Everything You Could Ever Want to Know about Pinot Noir
Named for her pine cone shaped, tightly clustered bunches of berries, the Pinot Noir grape produces a very fine red wine that is as romantic as it is sophisticated. Noted as “sex in a bottle,” Pinot Noir is romanticized and sought out the world around.
The fact that it is a particularly difficult grape to grow makes it a true find when a fantastic offering is found. Perhaps that’s why some bottles can fetch well over $1,000 each.
In fact, in 2016 a bottle of Pinot Noir sold for $13,109! And, in some countries, fine Pinot Noir is so prized that winemakers refuse to export it; opting instead to keep it all for their country! So what makes this wine so sexy, sought out, and sophisticated? Let’s take a look.
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Pinot Noir at a Glance:
Most Prominent in: The Burgundy region of France is perhaps the best place in the world from which to procure Pinot Noir. However, the grape is capable of growing in most cooler climates, leading to successful vineyards in Oregon, northern California, South Africa, and South Australia.
Looks Like: A light red wine often described as being the color of a garnet stone, Pinot Noir is deeper in color than most Rose but lighter than the likes of Merlot and Cabernet. The wine has a medium opacity in the glass.
Tastes Like: A medium bodied wine, Pinot Noir has low tannin levels. This lends itself to distinct changes in the flavor palate as the wine ages. What starts as a robust berry flavored wine featuring red berries can mature into a deeper, more barnyard flavor as it ages.
A Bit about Her History
Pinot Noir is believed to be a very ancient vine with roots being traced to the first century. Believed to be just one to two generations removed from wild grown vines, the vine now has three major color mutations; Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Blanc.
The vine seems to be prone to further mutations, with more than 50 named mutations in France alone. Compared against the 25 known and named mutations of Cabernet Sauvignon, this creates a prolific family tree for the grape variety.
Pinot Noir, considered to be upwards of 2,000 years old, is considered to be a grandparent or great-grandparent to many grape varieties commonly grown today.
References to the wine in the Middle Ages showed that it was favored by nobility and planted in the favored land plots. Among the first Pinot Noir makers were Catholic Monks, with the wine being favored for the sacraments.
The wine remained silently adored for hundreds of years, experiencing a major surge in popularity in the early 2000s with the release of the film, “Sideways.” In the movie, the characters frequently rave on the lighter, smoother flavor of Pinot Noir while talking down the often more popular Cabernet Sauvignon.
Regions of Prominence
Despite having roots in France, Pinot Noir can be grown in a variety of climates. This creates for an interesting experience when ordering Pinot Noir, as the grape also exhibits great terroir qualities.
Showcasing a supreme ability to take on the flavors of the soil in which it is grown, a wise wine enthusiast will do well to understand a bit about the major regions in which the vine does best.
The associated birthplace of the vine, wines from France have the ability to age well in the bottle for up to 20 years. The flavor, which is born in cherries, strawberries, and raspberries, often matures to reflect the forest floor and flavors of the soil. The batches from France are often made in small pressings with the best often coming from the Côte d’Or escarpment of Burgundy.
The United States
Many of the United States wine producing regions have started to produce Pinot Noir that is notable on the world stage. With the widest production happening in California and Oregon, states like Washington, Michigan, and New York are also starting to produce impressive vintage. Perhaps the most notable of these areas is the Willamette Valley region of Oregon.
First introduced in 1959, the vine does well along the coastal Oregon. Geographically, the area is seated on the same latitude as the Burgundy region of France and offers a similar climate. With an ever growing popularity, the Pinot Noir from this region has won awards worldwide.
Pinot Noir has soared in Germany in recent years and has become the most widely planted red grape in the country. While winemakers started crafting Pinot Noir with color more similar to a Rose, recent years have seen an increase in darker juice and richer wines. They are not often exported, however, and are often quite pricey within Germany.
The largest red variety planted here, and second largest grape vine in all, Pinot Noir is a popular choice for winemakers in New Zealand. The vineyards were riddled with poor results through the 1960s and 1970s but have since experienced a rebirth with better vines and improved winemaking. Today many fine Pinot Noirs can come from this region, though few are entered into global review or shows.
Other regions dabbling in Pinot Noir production include Italy, Australia, Austria, Canada, the UK, Spain, Switzerland, and South Africa.
A Delicate Little Vine
Pinot Noir grapes are a difficult vine to perfect. The bunches are tightly packed, leading to frequent problems with rot and other fungal issues. The grapes also have thin skins, which can lead to unpredictable vintage aging and low levels of tannins. The vine itself is often prone to succumb to powdery mildew and, despite a preference for cooler climates, is easily damaged by frost or the wind.
Even if a winemaker can secure a successful harvest of Pinot Noir, the fermentation process must also be approached with caution as entire pressings can be easily lost. As a result of these difficulties, many winemakers are slow to add the vine to their vineyards, making regions of prominence far fewer than those of other more populous varieties.
Exhibits Terroir Qualities
Pinot Noir belongs to a family of grape that is known for exhibiting the ability to reflect their place or growth in their eventual flavor. Once created, the wine will reflect the soil and climate of the region where the grapes were grown. In the case of Pinot Noir, the fact that this vine is ancient and relatively primitive seem to lend to the expressive terroir qualities in the finished product.
The wines can differ so much that some of the first Pinot Noir winemakers, monks in the Middle Ages, were known to create soil maps of their vineyards to denote where the absolute most ideal places were for this particular vine. The idea of classifying land as Premier Cru and Grand Cru was birthed because of the Pinot Noir grape.
The Perfect Pair
Pinot Noir is widely thought of as being one of the most versatile red wines in the world today.
While light enough to pair with a hearty fish like salmon, it’s also got great body and strength and can hold up to heartier beef dishes. It can soften sharp flavors like cranberry while embracing delicate flavors in a summer salad. As a general rule of thumb, the fruitier a Pinot is, the fattier the meat you pair it with should be. These Pinot Noirs will most typically come from California.
Meanwhile, the leaner Pinot Noir (think France and Oregon) can carry anything from brick oven pizza to Chinese fare. All-time favorites for Pinot Noir include salmon, duck, pork, and any dish that highlights mushrooms.
Betcha’ Didn’t Know…
- Pinot Noir gets its name from the French words for “black pine”
- Pinot Noir is an often used varietal grape in the production of Champagne.
- Despite the difficulty in cultivation, Pinot Noir is among one of the most sought after red wine varietals in the world.
- Unlike many wines, Pinot Noir has the ability to age beautifully.
- Master Sommelier Madeline Triffon has famously called Pinot Noir, “Sex in a glass.”
- Five of the ten most expensive bottles of wine sold in 2016 were Pinot Noir
- Pinot Noir is the 10th most planted grape in the world
- International Pinot Noir Day is August 18
- In 2013 a case of 1978 Romanee-Conti sold for just shy of a half million dollars