pinot evil?

Monday, February 22, 2010

Two of the world’s largest wine companies – Gallo and Constellation Brands – have recently learned, thanks to investigative work done by the French regulatory authorities, that some of their wines marketed as pinot noir were likely made from less expensive grapes. In the case of Gallo (actually it was more like a million and a half cases) it was Languedoc merlot and syrah that wound up in the $12 Red Bicyclette pinot noir. Decanter’s Guy Woodward called it correctly when he noted that this was a “clumsy attempt to ride the post-Sideways pinot noir craze by peddling Red Bicyclette as an authentic French pinot.” Woodward went on to say that “the world's biggest single wine producer being hoodwinked by a group of errant French vignerons is funny and depressing at the same time. It doesn't say much for Gallo's professionalism that its buyers couldn't tell the difference between pinot, merlot and shiraz.”

Constellation Brands apparently purchased a portion of its “pinot noir” from the same French supplier, though the company asserts that internal testing confirmed that it was indeed pinot noir.

On Gallo’s website this morning, the Red Bicyclette blurb offered no insight nor an apology for the scandal. The notes for the 2008 pinot read: “Winemakers got the grapes for this pinot noir from Gard, known for producing reds with distinct richness, and Herault, famous for its medium-weight, well-structured wines. The combination yields dark fruit and smooth tannins. Look for black cherry and ripe plum flavors. A hint of cinnamon from the subtle oak aging. 

A touch of grenache and syrah add to the luxurious texture of the wine.”

Now here comes Ecco Domani, another Gallo brand (there are dozens), this one sourcing grapes from Italy. The 2008 Ecco Domani Sicilia Pinot Noir ($14) is the first pinot offering in this lineup. The tech sheet promises it is 100% pinot noir from Sicily, finished at a remarkably low 12.5% alcohol, yet promising “ripe cherry aromas and a soft, plush blackberry palate.”

ItalianMade, the official site of the Italian Trade Commission, speaks clearly about each of the country’s wine regions. Of wines from the broad IGT Sicilia appellation, under which the Ecco Domani falls, it notes that:

“The greatest surge in volume of quality wine has come not with DOC/DOCG - which still represents only about 5 percent of total production - but with the rapid expansion of IGT, primarily under the region-wide Sicilia appellation. Many fine wines come from native varieties, notably Nero d’Avola (or Calabrese), Nerello Mascalese and Perricone (or Pignatello) among the reds and Inzolia and Grecanico among the whites. Also prominent are international varieties such as Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah, which show real promise in Sicily whether as single varietals or in blends.”

Pinot noir does not rate even a mention.

My purpose is not to question the authenticity of the product, though to my palate, the Sicilian pinot had nothing in common with pinot from proven regions, including the mountainous Italian northeast. The question here, and it applies equally to pinot sourced from the Languedoc, is why would anyone think that this difficult and fickle grape, which attains excellence only occasionally even in Burgundy, Oregon, New Zealand, and cooler coastal locations in California, would have a shot at varietal character in a hot climate noted for such potent varieties as syrah and Nero d’Avola?

Perhaps varietal character is not the object here. But isn’t the whole point of varietal labeling that it represents wines with distinct varietal character, rather than regional terroir?


Andy Plymale said...

"Sideways" influenced consumers drink merlot thinking it's pinot. This sounds like book or movie material.

Arthur said...

Is there any more compelling reason why wine professionals (buyers, producers and evaluators) should know their stuff (ie possess sensory skill and technical knowledge about wine)?
Isn't there a more compelling reason for a change in (what today passes for) wine education of the public?
Paul, you are right that the point of varietal labelling IS so that the stuff in the bottle is true to the words on the label (and vice versa). But, alas, varietal correctiness is not the point when you are moving (how many thousands of cases) of $12 wine?
The vast majority of consumers buy the branding, not the fidelity/qulaity/correctness, of the wine.
The commercial success ot these kinds of wines is a direct result of telling people to drink what they like and being afraid of telling them how the grape on the label SHOULD taste (and what really constitutes quality in a given region's wine).
Sure, people should spend they money on what they enjoy - don't misunderstand me here. The problem lies in getting people to be comfortable with the fact that the wine they love is not varietally correct or even the pinnacle of quality.

Arthur said...

(sorry for the typos)

Dave Butner said...

This was outright fraud by the French. I see some blaming Gallo in this which is absurd. Do you think for one second that the originally intended cheap ass French Pinot Noir plonk that they were SUPPOSED to be getting would in any way have resembled decent Pinot Noir?

I can easily envision that when the Gallo folks were tasting these grapes and wines as it was being made, they said to themselves...

Yup...this tastes like the same ole crappy Pinot Noir we've always been making!

Dave Butner said...

BTW, where can I find one of those corkscrews like in the graphic for this story? That is awesome!

Ron Washam, HMW said...

The French must have believed that it would be pretty easy to get this past Gallo or they wouldn't have risked it. And it can't have been the first time. We all know when you catch someone stealing you don't catch them the first time they do it. Would it be a suprise if all the vintages of Bicyclette wines were made up of mostly unsellable Merlot from the Languedoc?

It seems to me no one has done anything honorable here. Gallo should at least offer a refund to folks who have purchased the wine under false pretenses. Who do they think they are? Toyota?

Although I must say that anyone who buys Pinot Noir for under $10 is like a guy buying a Rolex on the street in New York City. That fake Rolex will still tell the time just like the fake Pinot Noir will still get you drunk.

Anonymous said...

5 bucks says that further investigation over the next several months will reveal the SHOCKING truth that Gallo actually knew that they were using cheaper grapes and was in on the whole scandal! Oh no!

Anonymous said...

Paul, look at numerous labels, Pepperwood, Beringer, to name a few! all have multiple designations of where sourced vin d payd d'oc or one says international wine negociant Provincia di pavia ,pinot noirs, pinot grigios, most consumers thought these to be american wines? are we all getting hoodwinked? They say "buyer beware" Merlotman

Anonymous said...

Look for the New French Paradoxx movie coming soon!

Anonymous said...

Arthur, I get what you're saying, but at the same time, please tell me what pinot noir SHOULD taste like? If, by that word, you refer to quality I understand...but I constantly am reminded that wine is a food product and therefore subjective when it comes to character. For the same reason that postmodern thought is not consistent, in a system with such relativity we encounter problems when we get to the imperatives: 'ought', 'should' etc. Like you I think that further education to help us all recognize quality, appreciate character and also passion is a pretty good answer. This seems like it will be most difficult in a varietal-centric system of marketing like in the U.S. Or perhaps winemakers should be a bit thankful for frauds like this. Perhaps a bit of publicity surrounding such incidents would do nothing but further distinguish quality wine and to reveal huge corporate producers for what they are? If this had happened in another industry (think of pharma or auto) I imagine it would make headlines.

What do you think Paul? Is there a 'should'?

PaulG said...

Anon - more than most varietals, I think there is a discernible, bottom line Pinot Noir character that should be there in any wine so labeled. Because it is rarely blended (except in cheap wannabe's such as those mentioned above) and because it is so difficult to do well, it narrows itself sufficiently to be identifiably Pinot Noir. If it tastes completely generic, or resembles Syrah or some other meaty red grape, then to me it's either not Pinot Noir at all, or it's really been doctored up.

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