From the sublime to the ridiculous – Aldi Pinot Noir

aldi_pinot_noirSorry Aldi – I did not like your wines, but it is not nice to call them ridiculous. I just couldn’t resist after my last blog post.

The context for my focus on Aldi is that I am working my way through my case of Paparuda Pinot Noir, which I rate highly for the price, and I am planning my next case-purchase of decent uncomplicated Pinot. The Paparuda has now moved on to the 2014 vintage I think, though it is no longer explicitly mentioned on the label, and I had a glass of Aldi Pinot Noir that I quite liked some time ago.

So I thought I would try a bottle with a view to getting a case. But when I arrived at Aldi, I discovered they had two(!) Pinot Noirs, so I got a test bottle of each and opened them both with dinner last night. A quick impression of which one I like best can be obtained from the levels in the bottles the following morning – see image.

Pinot Noir, Vignobles Roussellet, Vin de France, non-vintage, 12.5%, £4.40
Medium ruby. Fresh on the nose. Confected fruit, doubtless as a result of carbonic maceration. Medium acidity. Low but detectable astringency.  Could easily be a Beaujolais. Pleasant enough, but no Pinot character, and thin **

Pinot Noir, Premium Selection, Estevez, Quinta de Maipo, Chile, 2013, 13.0%, £5.00
Medium pale ruby garnet. Intensely woody. Oak chips perhaps? Rather unpleasant. Medium acidity. Low but detectable astringency. Decent length, but I wish the flavour would go away faster. Cannot find any fruit for the woodiness *

Yes I know these wines are cheap, and I freely admit I do not have much experience at this end of the market, but all I can say is that I personally would not buy more at any price. If you want a cheapish Pinot Noir, my recommendation would still be the Paparuda – available from £5.40, but generally it’s just above £6.00. If on the other hand you are in Aldi anyway, walk past their Pinot Noir and instead pick up a bottle of the bargain Crémant du Jura.

Update: Three days later with the wine being stored in the fridge, the Chilean wine is a lot better. The oak has receded and the fruit is coming through – dark berry fruit that with the palate of faith could even be Pinot Noir. I think now a solid ** . I don’t usually find wines improve like this. They may change, but usually in the downwards oxidative direction in my experience.

Paparuda Pinot Noir 2013


I discovered this wine at Manchester SITT this year, and am now approaching the end of my second case.  So I am strongly recommending this wine, but read the tasting note below first to see if it is for you – I am sure it will not suit all tastes.

It is a Romanian wine made by Cramele Recas, and has a modest 12.5% alcohol.  The region is not specified on the label, but according to Tanners the estate is “located in the western fringes of the Transylvania/Banat region near the city of Timisoara in the west of the country”.  I got mine from Tanners, who now sell it for £6.80, but Google will throw up a number of alternative merchants.

Light ruby, with a violet tinge. Definite Pinot Noir aromatics on the nose, but equally definitely not Burgundy.  And not like pretty much any other style of Pinot Noir I have encountered before.  Most importantly, it is emphatically not the dire concoction that cheap Pinot Noir usually is. This is soft, light and fruity, and suggestive of carbonic maceration. I would say confected, but that commonly has negative connotations.  There is also a very slight hint of oak. The aromas carry through to the impression on the palate.  Here, it is not at all flabby. The acidity is pretty much middle of the range, and there is noticeable but not obtrusive astringency. Pretty good length. Back in March, I thought this wine had a slight reductive note, but a few months later it seemed to have sorted itself out. Not one for keeping, but with a wine as gluggable as this why would you want to? A very easy wine to match with food.  Try it with anything savoury apart from the lightest of white fish and the darkest of meats.  A slight chill on the wine wouldn’t hurt.  Excellent value for money  ***

The turning of Pinot Noir into Rioja

Medical researchers have different definitions, but in the jargon of wine, tasting blind means that you probably know its broad class, e.g. region or grape variety, but the other details are withheld.  While double-blind means that in principle you know nothing about the wine. Then there is blind tasting where you are actively mislead about what you are tasting.

The most common use of this may be in those experiments that lead to the newspaper headlines about how wine snobs have been fooled. For example, the one where red dye was added to white wine, leading tasters to describe it in terms of red wine aromas (Morrot, Brochet and Dubourdieu, 2001, The color of odors, Brain Lang, 79 , 309-320). I was caught by one of these underhand tricks at a recent tasting.

