The name Pinot noir is derived from the French words for “pine” and “black” in reference to the varietals' tightly clustered dark purple cone-shaped bunches of grapes. Therefore, Pinot noir refers both to the grape varietal as well as the wine that it produces. The skin of the Pinot noir grape is relatively thin, making it a tricky, albeit rewarding, candidate for wine production.
There is much debate as to the origins of the variety, although one currently popular theory is that the Pinot noir grape is an offspring of Pinot meunier and Gewurztraminer. This union helps explain the characteristics behind the beloved Pinot noir. As author Stuart Pigot notes in Planet Wine
, “Pinot meunier gave Pinot noir its bright, berry aromas and initial charm, while Gewurztraminer its silkiness, extravagance, nobility, and fickleness.”
Traditionally, Pinot noir was grown in the Burgundy region of France. For years it was simply perceived wisdom that a decent Pinot noir could not be grown outside Burgundy, yet modern times have strongly challenged this assertion. Winemakers, eager to explore Pinot's possibilities in other regions of the world, eventually spurred successful growth in Oregon, New Zealand, and California. There is also some limited growth in cool regions of Australia, Chile, South Africa, and Canada.
Oregon, inspired by the similar climate characteristics of Burgundy, staked its reputation on Pinot noir with much success. Thanks to ocean fog, California has shown that it too has no shortage of spots cool enough to keep Pinot grapes on the vine as they develop fine fruity flavors and texture. Notable Pinot regions in California include Los Carneros, the Russian River Valley in Sonoma, and Santa Maria north of Santa Barbara, as well as in the mountains south of San Francisco. Australians have identified Victoria (notably the Yarra Valley, Geelong, and the Mornington Peninsula) and Tasmania as being cool enough for Pinot, and Martinborough in the south of New Zealand's North Island has also made strong Pinot noirs. Most of South Africa is too warm for Pinot noir, but the cool coastal regions have some development potential.
THE PRODUCTION PROCESS
The vine generally is very prone to mutation, as demonstrated with Pinot gris and Pinot blanc. Winegrowers must take climate and soil conditions into careful consideration when deciding which clone to plant. It ripens relatively early so is not suitable for very warm regions where there would be no time to develop intriguing flavor before high acid levels plummeted. On the other hand, many of the cooler regions in which it thrives suffer autumn rains that can rot the thin-skinned berries of this variety, resulting in pale, tainted wines. The vines themselves as equally fragile and prone to fanleaf, leaf roll, and downy mildew. As Jancis Robinson puts it best in her book Jancis Robinsons Wine Course
, “The Pinot Noir grower's lot is not an easy one.”
Growing the grapes is only half the battle. Pinot noir is a very fickle grape, requiring the utmost attention and respect in every phase of the winemaking process. Winemakers are the first to testify to this, claiming grapes that have been handled too much can end up making wines that lack flavor and harmony. As mentioned by Karen MacNeil in The Wine Bible
, “Winemakers adopt a minimalist approach, and often a percentage of the grapes is not crushed. Instead, whole grapes are put directly into the fermenting tanks, which also helps maximize fruity flavors in the wine. To keep those fruit flavors dominant, many wine-makers are also extremely careful and sparing in their use of new oak for aging.”
Clearly, Pinot noir is a risky (and more expensive) proposition for the winegrower, the winemaker, and the wine drinker. But it is precisely this high-stakes gamble that makes pinot noir all the more alluring and rewarding.
The prime drinkability period of Pinot noir generally spans from two to eight years, the range depending on differences between wine regions and varying vintage conditions. The overall taste of Pinot noir is very susceptible to variables in the production process, leading to a wide range of flavors, textures, and impressions that often confuse tasters. In the broadest of definitions, Pinot noir possesses a light to medium body with an aroma resembling black cherry, raspberry, or plum. Pinot drinkers are warned not to be dissuaded by the lighter color, as the flavors often times are much bolder and profound than the color leads on. As Jancis Robinson declares, the grape is “capable of producing divinely scented, gorgeously fruity expressions. The flavours found in young red burgundies include raspberries, strawberries, cherries and violets; with time these evolve into a bouquet often reminiscent of game, licorice, and autumnal undergrowth.” These deliciously earthy aromas and the silky texture of Pinot create the sensual reputation for which Pinot noir is best known.
Pinot noir is almost always made as a single varietal, rarely blended. One of the grape's great features is its ability to make on its own a complex and complete wine. When mixed with other varieties it often regresses to a point that it can barely be perceived. There are some exceptions to this guideline, particularly successful incorporations with Champagne and certain other sparkling wines.
In pairing the wine with food, the IPNC has been given rave reviews for its sumptuous combination of grilled salmon and Pinot noir. As Karen MacNeil points out in The Wine Bible
, “The rich fattiness and light char of the grilled salmon could have no better partner than an earthy Oregon pinot noir, with its relatively high (for red wine) acidity. Also critical to the partnership is the fact that pinot noir is very low in tannin and thus doesn't interfere with the beautiful flavors of the fish.”
GROWING IN OREGON
Pinot noir is what put Oregon on the map internationally and is the most planted in the state by far. Chardonnay, Riesling, and Pinot gris follow. Oregon has no such thing as cheap, bulk wine. The climate is distinctly cloudy and cool, especially in the Willamette Valley where most of the wineries are clustered. This gentle climate, which highly resembles that of Burgundy, allows for wines of good acidity and balance, moderate alcohol, and an ideal degree of flavor.
Wineries in Oregon tend to be small family affairs. The main challenge for most of these wineries is to persuade their grapes to ripen fully on the vine before the autumn rains arrive, “bringing rot and spoiling the color and flavours of the delicate Pinot noir grape especially.” (Robinson) So variable are the vintages in Oregon that the harvest may occur at any time from early September through November. Yet when the factors of production align, the Pinots from this unique region are truly a divine experience.
PINOT NOIR COMPILATION RESOURCES
Coates, Clive. The Wines of Burgundy: Revised Edition
. California: University of California Press, 2008.
Johnson, Hugh. The World Atlas of Wine, Ed. 4
. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994.
Kramer, Matt. Making Sense of Burgundy
. Quill, 1993.
MacNeil, Karen. The Wine Bible
. New York: Workman Publishing, 2001.
Meadows, Allen. The Pearl of the Côte - The Great Wines of Vosne Romanée
. Burghound Books, 2010.
Pigott, Stuart. Planet Wine
. London: Mitchell Beazley, 2004.
Robinson, Jancis. Jancis Robinson's Wine Course
. London: BBC Books, 1995.