In the 2004 cult movie Sideways the protagonist answers the question "Why are you so into Pinot?" by saying, "I don't know. Pinot is a hard grape to grow - it needs constant care and attention, but its flavours are just the most haunting and brilliant and subtle and ancient ... on the planet!"
He was, of course, talking about pinot noir, the red wine grape grown in the northern part of the Rhone river in the Burgundy district of France which gives us, well, Burgundy, the wine.
Red Burgundy (yes, there's also white Burgundy, produced from Chardonnay) is simply the most expensive wine in the world - in March 2013, six magnums of DRC 1995 (Domaine Romanee Conti) sold in Hong Kong for $27,300 (Rs 18.3 lakh) apiece.
The reason why Burgundy wines are so highly-prized is really quite simple: if supply is limited and demand keeps increasing, prices of the item will increase. There are historical reasons why demand for these wines (once also called Beaune) became established in Paris - these include politics, patronage, protectionism and of course, quality.
The vineyards of Burgundy are tightly restricted in area, and strictly demarcated into quality levels that were first established in 1861: Grand Cru, Premier Cru, and Village ("villaage") sites. Over the years the ownership of vineyards has become fragmented, so much so that in some instances a grower may own just one or two rows of vines!testing.. we are here....
That is also why understanding Burgundy wines is so difficult - there is a profusion of appellations (defined geographical areas), with all the Grand Cru appellations being concentrated in the Côte d'Or, a mere 40-km stretch along the Rhone.
Of course, the pinot noir grape is grown elsewhere, and very good pinots are produced in California and Oregon in the US, the Walker Bay of South Africa, Tasmania (Australia), and Central Otago and Marlborough in New Zealand. However, none of these wines comes even close in prestige or price to the best Burgundy wines, including labels like DRC, Echezeaux, Chambertin (9 Grand Crus) and Musigny - to mention a few.
Pinot is also one of the three grapes permitted to be used to produce Champagne (the other two are Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier) but that is another story.
So what is so great about the pinot noir wine? The wine is considered to be subtle and elegant - a good pinot will be bright red, with aromas ranging from berries and cherries to rose petals and truffles and have a medium-bodied taste with soft tannins and good acidity. This contrasts sharply with Bordeaux, which would be dark red, have aromas of red fruit and even leather, and be a full-bodied wine with powerful tannins - one analogy is that pinots are like a foil, while Cabs resemble the sabre. And we have just scratched the surface here, for the best Burgundy wines are reputed to be simply heavenly (no, I've never tasted wines that cost so much).
Wines I've been drinking: The Saint Clair Marlborough Pinot Noir (Wine Spectator gives the 2013 vintage 89 points - it's about Rs 3,000 in Bengaluru) is not a Burgundy but is of terrific value nevertheless. This wine from the South Island of New Zealand has ripe berry aromas with cacao and spice notes and a medium-bodied taste with ripe dark fruits, coffee and spice on the palate. I'm still looking for pinots from the Central Otago region, which are said to be even better.