As part of something billed as a “Comparative Tasting of Red Burgundy and Pinot Noir from around the World” three wines were presented blind. One of them was awful. It was pale mahogany, and horribly oxidised beyond recognition. I guessed it was a cheap New World Pinot Noir, mainly because I didn’t think out host would let any decent wine deteriorate so badly. So in the ensuing game of “options” I was out at the first hurdle, because it was Old World. When the question “Is it from Spain?” came up, the penny began to drop, but I was out of the running at that stage. The wine was actually Urbina Rioja Gran Riserva Especial 1994. Along with many others, I was well and truly, er, well let’s just say wrong.

Nothing too unusual with that – anyone that has tried even above-board single-blind tastings will be used to messing up. The remarkable thing though, was that when I returned to taste the wine it had totally transformed – from a horribly oxidised Pinot Noir to a Rioja that was perfectly drinkable. To be honest it was probably not the freshest of samples considering its vintage, but certainly not the disgusting liquid I tasted earlier. The transformative effect of the information on the label was, to me at least, as powerful as various optical illusions I have seen, e.g. the one where you initially see two faces or a vase until someone tells you there is another interpretation.


Thanks to John Smithson for releasing this image into the public domain – it is also used in the Wikipedia article on the Rubin Vase. I am not sure if the wine was bi-stable like the image, because my sample ran out too quickly 🙁

Grape varieties in Passe-Tout-Grains

I remember that one of my first geeky wine questions was about the allowable varietal proportions in Bourgogne Passe-Tout-Grains.  I asked my guide, on a Côte d’Or wine tour in 2003.  She didn’t know, but promised to ask the next producer we were visiting.  They didn’t know either, and I was recommended to get a copy of Pitiot and Servant’s “The Wines of Burgundy” from Ateneum in Beaune.  That book said: Pinot 1/3 max, Gamay 2/3 min.  Unfortunately it was the wrong answer – as you might guess if you pause to think.  Why would any regulation want to limit the amount of Pinot Noir in a region where Pinot Noir is king?

Since then, as a new wine book falls into my hands, one of the first things I check is its opinion on the grape proportions in Passe-Tout-Grains.  So far I have:

Book Grape proportions
Pitiot and Servant
The Wines of Burgundy
Pinot 1/3 max, Gamay 2/3 min
Jasper Morris (Ed Jancis Robinson)
The Oxford Companion to Wine
Pinot Noir (minimum one-third)
and Gamay
Clive Coates
An Encyclopedia of The Wines and
Domaines of France
Gamay and Pinot Noir (minimum of
Tom Stevenson
The Sotheby’s Wine Enclyopedia
Pinot Noir plus a maximum of one-third Gamay and a combined maximum of 15% Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, and Pinot Gris

Some are better others, but none is really what I would call a proper text-book answer.  I have already highlighted errors in Tom’s Encyclopedia, and on the subject of Passe-Tout-Grains it is wrong too.  Jasper and Clive are in practice about right, but wrong in detail (Oops – that’s unfair – see update at the bottom of this post).

It is not difficult to discover the correct answer.  For any French appellation, the starting point is the INAO website.  Click on “Recherche” and “Produits | Liste des produits et leurs cahiers des charges [CDC]” (I manged to create a bookmark here, but it seems I cannot simply give you the URL in a link).  Now, after a bit of poking around with this search page, you can find the regulations on Passe-Tout-Grains.  My French is not great, but it does not take much knowledge to find the bit on the cépage.  The proportion of Pinot Noir must be greater than 30%, the proportion of Gamay must be more than 15%, and the proportion of other allowable grapes (Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris) must be less than 15%.

I am getting increasingly annoyed by the sloppiness shown in well-known wine books.  I grant that not many people care about Passe-Tout-Grains, but if it is not important why mention it in the first place?  The current Wikipedia article on Passe-Tout-Grains is more detailed, accurate and precise than any of the books mentioned above.  And if I manage to get my finger out and improve the article a little, it will be pretty much spot on.

With the internet providing information from the horse’s mouth, high quality collaborative texts like Wikipedia, and (dare I say it) the occasional high quality blog, book writers are going to have to up their game.  Flannel is no longer going to cut it.

Update 18/02/12: Jasper Morris informs me that, at the time of writing, the books quoting a minimum of one third Pinot Noir were correct.  Historically the required percentages of Pinot Noir were 20% (1937-1943), 25% (1943-1947) and one third (1947-2009).

Bertrand Ambroise Nuits Saint George

Looking back at my previous post it is clear that it might have been helpful to provide examples of the styles I now recognise as bona fide expressions of Pinot Noir and Burgundy.  I didn’t partly because of the work involved, and partly because the lines are not always that clear and others might draw them differently.  But what I will do here is give you a good example of Burgundy I do like at lot: the Nuits Saint George of Bertrand Ambroise.

