Pinot Noir: A Persnickety, Piquant Pleasure
Updated: May 19, 2019
The grape that is higher maintenance than me...
Pinot Noir perennially makes the top 10 most popular wine grape varietals in the world, and it knows it. Coming in as the 9th most planted wine grape with 112,000 hectares globally¹, and trending upward, this is a major player. It is, however, one of the most finicky varietals to grow and make. Pinot Noir is kind of like an adolescent girl...volatile, sneaky, extremely picky, and does not usually play nicely with others. It's a free spirit and doesn't take anyone's bs. Thankfully, with lots of patience and love, it can blossom into something truly beautiful.
H I S T O R Y
Origin? Burgundy, France. As far as we know, the earliest evidence of Pinot dates back to Burgundy sometime between the 1st and 4th century AD.
Why is it called Pinot Noir? I'll give you the short version...It's french for "pine" and "black". Think of tightly packed berry clusters in the shape of a pine cone with black (blue tinted) berries.
In order to make high quality wine, it demands a lot from the vine grower and winemaker! Let's take a look at why.
T H E G R A P E
Pinot Noir buds early. This means the little green baby nubs that start growing out of the stem, aka buds, that are very delicate are susceptible to spring frost and coulure.
Pinot Noir has thin skin, so be careful of the jokes you're telling. In all seriousness though, being thin-skinned makes life harder for grapes, just like humans. This makes it more susceptible to rot and fungal infections. It is also more prone to mildews and viruses. (If you're studying for an exam: especially #downymildew, #powderymildew, #fanleaf and #leafroll)
It's difficult to predict consistencies from one year to the next so Pinot Noir needs constant monitoring during vinification. This can mean more time and expertise required, potentially leading to higher labor costs to coax intriguing expressions. Talk about HM.
It is particularly prone to mutate too, as evidenced by the existence of Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Meunier. On top of all that, hundreds of clones of Pinot Noir are thought to exist today. More than "50 Pinot Noir clones...are officially recognized within France".² So clonal selection is another important variable for the vine grower and avid consumer alike.
For still wine, Pinot Noir is more of an individual sport kind of athlete. It's rarely blended³ with other varietals and does best solo. It's subtle, so if you want to taste and appreciate the nuances of the varietal and terrior, you need to look at it on its own.
W H A T
Tasting notes: Red fruit. Strawberry, cherry, raspberry. Especially in it's youth. As it matures, you'll notice more earth. Barnyard, mushroom, leaves, soil. Cocoa, vanilla and baking spices possibly depending on winemaking. The best can truly express a sense of place. This is how blind tasters can figure out where a wine is from.
It's thin skin leans toward lighter pigments and lower tannin. There are a lot of winemaking techniques to amplify each of these, so general comments about the varietal doesn't mean you won't find exceptions. For example, some producers do whole cluster fermentation, meaning they ferment the grapes with the stems, which adds tannin to the finished wine.
It is a fantastic varietal for making sparkling wine! Did you know Pinot Noir comprises over a third of #Champagne? By Champagne, I mean Champagne from the Champagne region of France. Any bubbly that is not from Champagne, France is not "Champagne". But I digress. Pinot Noir adds aroma, body and structure to sparkling wine. In sparkling wine it is often blended, unless you see 'blanc de noir' on the label.
W H E R E
Pinot Noir prefers limestone rich soils in cool climates with good sunlight. It's kind of like Goldilocks; it wants the environment to be just right. So where do the stars align in the world for this high maintenance grape to thrive?
Look for Pinot Noir from these regions! The crème de la crème. ** T I P ** You want to see the specific region listed on the label, not just the country or state. If you're not sure, ask someone working there! Or, the old reliable, google it.
Top 25 Pinot Noir Regions in the World
(Listed from north to south, west to east, in each hemisphere.)
🍷 OREGON: (1) Willamette Valley
🍷 CALIFORNIA: (2) Russian River Valley, (3) Carneros, (4) Sta Rita Hills
🍷 FRANCE: (5) Champagne, (6) Bourgogne, (7) Alsace
🍷 GERMANY: (8) Ahr (Pinot Noir aka 'Spatburgunder' here)
🍷 ITALY: (9) Valle D'Acosta, (10) Lombardy, (11) Trentino-Alto Adige (aka 'Pinot Nero')
🍷 CHILE: (12) Elqui, (13) Casablanca, and (14) Leyda Valleys
🍷 ARGENTINA: (15) Rio Negro, (16) Patagonia
🍷 SOUTH AFRICA: (17) Elgin, (18) Walker Bay
🍷 AUSTRALIA: (19) Adelaide Hills, (20) Mornington Peninsula, (21) Yarra Valley,
🍷 NEW ZEALAND: (23) Wairarapa, (24) Marlborough, (25) Central Otago
If you're feeling intimated, don't be! Take a look at this map with markers for each region. Explore! Then you'll have a feel for where in the world these areas are.
You might know Burgundy and Sonoma, but explore these other regions producing great Pinot Noir. Try them! The most popular are just that, popular, which means there's more demand and thus prices are higher. Remember ECON 101? So, take a chance and branch out. Now that you're armed with some intel, enthusiastically reach for the South African or New Zealand Pinot Noir next time you're at a wine store, and tell me what you think!
W I N E P E E P S
Here's my Pinot Noir rap if you need some help with studying. Whatever it takes!
Pinot, we know, with thin skin
You like to rot but you go with din
Pinot buds early so it needs to move slow
Cool climate limestone is where it likes to grow
Pinot likes to mutate to keep you on your toes
Just ask those french burgundy pros
From the Yarra to Willamette, down to San Antonio
I mean the one in Chile, not in Texas yo
Low tannin, lighter pigment
Don't forget about Champagne
It's great for still and sparkling
Spatburgunder's another name
² Robinson, Jancis, et al. The Oxford Companion to Wine (3rd Edition). Oxford University Press, 2015, 530.
³ I need to put a huge asterisks here guys. Some countries have more strict and/or clearly defined laws and regulations around wine. Each country and even region has different labeling laws. Why do you care, right? Well... if you're having an Alsace AOC red wine, it's going to be from 100% Pinot Noir. If you're getting a grocery store Pinot Noir in California, even though it's labelled "Pinot Noir", it only has to be 75% of the stated grape varietal (so it could actually be 25% Syrah, for example) and can have all sorts of additives that do not have to be disclosed. Example, Mega Purple, which is a brand of grape concentrate that adds color and sweetness, typically done because consumers associate darker color with higher quality and sweetness masks other less desirable attributes. Mega Purple is typically used in the inexpensive category. Think $10 and under. So...yeah. If you are trying to study or understand or even explore Pinot Noir, you need to be drinking Pinot Noir.