Left Brain - Right Brain

By Craig Camp
Tuesday, December 2, 2003

THE LEFT side of the brain is the center of objective thought; it is logical, sequential, rational and analytical. The right side of the brain is the center of subjective thought; it is random, intuitive, holistic and synthesizing. Left-brain thinkers focus on logical thinking, analysis, and accuracy. Right-brained types, on the other hand, focus on aesthetics, feeling, and creativity. Most people favor one side or the other, while a few Renaissance people are able to use both with equal agility.

Perhaps this explains preferences in wine appreciation. Left-brainers love varietals like cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah, chardonnay, and sauvignon blanc. These varietals do well in many parts of the world. Their character is reliable, measurable, and predictable with flavors that develop in a clear and linear way. Right-brainers favor wine from grapes like nebbiolo, tempranillo, chenin blanc, and riesling. These capricious varietals only reach greatness a few tiny zones of the planet and are usually dismal failures outside their home zone. The flavors of these wines feature dramatic tannins, flavors, or acids and radically change in style from one small vineyard plot to the next.

Left-brain wines dominate auctions, collector's cellars, and press reviews. It is possible to produce excellent wines from these vines in large scale and they are the only choice to pursue for any cool-thinking, logical producer. A walk into a large wine shop will confirm the wisdom of their logic as the chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon sections claim more shelf space than all the other varietals of the world combined.

The creative but impractical right-brained winemakers chase their dreams at all costs, planting nebbiolo on this hillside or riesling on that in an all-too-often futile attempt to recreate the greatness that these grapes can show in their homelands. Often the market ignores the results of their struggles, but a few of these dreamers (Randall Grahm for example) even get lucky and hit it big.

Perhaps the ultimate illogical, but most artistic, of all varietals is pinot noir. No other varietal has turned the dreams of so many winemakers into a frustrating nightmare. It has become the Holy Grail of winemaking and right-brained producers the world over have become obsessed with creating pinot noir that can rival the wines of its native home, Burgundy.

The problem with pinot noir is that it teases winemakers with greatness. Unlike nebbiolo, which leaves no doubt that it can't make great wine outside of the Alba region, pinot noir can create outstanding wines in other regions . . . sometimes.

There is no doubt that pinot noir is one of the great wine varietals, but the question is, does it have to taste like Burgundy to be great pinot noir? For example, nebbiolo grown in California is a pathetic shadow of Barolo. However, pinot noir grown outside of Burgundy often tastes delicious, but it just doesn't taste much like Volnay or Chambertin.

Does a varietal have only one model; a model that is often defined simply because it was first? Does pinot noir have to taste like Burgundy to be great pinot noir?

Josh Jensen, proprietor of California's Calera vineyard, worked in the vineyards and cellars of Burgundy before returning to California where he began a search for the limestone soils of Burgundy combined with the right climate for pinot noir. It took him years to find the right spot high in the mountains of California's central coast and right on top of the San Andreas Fault. That was in 1975 and now almost thirty years later Calera Vineyards is recognized as a great producer of pinot noir. However, even after Jensen's quest for just the right location, do his wines taste like Burgundy? No, of course they don't, but they do taste like great pinot noir. Jensen's early struggles to grow and make pinot noir and to get anyone's attention were so difficult that it inspired Marq DeVilliers to write a book about it, The Heartbreak Grape.

There are producers throughout the world's winegrowing regions that have chosen to follow Jensen and people like him. Unfortunately for them, most have not attained the heights that he has with his great single-vineyard pinot noir wines: Jensen, Selleck, Mills, and Reed.

For years now you could find top examples of pinot noir from California, Oregon, New Zealand, Australia, and obviously Burgundy, but what was wrong with Italy? Italy has extensive plantings of pinot noir and many zones with the right climate and soil, yet the wines were thin and loaded with weedy and herbal aromas and tastes. These faults were created by heavy overproduction and an uncritical local market, but today this is all changing and there are winemakers throughout northern Italy chasing the Holy Grail of making great pinot noir.

