All the world loves Pinot Noir. This wine, produced from the supremely delicate grape of the same name, is some of the world’s most expensive wine. With summer upon us, wines made from the pinot noir grape are well-matched for summer foods and lifestyles.
Let’s look at why wine drinkers love this grape, some of its characteristics, and the different styles around the world.
Why Pinot Noir is So Attractive to Wine Lovers
A few reasons for Pinot Noir love:
- Versatility: The grape makes still red, white, and rosé wines, as well as sparkling wine.
- Expression of place: No other grape comes as close to expressing the place where it is grown, its terroir. Each location where pinot noir thrives reveals its unique characteristics in the wine.
- Style variety: Because of this ability to express terroir, pinot noir offers winemakers a wide range of style possibilities. Growers and vintners love the challenge of this grape and are enamored of finding its singular expression in their location.
- History: Pinot noir has been around for centuries, from Roman times through the ages of the Burgundian monks and on into today’s global passion.
- Qualities: Pinot noir perhaps yields the most profound complex expression of wine of any grape. With its beautiful color, fresh acidity, compelling body, and complexity of aromas and flavors, wine aficionados never get tired of exploring it.
- Food: Pinot Noir may be the most perfect red wine for pairing with almost any meal.
- Availability: Produced in nearly every wine-growing country, everyone can enjoy it.
What is Pinot Noir?
Pinot noir means “black pinecone” because the grape bunch of the vine resembles the shape of a pinecone (“pinot”) and the berries are very dark in color (“noir.”)
- delicate and thin-skinned
- ripens early
- susceptible to disease
- sensitive to wind, humidity, hail, frost
- doesn’t thrive in extreme conditions
- predisposed to mutation so clonal selection matters
Conditions to thrive:
- cooler, more temperate climate
- long growing season with enough heat and sunlight to ripen
- low humidity to avoid or reduce the risk of disease
- protection from extremes (sunburn, frost, wind)
- nutrient-poor, well-draining soils, such as limestone, chalk, marl
- low yields to concentrate the wine
- gentle slopes
- good length
- high acidity
- transparent pale red color (deeper in warmer climates)
- lower tannin but enough for structure and oak aging
- lower alcohol (higher in warmer climates)
- light to full body and texture
Pinot noir grown in more fertile areas, such as mass-produced wines, have a less optimal style: fruitier, fuller in body, higher alcohol, lower acidity, and less complexity.
Pinot Noir Regions Around the World
The French Connection
While Vitis vinifera, the genus of grapevines from which fine wine comes, originated in Europe, these vines did not exist in the Americas. The Spanish brought the Mission grape to Mexico and Chile.
The majority of Vitis vines arrived with immigrants who carried cuttings from France, Germany, Spain, and Italy to the US, Canada, Chile, and Argentina.
However, France remains the gold standard.
With the ideal climate and terroir for pinot noir, more plantings exist in France than anywhere in the world. The most famous and desired Pinot Noir in the world comes from Burgundy. While the vine flourishes in other countries, no more perfect home for this grape exists.
With limited production, Burgundy’s high-demand Grand Cru and Premier Cru wines command extraordinarily high prices, making it almost impossible for the average wine drinker to afford.
The climate here is one with a long and cool growing season. Vines grow on tiny plots on east-facing slopes with vine density ranging from 4,000 to 10,000 vines per hectare.
Burgundy’s famed Cote d’Or sits on a limestone escarpment. Soils, though quite varied depending on each plot, consist of limestone, marls, gravel, clay, and sand.
General characteristics of the style of wine from Burgundy:
- high levels of acidity
- silky texture
- an elegant balance
- restrained yet complex flavors of:
- cranberries, red or black cherries
- earth, forest, mushrooms, herbs
- floral notes, rose, violet, hibiscus
- oaked Pinots show fuller body, rounder tannins, and vanilla notes
- unoaked wines have bright-red cherry flavors
Wines of the Cote d’Or show darker fruit in the northern regions, yielding to red fruit and floral wines in the middle, and more earthy and tannic wines in the south. South of the Cote-d’Or, wines are lighter and easier drinking.
Why Oregon Works for Pinot Noir
Compared with France, Oregon is a baby in creating wine from pinot noir. Only recently has the industry begun to explore the concept of terroir in depth. As this knowledge expands, more nuanced wines will come to market.
Though still very young as a wine region, Oregon has become the standard-bearer of Pinot Noir after Burgundy.
Similarities between Oregon and Burgundy
|Latitude:||47 degrees (Beaune)||45 degrees (Dundee)|
|Climate:||Continental||Continental w/Maritime influence|
|Ocean Distance:||350 miles||60 miles|
|Rainfall:||consistent through the year||drier summers, wet winters|
|Risk of hail:||strong||low|
|Winter Temps:||30-40 degrees||35-55 degrees|
|Summer Temps:||60-75 degrees||45-85 degrees|
|Longest Daylight:||16 hours||15.4 hours|
Differences between Oregon and Burgundy
Differences include geography. While Burgundy lies on eastern facing slopes, the well-known Willamette Valley in Oregon sits in an undulating valley lying between two mountain ranges. These ranges protect vineyards from rain.