I would like to say that I have found a domaine whose wines I can buy with confidence without trying them first, but I have not reached that point quite yet.  Apart from the Nuits Saint George, I have tried a couple of his cheaper whites, the Hautes-Côtes de Nuits 2004 and Ladoix 1er Cru Les Gréchons 2005, both tasted in 2007.  They were perfectly fine *** wines, and decent value for money, but did not excite me enough to want to buy.  I also tried his straight Bourgogne Rouge 2009 in March last year, which I also gave ***, but as I thought this would improve I decided to buy half a case as £15 per bottle.  I am not sure I properly have the measure of this wine yet.  The taster on which I decided to buy was  of the primary red cherry fruit style I like so much, but the bottle which I opened a couple of weeks later was more black cherry and blackcurrant, and seemed to have more dominant oak.  I am not necessarily suggesting bottle variation – taster variation is at least as likely an explanation.  Either way I am not going to fret too much about the difference.  The fruit was good and intense, and tannins were evident, so I am going to tuck the remaining bottles away for a few years and see what happens.

But the Nuits Saint George is on a totally different level.  For the 2002 and 2005, in March and December respectively last year I did the same as for the Bourgogne: I tasted a sample, bought a half case, and opened a bottle from the half case a week or two later.  For these wines, the tasting sample and bottle experiences were very similar, and are described below in one note for each wine.

Nuits Saint George, Bertrand Ambroise, 2002, £26
Medium garnet.  Intense, slightly funky, Burgundy.  Good mature Pinot Noir fruit. Sous bois.  Highish acidity and medium astringency.  Excellent length, with tingly fruit finish.  Excellent all round wine.  Good to drink now or in next few years.  *****

Nuits Saint George, Bertrand Ambroise, 2005, £31
Medium garnet.  Intense beautiful Burgundian perfumed Pinot Noir.  Mainly primary fruit, but with a savoury edge – bacon perhaps.  Sous Bois.  Some spicy oak, but not obtrusive. Medium acidity and astringency.  Sweet, light, delicate fruit.  Extremely long, with tangy perfumed finish.  Great now.  Not sure how much it will improve as I like it so much now, but will certainly last several more years.  ******

Yup, 6 stars is my maximum score – and given to a village level Burgundy.  I was tempted to to knock a star to create what might seem like a more sane assessment, but decided eventually to stick to my guns and say what I really thought.

I was pleased to be introduced to all these wines by the Manchester Wine Society.  The red Burgundies were both tried at excellent tastings lead by Peter Ainsworth, and were bought from his company Delamere Wines (sadly longer trading).

Pinot Noir and unknown unknowns

To quote a former US Secretary of Defense out of context, with wine “there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know”.  To complete the set, there are probably also some unknown knowns; things we know only subconsciously.

After a brief burst of known knowns leading up to me taking a WSET exam, my vinous life is again descending into unknowns of both varieties.  Well, I say descending, but that is maybe too negative.  I am quite happy for many aspects of wine to be a mystery.  Give me the scientific explanation if there is one, but otherwise let it be.  Please don’t over simplify or compound the mystery with metaphysics.

But occasionally I do encounter the odd shaft of light.

As I was initially pushing back the frontiers of ignorance I decided at quite an early stage that I had pretty much nailed Pinot Noir and Burgundy.  Not at a deep level, but I knew I liked it, and thought I understood the basic flavour profile.  I found the delicate, perfumed cherry aromatics irresistible, and the barnyard and sous bois notes of mature Burgundy were also seductive and easily recognisable.  (I never was quite sure how many Rs there were in forest, so went for the pretentious option in my descriptors.)

Then, in the last few months, over the course of quite a few tastings, I have been realising that what I understood to be correct Pinot Noir was just one expression of the grape, and is not even consistently found in Burgundy.  For example there are the more tannic masculine Burgundies, and the ripe black fruit style typified by many American producers.  And I have recently been finding Pinot Noirs that have reminded me more of Syrah than anything else – primary Syrah aromatics, and meaty bacony flavours when more mature.  I knew the other styles existed, but I thought they were aberrations.  Now I realise that they are qually valid, and some people actually prefer them.

My favourite, more delicate and aromatic, Pinot Noirs seem to come mainly from Burgundy and New Zealand, but just because they come from those regions is not at all a guarantee of style.  I am becoming increasingly aware that the New Zealand Pinot Noirs I like tend to be the cheaper ones.  Sadly the same cannot be said of Burgundy – that is definitely a known known.