about Dr Ben is his interest in the “most interesting cutting edge producers” of “elegance and finesse”p299 in Central Otago. He states “Alexandra is hard to get a bead on … Aromatics may be more noticeable” p301.

    Thanks Ben enjoying your book.

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