There’s all different kinds of ways to be smart, and Tom Mortimer seems to have most of ‘em covered. He has built up and maintained a great business (savvy); he knows a lot about a few things and a good bit about a lot of things (learned), and in social settings he’s just a thoughtful, insightful kind of guy (sharp).
So it’s no surprise that a winery he started from scratch, and scrub-laden land, has become a great success, at least viniferously. His Le Cadeau wines are always interesting and often profound. Mortimer (at left in blue, with a friend and wife Deb) was pouring them in his old Twin Cities stomping grounds recently, and started talking about how pinot noir should have “personality” and “tension.” My notebook had long since been stored away, so I asked him to elaborate via email. And he obliged:
“Over the last few years, I’ve described great Pinot Noir … and for that matter, I think any excellent wine in general … as a wine that has ‘personality.’ The issue is, what does it really mean for a wine to have ‘personality’? How does that get translated to others? Well, first of all, I think for people to have a personality, they must be ‘alive,’ they must be animated or lively, they must respond differently to different occasions—be versatile and flexible, having varying dimensions of character. The same holds true with a great wine—it must be something more than just well-fermented grape juice formed into an over-priced monotone beverage. Great wines speak, and interact with their constituents. There is dialogue.
“But beyond that, there is ‘tension’ in really good wine, and that, IMO, is more particular to certain varietals—certainly Pinot Noir, but also Nebbiolo, and a handful of others. I see ‘tension’ as a component of ‘personality.’ The notion of tension is about the wine somehow expressing itself in two opposing ways at the same time: an ‘elegant’ wine that is merely/exclusively elegant, is also likely ‘thin,’ and probably not all that great … usually. There needs to be more than just ‘elegance’—that’s where seemingly contradictory expressions like ‘subtle power’ come to mind. Hence, one notion of ‘tension’ might be ‘elegance with subtle power’ Can I explain that further? Sure, just sit down with a well-cellared, properly aged bottle of Angelo Gaja’s designated Barbarescos from a great vintage and you’ll have all the explanation you need.
Too, it seems that the notion of ‘tension’ goes beyond just flavors, and also migrates into aromas: Great wines have a sense of place about them. But we also hear very non-grape terms to describe aromatic character in very fine wines — ‘forest floor,’ ‘mushroom.’ ‘truffle’ and the always mysterious ‘barnyard’ — huh? The greatest of wines have aromatic nuances that tease us, again, speaking to our senses in various, exciting ways. But there is such a fine line between the delicate, fine, nuanced aromatics that add to the wine experience, and the abyss of ‘pungent,’ ‘in-your-face,’ ‘flawed,’ ‘stinky’ wine—of which there is plenty in the world. So aromatic tension is about ‘pleasing barnyard’ aromatics—really? So how’s that work? I haven’t a clue, but the last bottle of nicely aged Chave Hermitage that I had certainly told the story well … much better than I ever could.
“I don’t want to suggest that simply talking about these notions implies that I feel that our Le Cadeau and Aubichon wines consistently have them. Such properties in wine are elusive, usually evolving over time. To capture them consistently in multiple bottlings across varied vintages is something that only a few producers in the world seem to be able to accomplish. On occasion though, we’ve been fortunate, and have seen one of our wines evolve to where they have both personality and tension. This is what keeps bringing us back every year—to fight birds, yellow jackets and coastal weather at harvest time; to graft plants to the newest [or oldest] clones; to farm on soils that sometimes seem more lunar than earthly, to experiment endlessly with aging and cooperage; to test varied farming techniques, and on and on. All of this is done in pursuit of wines that defy logic—in a good way—wines that express themselves with ‘tension.’ “