Unveiling a Prima Donna Grape Variety: A Quick and Timely Primer

By | 23 March 2024

Raymond Blake reviews Pinot Around the World by Anne Krebiehl MW

By Raymond Blake

Twenty years ago, I used to joke that my heart would sink when a winemaker asked, “Would you like to try my Pinot Noir?” This question usually popped up at the end of a tasting, and saying yes was the right thing to do. Polite mutterings would follow before I’d desperately look for a way to leave. I once complained to a friend in wine sales about how annoying it was to taste a variety of good wines only to be disappointed by a mediocre or bland Pinot. His advice was, “The Burgundians took a thousand years to perfect it, and even they sometimes mess it up, so it’s unsurprising that newcomers find it hard. Be patient.”

Fast forward two decades, things have changed significantly. The timing is perfect for this new book from the International Wine & Food Society, which aims to ride the wave of improved quality and increased interest in the elusive grape variety. I once described it as “…as unpredictable as the Irish weather, as mesmerising as a siren, and as magical as a nightingale”. Anne Krebiehl MW shares this sentiment in her introduction: “In essence, it fascinates us and its finest examples allow us to catch a glimpse of something almost celestial. For some strange reason, Pinot Noir sparks obsession in both those who drink it and those who grow and produce it.” Anyone entranced by Pinot Noir who takes the time to ponder these words—and the remaining rhetoric in the introduction that tries to rationalise this obsession—will be calmed to know they are in the care of a fellow devotee: “Why does Pinot Noir intrigue us to this extent? […] Is it because Pinot Noir can express things that other wines cannot, creating a deep resonance with a specific place and time? Is it because it is so difficult to cultivate and produce it? Is it because it excels when it has been challenged? Or might it be because it has been our companion for so long, supporting and nurturing us as we have done the same for it?”

Over the following eighty pages, Krebiehl constructs a Pinot guide that somewhat answers her questions, yet you can sense this well-written about grape pushing against the confines enforced by the guide’s small size. There’s also a sense that Krebiehl, the “fellow sufferer”, requires a larger platform to fully explore her topic. Indeed, I surmise another eighty pages could have given her the space to fully delve into the multiple allure and complexities of Pinot.

What eventuates is a piece where the narrative occasionally advances at a rapid pace, for instance, in Chapter 4, where within two paragraphs the timeline jumps nearly nine hundred years—from the establishment of the Abbey of Cîteaux in 1098, to the latter half of the 20th century. Chapter 2 also hastens to its conclusion, where additional details, even just one more paragraph, could have been beneficial. This abruptness can catch the reader off guard.


The book’s name—Pinot Noir Around the World—is carried by Chapter 5 and serves as the mainstay of this work. This is where Krebiehl showcases her vast knowledge and zeal, reassuring readers that they are in qualified hands. Going beyond Burgundy, she remarks that the recent enhancement of Alsace Pinot Noir was a long-awaited improvement, a sentiment I fully share. There was a time when every Alsace Pinot Noir I tasted offered much hope on first smell yet faltered on taste, where the initial charm faded into a watery letdown. If your experiences resonate with mine, Krebiehl advises giving it another try; the enticing scent is now accompanied by a convincing and reasonably enduring taste.

Krebiehl discusses Germany’s journey with German Pinot with a look back at Robert Parker’s 2002 critique: “A grotesque and ghastly wine that tastes akin to a defective, sweet, faded, diluted red Burgundy from an incompetent producer. Need I say more?” I had similar sentiments at the time due to the poorly balanced wines. However, today Germany has made a commendable progress, becoming the third-largest producer of Pinot Noir worldwide.

According to Krebiehl, this is due to a shift from quantity to quality led by innovative winemakers of the late 1980s and ’90s. She states, “Germany today offers a scintillating playground for any Pinot lover. No longer is [there] any doubt that some of them are world-class.“ In agreement, I predict that by the end of this century, the majority of German Pinots will be world-class.

Next, Krebiehl explores Pinot’s prominence in the world, highlighting places like New Zealand, Tasmania and Gippsland alongside North and South America. She discusses the role of the Sideways in increasing the popularity of Pinot Noir in California.

Krebiehl also addresses the challenges that climate change brings to viticulture, stating, “Adaptation in both plant material and farming practices will go a long way toward mitigating the effects of climate change.” Despite the changing climate, she finishes on a positive note, expressing belief in the future of Pinot Noir.

Reviewing Richard Mayson’s The Essential Guide to Modern Madeira (see WFW 81, pp.54–55), I observed: “A minor irritation in this guide are the almost illegible captions printed on a greyed-out band at the bottom of the photographs, making them near-impossible to read. It’s a small detail, but it is a baffling design error that could have been easily avoided.” In Pinot Noir, it is still baffling and has yet to be avoided. I also noted: “I wish it was sturdier—after leafing through it a couple of times some of the pages were already coming loose from the binding.” This has been remedied in Krebiehl’s monograph—after a fashion: The pages are now simply stapled together, but that has the effect of cheapening the feel of the publication. Pinot Noir deserves better. And this work would have benefited hugely from an appendix of some recommendations or personal favorites; even one name from each region profiled would provide some direction, especially in the regions where attractive quality is pretty much a 21st-century happening.

Those few minor quibbles aside, I would have no hesitation in recommending this monograph, especially to Pinot neophytes—wine lovers keen to dip their toes in these challenging waters, particularly if they have been put off by all the fluster and hyperbole that Pinot generates. It will be a tenner well spent.

Pinot Noir Around the World

Anne Krebiehl MW

Published by The International Wine & Food Society

Available from iwfs.org/secretariat/purchase; 86 pages; $14 / £9.99 / €11

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