As much as I’m loath to admit this (it just sounds so unsophisticated) I was 25 years old before I ever tasted a Pinot noir.
As I was drawing up my general plans for an epic 10,000- kilometer bike tour abroad, a friend passed along the phone number and address (OK, this is way before cell phones and email) of her American cousin who lived outside Beaune in an area of France known as the Burgundy region, or the Côte-d’Or. This area happens to be Pinot noir’s homeland.
Alain and Kathleen and their five children lived in the tiny village of Bourguignon, in an ancient pig barn they had refurbished. An organic garden, some fruit trees and an endless horizon of vineyards surrounded the place. Their rustic stone and post beam home had seven bedrooms, four baths and a chapel smack dab in the middle of it (Alain is a minister of the New Church). After traveling by bike down from Dijon that day, two months into my travels, I experienced my Pinot baptism.
Before lunch (or was it dinner?), Alain invited me to crawl under the front steps with him—and I mean duck and scoot in a crouched position through dirt and cobwebs—to select some bottles from his wine cellar. Upon entering the subterranean cavity of this cavernous building, I gasped. I had never seen so many wine bottles—very dusty wine bottles—in one space in my life.
Soon we were sitting down for a meal that commenced at 1:30pm with an aperitif of Kir—white wine with cassis—and did not wrap up until nearly 5pm. Kathleen had prepared a traditional French meal with a veggie twist (I was thrilled to discover they were vegetarians like me after months of staring down meat at meals offered by new friends we had met along the way). This included: l’entrée (a garden salad and a plate of grilled but cold green beans) served with a glass of Pinot; followed by le plat principal (a main course that I later learned was a French version of ratatouille) served with a home-baked bread and a glass of Pinot. We then moved on to the le fromage (a plate filled with small bite size wedges of camembert, Roquefort and brie) served with a glass of Pinot. Le dessert (an apple tart) and finally, a digestive, Armagnac, put the exclamation point on this fabulous meal. Alain explained that we had been drinking vin de garde—Pinot that would likely improve with further aging. But it could have just as well been vin de pays, table Pinot, because at that point I was clearly bombed, totally unaccustomed as I was to drinking that much wine in one sitting.
Fully anticipating a raging hangover the next morning, I weaved and bobbed my way through the table clearing and dish washing before staggering out to my tent near the garden. By 7pm, I was dead to the world. A bomb could have dropped and I wouldn’t have heard it.
Early the next morning, I awoke to birds chirping and Alain yelling out the door that the crepes were getting cold, and urging me to hurry: We had a full day of wine tasting ahead of us, he said, in celebration of my 26th birthday that day.
As I scrubbed my eyes awake, I was stunned to discover I had no hangover or headache.
That day, we visited a winery outside Beaune, where Alain introduced me as a journalist to the propriétaire de cave (the winery owner), who disappeared for about 10 minutes before reappearing with what he declared to be “une bouteille de vin très special,” a very special bottle of wine”—a Pinot with a 100-year vintage. Was he being straight with us? Who knows, but never before or after have I ever tasted such a perfect glass of wine (an unfortunately that one glass of wine has spoiled me for life, and remains the standard by which I judge all wines).
The winery owner effusively explained his enthusiastic offering this way: Business was way down—the usual onslaught of American oneophiles visiting his établissement vinicole had thus far that year never materialized. And, besides, he said, he really liked Americans, and he hoped if he shared his best with us, we’d go back home and tell all our friends to buy French wine and come visit France.
Just the day before, Jonathan, my cycling partner and boyfriend, had remarked as we were pedaling down from Dijon that the French were far friendlier than he had anticipated. I had noticed it too, but not just France. The welcome mat was, well, overwhelmingly positive everywhere we had recently thus far traveled: Belgium, The Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Scotland, Ireland, Wales and England. Was it because we were cyclists or because there were very few Americans traveling abroad at the time?