Vineyards generally lie on south or southeast facing slopes with vine density of 2,500 to 4,000 vines per hectare.
Unlike Burgundy, volcanic red Jory and basalt Nekia soils underlie the Valley. Other soil types include marine sediment sandstone and loess. All these soils allow for good drainage, the key to growing quality pinot noir grapes.
Characteristics of the Oregon Pinot Noir style, particularly in the Willamette Valley
- lively acidity
- weightier, satin-like texture
- darker in color
- balanced with fuller body
- robust fruit flavors of:
- bright red fruits like cranberries, pomegranate, red cherries
- mushrooms, some green notes
- oaked Pinots are richer, with spicy vanilla notes
- unoaked wines show tart red cherry flavors
Some winemakers showcase fruity characteristics, while others prefer a more restrained style. The use of natural winemaking techniques has become increasingly popular.
Think of Oregon Pinot Noir as a cross between Burgundy and California, unique unto itself.
The wines have become increasingly more expensive, though you can find quality Oregon Pinot at lower prices.
Oregon Pinot Noir has become so popular in the US that the in-demand Pinot Camp Event held annually in the Willamette Valley has a sister event in Birmingham, Alabama.
Californians who were searching for cooler climates in which to plant pinot noir started the Oregon wine industry.
In California, a hot climate, locations closer to the ocean work best for pinot noir, allowing grapes to reach optimal ripeness over a long growing season. Soils vary throughout the state, and there is less focus on terroir.
Characteristics of Pinot Noir from California:
- medium acidity
- higher alcohol
- more concentration
- a richer, velvety texture
- darker, riper, fuller than Oregon and Burgundy
- fruit-forward with intense flavors of:
- black cherry, black raspberry, candied fruit
- cola, caramel, tea
- oaked Pinots offer vanilla and sweet spice notes
- unoaked show brighter but still dark berry flavors
California has a wide variety of styles and quality levels. Some winemakers pick later in the harvest and use extended macerations to ensure deep dark colors and flavors. Others harvest earlier with shorter macerations to create higher-acid and lighter versions. Large producers plant in hotter areas yielding less complex, more fruity, and less acidic wines.
With so much Pinot coming from California, aficionados can find a style to suit their palate. Warmer regions, such as the Russian River Valley, produce bolder wines, while cooler areas, like Carneros, produce more subtle, relatively lighter wines.
Other quality areas include the Sonoma Coast, the Central Coast, including Santa Barbara County, and the Santa Lucia Highlands.
To many, the fact that Germany produces red wine is a surprise, even though it has more pinot noir vineyards planted than any other country except France and the US. The country’s most important red grape, Spätburgunder (pinot noir) has grown here for centuries.
Most of Germany’s wine regions produce Pinot Noir, and styles vary less than in other countries. A white version is produced here. Knowing the producer matters in finding quality Pinot.
Because Germany enjoys a relatively cooler climate, the wines are lighter in color with high acidity and a more restrained style.
Favorable climates and terroirs include Ahr in the north and Baden in the south. Both allow pinot noir to ripen well. German Pinot Noir shows an earthy quality. Pinot from Ahr brings out rich red berry flavors, while those from Baden tend toward rich dark fruit flavors.
Little New Zealand Makes a Big Impression
Cool climate New Zealand, with small production, is a haven for Pinot lovers.
Pinot producing areas include Central Otago and Marlborough on the South Island and Martinborough on the North Island. Each produces a different style.
- Surprisingly. this southernmost, highest altitude and coolest region ripens pinot noir almost as well as California.
- Wines have high acidity and alcohol, with medium to full body, rich fruit flavors, and a noticeable sweet-spicy finish.
Marlborough takes the middle road of the three, producing high acid wines of medium body and more subtle red fruit flavors.
Martinborough: The warmest region produces a dark wine with higher tannins and earthier flavors.
Italy Under the Radar
Maybe less known, pinot nero (pinot noir) grows well in Northern Italy, the coolest climate wine region in the country. Both sparkling and still wines are produced here.
Still wines show similar characteristics to those from Burgundy, though more concentrated, with higher alcohol. Instead of mushroom and forest flavors, earthiness shows up as smoke or tobacco. Spice notes can be clove or pepper. Pinot noir from Alto Adige produces an aromatic, elegant wine with floral notes, and clove and deep red berry fruit flavors.
Chile on the Move
Pinot noir has been grown in Chile for some time though much of the quality is low. As winegrowers moved towards the coast and further south, the potential for high-quality Pinot became apparent.
Coastal granite soils yield wines similar in style to Oregon, complex and elegant with bright acidity and floral aromas. Further south, winemakers experiment with different soils and locations. More to come from Chile.
The Rest of the World
The following countries plant and create wine from pinot noir: Argentina, Australia, Austria, Canada, Moldova, Slovenia, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, and the UK. Pinot noir grown in the UK makes lovely sparkling wines, like those of Champagne.
Having only touched the surface of the vast variety and complexity of the world of Pinot Noir, you’ll understand why this grape and its wine are so beloved.
Enjoy Pinot Noir this summer and raise a glass to International Pinot Noir day on August 18!