Will Pinot Noir elevate Canadian wine to world-class status?
Pinot Noir has been called a feminine grape, approximating the qualities of Catherine Deneuve in the film Belle de jour, and it makes a vain, elusive, erotic, magnificent wine. Or it doesn’t. The Pinot vine sometimes dies prematurely and without explanation. It doesn’t necessarily travel well, but is not always happy at home in the Burgundy region of France either, where it is the dominant red grape. It can’t bear excessive rain and is especially sensitive to spring frosts. The skin of the grape is thin and it needs sun, but not too much. If it overripens, the result can be a pale, mean-spirited vintage. The right conditions, however, can yield one of the world’s most sublime wines, variously described as hinting of chocolate, pepper, ripe cherries, or, more baroquely, “the wonderful aroma of the inside of a kid glove worn by a young woman.”
“I believe that Pinot Noir will be the great grape in the Niagara Peninsula,” said Don Triggs. This was in August of 2000, and we were standing in the barren thirty-five-acre Le Clos Jordanne vineyard, its soil broken into jagged clay disks, awaiting its first planting of Pinot Noir grapes. At the time, Triggs was president and ceo of Vincor International, Canada’s largest wine company. With a square, rural face and thick grey hair combed back, Triggs had the look of a man who might be coaching the Brandon Wheat Kings. Situated on the Jordan Bench of the Niagara Escarpment, Le Clos Jordanne is bordered by the Bruce Trail, Highway 81, and picturesque pond. “[It] will happen long after I’m dead and gone,” Triggs said, “but a hundred years from now, Pinot Noir will have taken over most of the production in the Niagara.”
His plan was to make a wine that could compete with those of Burgundy, and to attract attention to the enterprise Triggs persuaded Frank Gehry to design a $30-million winery. “I’ll be honest,” he said, “we want him to do for the Niagara region what he did for Bilbao. There are sixty million Americans within a three-hour drive of Le Clos Jordanne. We’re spending the lifetime advertising budget on this winery.”
Le Clos Jordanne was jointly developed by Vincor and Boisset Vins et Spiritueux, France’s largest burgundy producer and a company that has a history with Pinot Noir. There was a natural symbiosis. Vincor got credibility and centuries of expertise while Boisset got land (something that is long gone in France) and an opportunity for expansion. Boisset also got access to a marketing expertise it hadn’t needed until recently. The volume of French wines sold by the Liquor Control Board of Ontario decreased 6.7 percent between 2005 and 2006, a decline that is reflective of European wine sales worldwide. Between 1988 and 1999, Europe’s share of global wine exports (excluding intra”“European Union trade) dropped from 91 percent to 66 percent, while the New World’s market share grew from 8 percent to nearly one-third. The gap continues to narrow and is approaching parity, although Canada has been largely excluded from this trend. Among New World producers, it has lagged far behind the US, Australia, and New Zealand in finding an international market, and to some degree has been ghettoized by the success of ice wine, which accounts for most of the industry’s international profile.
These tectonic shifts are taking place within a shrinking market. Despite the reported health benefits of wine, both consumption and production have been declining (slightly) for a decade, and the industry has responded with alliances and takeovers. In keeping with this trend, both Boisset and Vincor went on extended buying sprees, Boisset buying dozens of wineries in the UK, Uruguay, France, and Chile. Vincor, with wine interests in British Columbia, New Zealand, Australia, the UK, and the US, emerged as the eighth-largest wine producer in the world.
Consolidation has created financial synergies and delivered benefits to shareholders, but it also carries the potential for increased standardization. There is a nagging fear that globalization will result in the “vanilla-ization” of wine, that it won’t express its origins but will simply reflect broad consumer tastes, tastes that are manipulated by a small number of wine consultants and critics. In some ways, the wine industry already resembles the film industry, where the product is market-tested and pitched to the masses. The move toward more accessible, standardized wines is reinforced by the retail structure, at least in the US, where the majority of wine is sold through supermarkets and Costco is the single largest retailer. As people have become more rootless, so has wine. It is less connected to the soil and to historical technique; it follows the money.
Burgundy is one of the battlefields in a war that pits the forces of globalization against the purity of the terroir, a Burgundian term describing a philosophy that sees wine as an expression of a specific soil and climate, of a geographical and even cultural essence. In the documentary film Mondovino, filmmaker Jonathan Nossiter interviewed Jean-Charles Boisset, the young, handsome heir to the family business. He is depicted as the bad guy in the battle for the soul of Burgundy. His nemesis is an amiable, sagacious septuagenarian named Hubert de Montille who owns an eight-hectare premier cru vineyard. Boisset is the mass producer, de Montille the artist. Mondovino restages the Paul Bunyan story, with its attendant charms and simplifications, in the vineyards of France. “What is wine” asks Mondovino. One French vineyard owner says it is culture, another says civilization. A third says wine is dead.
Vincor and Boisset represent the forces of globalization, but with Le Clos Jordanne, which is part noble experiment and part risky marketing exercise, they are also champions of the terroir. Then this June, the American company Constellation Brands, the largest wine conglomerate in the world, snapped up Vincor. Don Triggs immediately resigned as ceo, and the fate of Le Clos Jordanne was suddenly in doubt. After the takeover, the president and coo of Constellation, Robert Sands, said that no decisions had been made about the winery or the Gehry building. Constellation loomed as a familiar American threat: would Vincor become a branch plant Constellation’s presence has raised the issue of further takeovers. Due to poor harvests in the last few years, some of the smaller Niagara producers are particularly vulnerable. The situation recalls some of Mondovino’s antithetic themes: is wine culture or is it dead
As a discipline, wine appreciation most closely resembles religion, with its mixture of worship, uncertainty, awe, and use of harvesting metaphors. There is a reliance on hierarchy and litany, and the promise of scandal. Still, who can argue with the man who has been saved by faith And who can argue with the visceral impact of a brilliant wine, one that produces an immediate and distinctive inner peace, the palate connecting with something that seems profound. We want that connection to be meaningful, even if we can’t articulate the actual meaning.
Discussions of wine in magazines, at tastings, or just about anywhere range from sombre reflection to giddy absurdity. Wine is the perfect vehicle to explore Wittgenstein’s contention that confusion over language is the basis for most philosophical problems. The relationship between the word for a thing and the thing itself has rarely been murkier. There are certain critical measures of wine, like colour, that could fairly be called empirical. And there is broad consensus on characteristics like tannins. But when it comes to taste, all bets are off. There aren’t many descriptors that haven’t been used: menthol, quince, cedar, truffles, scorched earth, farmyard, restrained melon, coffee, fresh coconut, vinyl, plum, beeswax, gasoline, rubber, sun-dried tomatoes, Band-Aid, caramel, bread dough, melted asphalt, fruitcake, bubblegum, and modelling glue being a small but not unrepresentative sample. Wines are anthropomorphized into prizefighters, virgins, corrupt priests, bullies, seedy aristocrats, slick operators, and blowsy blondes. They are described as cantankerous, playful, subtle, enlightened, stupid, and disturbed. “Mild, sweaty and slightly poopy nose,” reads one review. “Rather Burgundian so far. But then, when I taste it, what’s this Something here tastes like chocolate Necco wafers.” At this point even aficionados might concede that we are on pretty thin linguistic ice.