No doubt, it was a crazy scary time. February that year saw the assassination of Olof Palme, Sweden’s Prime Minister, in the streets of usually peaceful Stockholm. Just before we set off on our journey, a bomb exploded on a TWA jet over Greece, blowing a hole in the aircraft and driving four passengers out into the ethers of finality. Then Chernobyl melted down (leading to warnings from Danish and Norwegian friends not to eat berries or dairy products while we traveled). Around the same time in West Berlin, Libyan agents bombed a nightclub, killing three innocent people. Also escalating the fear level of American travelers: the MS Achille Lauro had been hijacked the year before. Palestinian Liberation Front hijackers killed a disabled Jewish-American passenger, Leon Klinghoffer, and then threw his body overboard. Travel agents attributed the scads of cancellations they got for travel the following summer primarily to this incident.
For two cyclists traveling on the cheap, the glimmer of light in all of this fear, however, was that transatlantic flights were practically empty (which allowed me to stretch out over four empty seats to sleep). I suspect it wasn’t just the new smoking ban that when into effect that year, either, because we found the backroads of Europe equally deserted. After hearing for years about how American travelers we’re considered “ugly,” we literally got the red carpet treatment nearly every where we traveled in Europe (Italy being the one exception, but that’s another story).
In addition to sharing his prized stash of Pinot noir, the winery owner was eager to share his technical insights. He spent the better part of the morning educating us in his eloquent albeit truncated English about the difficulty of cultivating and transforming the black wine grape variety of the species Vitis vinifera into wine. We learned that the Pinot grape is very intolerant of harsh growing conditions: wind, heat, cold or draught—these all lead to epic failures in the vineyard. He also advised us that there were more to these grapes than still red wine. They were also used in the production of sparkling wines, rosé still wines and vin gris white wines.
After finishing our rotund glassfuls of the priceless Pinot, we headed off to visit more wineries, where Alain, who grew up in the area, seem to know everyone on a first-named basis. We sampled wines at Corton, Pommard, Bourgogne Chanson, Chambertin, Clos de Vougeot and Musigny. After a full day of wine tasting, I was feeling a lot like someone who had been sucked out an airplane window and was now floating in the ethers.
Back home at Chateau Nicolier, Kathleen had prepared a birthday cake. I started to nod off at the table as soon as I’d blown out the candles. Jonathan helped me make a swift albeit wobbly retreat to the tent. I fell asleep with more than a hint of regret, anticipating awakening the next day to the mother of all hangovers.
Surprisingly, in the morning I felt perfectly fine, again (although I am sure my liver was quaking from the sugar and alcohol overload). I rejoiced in my official indoctrination into the Church of Pinot noir.
If you have yet had a chance to sample the full range of this grape, you don’t need to go to France. Get thee to Pinot in the City in Portland, Oregon.
The Mother of All Urban Wine Events: Pinot in the City
Portlanders and Portland visitors will soon have an amazing opportunity to sample the next best thing next to really fine French Pinot. Taste Pinots from the Willamette Valley right here in the city. In what certainly promises to be an annual event (like Portland’s famous beer festival), more than 100 of Willamette Valley’s top wineries will soon converge on a downtown city block. Think about this: You don’t have to drive to the Willamette Valley to get your Pinot fix or taste. Besides tasting fabulous wines, you get to also nibble on quintessential Oregon bites.
Besides wine tasting, this is a terrific opportunity to meet the people who have helped put Oregon Pinot noir on the wine map. Winemakers and owners will showcase new and current releases of the Valley’s iconic Pinot noir along with a variety of other wines.
Participating restaurants include 1910 Main: An American Bistro, Community Plate, Crooked House Bistro, Dundee Bistro, JORY (at the Allison Inn & Spa), La Rambla, Red Hills Provincial Dining and Subterra. Local food purveyors include Briar Rose Creamery, Oregon Hazelnuts, Oregon Olive Mill, Oregon Truffle Oil, Red Fox Bakery, Republic of Jam, and Willamette Valley Confectionery
Tickets for Pinot in the City
Saturday & Sunday, September 10-11, 2011
Location: NW 9th and Marshall in the heart of the Pearl
One day ticket: $60
Two day ticket: $90
At the Door: $70
All tickets include event wine glass, tasting booklet, touring map, unlimited pours from all wineries as well as samplings from local food purveyors.
Ticket holders must be 21 years or older. ID will be checked at entrance.
Register for Pinot in the City in Portland, OR on Eventbrite: http://pinotinthecity.eventbrite.com/
Photo: The chapel at Chateau Nicolier