However, most consumers greet the best in Italian pinot noir with the same lack of enthusiasm they had for the early releases of Calera. Just as New Zealand and Oregon produce unique and interesting styles of pinot noir, there are several Italian regions worthy of serious attention. As with excellent pinot noir everywhere, the number of producers making these top wines is few and the amount of wine they make is small -- required characteristics for right-brained winemakers. The best examples of Italian pinot noir are coming from Piemonte, Lombardia, Alto Adige, Trentino, and from one loner in the hills of Toscana.

Tino Colla, of the famous Barolo and Barbaresco producer Poderi Colla, planted a vineyard with pinot nero (pinot noir) in 1977 and the results have been exceptional. His wines are minimally handled and are bottled after about a year in a mixture of new and old Slovenian and French oak casks. The result is a fascinating blend of classic Piemontese flavors and bright, fruity pinot noir fruit. The Campo Romano Pinot Nero of Poderi Colla shows great promise for pinot nero in Piemonte. It is worth noting that this wine qualifies for a DOC Langhe designation although it is 100% pinot nero.

Vittorio Pancrazi planted a vineyard west of Firenze in Toscana in 1975 with sangiovese. The results where less than hoped for and the resulting wine was thin, lightly colored, and sold off in bulk. Then in 1989 a visiting enologist spotted the problem. The nursery had sold Pancrazi pinot nero instead of sangiovese. This lucky accident had given him the oldest plantings of pinot nero in Toscana and gave birth to his passion to create great wines from these grapes. The vines had been planted in soils high in iron that were excellent for pinot noir and today they have expanded the vineyards and have replanted with the finest clones for this terroir. As winemaker Niccolò D'Afflitto noted, "What's fine in Burgundy is not necessarily the best here." Today the Marchesi Pancrazi wines are well recognized as leaders in Italian pinot nero.

The Oltrepo Pavese DOC is in the southern tip of the Lombardia region and it was here in the early 1980's that the Braggiotti family purchased the Tenuta Mazzolino and planted pinot nero, chardonnay, and cabernet sauvignon alongside local varietals like bonarda. The family hired two French enologists, Jean-Francois Coquard and Kyriakos Kynigopoulos, who were well experienced in these varietals, and agronomist Roberto Piaggi, and the impact of this team is seen in the bright, juicy, and complex pinot nero they have created and named Noir. The success of Tenuta Mazzolino is bringing serious attention to the Oltrepo Pavese region.

So while left-brained winemakers in Italy are busily planting cabernet and merlot in Maremma, there are few right-brained dreamer types planting pinot noir on rocky hillsides in a completely illogical pursuit of their pinot noir dreams.

I can't wait.

The wines

-Poderi Colla, Campo Romano, Pinot Nero, Langhe DOC, 2001 ($26.00). Bright scarlet/ruby with just a touch of garnet. Translucent. Layered complex nose. Ripe spiced plums and strawberry aromas broaden into dark wild cherry. Racy and complex on the palate with wave after wave of flavor. Ripe cherry and wild strawberries expand into complex tar, porcini and oak flavors. Still a bit lean and closed on the mouth and nose but very promising. The finish is long and spicy with apparent but well integrated tannins.

-Marchesi Pancrazi, Villa di Bagnolo, Pinot Nero, Rosso Toscano IGT, 2000 ($40.00). Bright scarlet ruby. Translucent. Complex tar and cherry aromas that broaden into sweet plum with shitake mushroom and wood hints. Zesty and layered on the palate with lively acids and full tart cherry and strawberry flavors that evolve into oak, leather and tar components. The finish is firm but broad with the tarry, oaky flavors lingering.

-Tenuta Mazzolino, Noir, Pinot Nero, Oltrepo Pavese, DOC, 2000 ($35.00). Bright ruby with purple hints. Just translucent. Ripe spicy blueberries aromas lead the clean, sweet aromas that are balanced by a tart cherry note. Very perfumed. Bright and lively on the palate, The ripe dark fruit flavors are rich and sweet with an underlying note of toasty oak. Clean, long fruity finish with a firm grip of tannin at the finish which shows some hotness. The fruit flavors are mouth-watering.