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Pain and Pleasure

Pinot Noir is an awkward grape. No wonder it appeals to masochists, says Tim Atkin

Part summer camp, part piss-up, part gastronomic experience, the International Pinot Noir Celebration is one of the world's most enjoyable wine events. This year's knees-up was the 17th IPNC, held, like its predecessors, in the grounds of Linfield Baptist College in McMinnville, Oregon. For most of the year, the campus is dry, but for a long mid-summer weekend it's full of Pinotphiles from all over the world, busy discussing, tasting and drinking their favourite wine.

IPNC attracts a cosmopolitan crowd and began with a parade of participating winemakers from Burgundy, Italy, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States.

This being George W Bush's America (albeit a comparatively enlightened corner), the French delegates were a little sheepish. 'Philippe Prost, Maison Bouchard Père, Burgundy,' said one. 'I'm not really coming from France.' Perhaps the Burgundians had seen the posters for a popular American film called Slap Her... She's French?

Burgundy is usually the twin focus of IPNC, alongside Oregon. This year, however, the organising committee broke with tradition and picked Italy as its favoured nation. Italian Pinot Noir, you're probably thinking, not seen much of that around. Indeed you haven't. And believe me, you're not missing much. Five wineries poured their Pinot Neros at the introductory tutored tasting; most of the audience wished they'd brought Sangiovese or Nebbiolo instead.

One mischievous Californian producer suggested the Oregonians had invited the Italians to make their own wines look better. Ten years ago, this might have been so. But today, Oregon stands shoulder to shoulder with New Zealand, California, Champagne and Burgundy as a first-rate source of this tricky grape. As in Burgundy, the best Oregon wines are produced in small quantities and tend to be expensive, so not many of them make it to the UK. But if you spot a bottle from

Archery Summit, Beaux Frères, Bethel Heights, Chehalem, Domaine Drouhin, Christom, Patricia Green, Penner Ash, Ken Wright, Ponzi, Hamacher, Domaine Serene or Soter, put your hand in your pocket.

Perhaps those Italian Pinots weren't so unrepresentative after all. Even in great Pinot-producing areas, wines vinified by different people from the same plot of land can range from the sublime to the virtually undrinkable. To its fans, Pinot's unpredictability is part of its appeal. To its detractors, it's too damned unreliable.

And yet, there's something about Pinot Noir that keeps its fans lining up for more. Daniel Johnnes, the keynote speaker at IPNC, said: 'Anyone who grows Pinot Noir has to be a bit of a masochist, because Pinot Noir has to fail more than it succeeds.' The same goes for the people who drink it. In a world that is increasingly obsessed with BIG WINES, Pinot Noir is an anomaly: graceful, delicate and understated, it teaches you to look for nuances rather than bold statements. As Ken Kesey, one of my favourite Oregonian authors, once wrote: 'If you seek the mystery instead of the answer, you will always be seeking.' I can't think of a better way to describe Pinot Noir drinkers.

Best Cellars

2001 Two Paddocks Pinot Noir, Central Otago
(£14.75, Haynes, Hanson & Clark, 020 7259 0102)
After two rather disappointing vintages, actor Sam Neill's Kiwi Pinot Noir found its mark in 2001, delivering a complex, savoury, beguiling red with soft tannins, gamey fruit flavours, sweet oak and a hum of acidity.

[Proprietor's Note: We don't know what Tim could mean by the disappointing previous vintages, but he's spot on about the 2001!]

© Copyright 2003, The Guardian Observer . Posted with the permission of the publisher.

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