Grasping the Grape: Pinot Noir
Say It Right: Pee-no Nwar
Other Known Aliases: Spätburgunder (Spate-berg-under), Pinot Nero (Pee-no Nair-oh)
Don’t let the fact that it is one of the world’s most popular and esteemed varietals fool you. Truth be told, Pinot Noir is a little bit of a problem child.
In the vineyard, especially, this ancient grape can be quite prickly and is notorious for putting winemakers through their paces. Put it this way: it has strong feelings about the type of soil it’s grown on and is incredibly sensitive to climate, plus, its thin skin makes it an easy target for disease and insects, and it will punish you if you force it to be over productive. And that’s not to mention that it can oxidise very quickly during the winemaking process (not a good thing).
From a consumer standpoint, it isn’t exactly the easiest or most accessible grape either, especially for those just getting into wine. Aside from having a lighter, more delicate profile (read: more effort to appreciate), all the work and risk on the production side means that the really good, well-made stuff is going to cost you. What’s more, about 40 clones of the grape exist, the selection of which can have a huge impact on taste and quality.
But, you know, it’s all those challenges and complexities about Pinot Noir’s personality that are precisely what make it so irresistible and thrilling. Because despite all that, when it’s done right, it rewards you with flavours and textures worthy of effusive rhapsody.
For anyone passionate about Pinot – and there are many – the conversation has to start in Burgundy. So revered is Pinot Noir in its birthplace that, with the exception of Gamay in Beaujolais, it is the region’s exclusive red varietal. Burgundy’s vineyard landscape is famously complicated and jigsaw puzzle-like, divided between basic village-level sites and the more prestige Premier Cru and Grand Cru areas. Although this gives wine drinkers more homework, it’s an ideal setup for Pinot Noir, a master at conveying sense of place. While this kind of transparency produces wine that will vary from one vineyard site to another, generally speaking, you can expect red Burgundy to be light-bodied and ethereal, with soft tannins and tart, tangy notes of sour cherry and cranberry. These wines display a strong earthy vibe as well – think foraging for mushrooms and herbs in the forest. And with age, these wines can take on flavours of wild game.
Pinot Noir’s influence in France extends beyond Burgundy: it’s one of three varietals allowed in the production of Champagne, it’s responsible for the slightly rare and mineral-toned reds and rosés of Sancerre and it produces some very unique examples in Alsace and the Jura. Otherwise, you can find some very good versions in parts of northern Italy and Switzerland, as well as Germany, where it tends to exhibit more fruit and power.
Picky Pinot has also successfully settled in several of the New World’s big-name winegrowing hubs: California and Washington state in the USA, Chile, south Australia and Central Otago in New Zealand. There, the grape goes more the way of baked raspberry and plum and takes on a riper, arguably more friendly personality. While still technically a light-bodied grape, its texture tends to be on the plush side, and its aromatics drift into a realm of “prettier” flavours like baking spices, tea and tobacco leaves, and dark flowers. Oregon, USA, its other notable New World home, should not be overlooked, and is better known for producing Pinot in a more restrained, Burgundian style.
France (specifically Burgundy), California, Oregon and Washington state in the USA, Germany, New Zealand, Australia and Switzerland.
Drink It With
Leaner cuts of beef; braised chicken; roasted duck, lamb or quail; grilled salmon or tuna; practically any dish with mushrooms and root vegetables heavily flavoured with herbs.
You like light-bodied reds that are dry but not tannic; prefer red fruit flavours with tart, tangy acidity; are a fan of herbal and earthy aromatics; want something complex and don’t mind shelling out for it; something for a special occasion, or to age in your cellar; the opposite of Cabernet Sauvignon.
You Might Also Like
Cru Beaujolais, Zweigelt or St Laurent, Poulsard, Trousseau, Barbera, Frappato and Schiava.
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