A fickle, seductive mistress, a minx, or, as the late, great California winemaker André Tchelistcheff declared: "God made cabernet sauvignon whereas the devil made pinot noir." Pinot noir has been called many things in its time and not all of them complimentary. As the mainstay of red burgundy, pinot noir's apogee, the wines of the fabled Domaine de la Romanée Conti are as rare, precious and costly as the garnet, the precious stone whose colour they emulate.
Extreme reactions to pinot are normal. From a winemaker's point of view, its need for a marginal climate makes it one of the hardest grapes to get right, hence it being called the heartbreak grape. For consumers, the pleasure it gives when it's good outweighs the pain it produces when it's ordinary. But red burgundy can be infuriatingly hit-and-miss: bottled seduction at its raspberry and fraise du bois-scented, sensual best; frustrating when it fails to deliver on its expensive promise.
Pinot noir is always high maintenance. While Bordeaux's cabernet and merlot, and the Rhône's syrah are happy travellers, pinot noir's prima donna demands for the right location have most big companies giving it a wide berth. It's mainly small growers who produce the best results, another reason pinot tends to be on the pricey side.
But which country or region makes the best outside Burgundy? The Pinot Puzzle, a blind tasting put on for love by Jen MacDonald, Angela Reddin and Kate Sweet, pitted Oregon, California, New Zealand, Chile and Australia against each other.
Bottles unmasked, Chile turned in the least impressive performance, but at least its pinots were reasonably priced. In particular, the smoky, juicily strawberryish 2009 Anakena Ona, Casablanca Valley, £10.99, Oddbins, showed Chile's potential for great value pinot noir. New Zealand showed promise in at least three regions: from Central Otago, a spicy, black cherryish, burgundian 2007 Quartz Reef Pinot Noir, £17.49, Majestic, from Marlborough an opulently cherry and strawberry-filled 2007 Villa Maria Reserve, £16.99, Tesco (limited stores) and, one of New Zealand's true greats, a silky-textured 2008 Ata Rangi from Martinborough, £37.99, Noel Young (01223 566744), Philglas & Swiggot (020-7642 1576).
Australian pinot noir performed best in the cooler Victorian region of Mornington Peninsula. The 2008 Kooyong Haven, Great Western Wine, Bath (01225 322 800) was finely crafted with a red berry juiciness, the 2008 Riorret Merricks Grove Vineyard Pinot Noir, £23.99, Waitrosewinedirect, a stunning red burgundy lookalike, while the voluptuous New World burgundian style of the 2008 Yabby Lake Vineyard Pinot Noir, from £22.99, Noel Young (020-7581 2983), was another star.
Oregon pinot was good, if pricey, the excellent 2006 Lemelson Six Vineyards Pinot Noir, £18, the Wine Society, with its smoky oak and gorgeous mulberryish fruit concentration, the exception that proved the rule; while the 2007 Domaine Drouhin, around £23.50, Berry Bros & Rudd (0800 280 2440), was superb. California pinot noir tended to be more of a mixed bag, although for the intensity of its rhubarb and cherry fruit, the 2008 Au Bon Climat, around £21.60, WoodWinters, Bridge of Allan (01786 834 8940), Harvey Nichols, delivered. And delivery of fragrance and sensuality is what we hope for from a pinot noir.