Learn About Wine
The Ever-Charming and Fickle Pinot Noir
Pinot Noir is the Holy Grail for many winemakers. Although good Pinot Noir requires minimal intervention by the winemaker in terms of fining and filtering, it is often described as the toughest grape to grow, requiring a long growing season of sunshine-filled days and consistently cool evenings. To complicate matters, the Pinot vine itself is genetically unstable, mutating very easily, thereby making it extremely difficult to produce consistent results. This is a fact that is particularly aggravating for Pinot Noir lovers as well, because the gap between the high and low quality of this wine is broader than any of the other important reds.
If you’ve read Sideways, or seen the movie, you'll probably recall the dialogue between Maya and Miles, aptly expressing the very fickle nature of the pinot noir grape:
“it’s a hard grape to grow ... it’s thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early ... it's not a survivor like cabernet, which can just grow anywhere and thrive even when it’s neglected. No, pinot needs constant care and attention ... it can only grow in these really specific, little, tucked-away corners of the world. And only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it, really. Only somebody who really takes the time to understand pinot’s potential can then coax it into its fullest expression.”
Nevertheless, when all things come together and grape gods smile upon the pinot noir, the results are exceptional. An outstanding Pinot Noir can cause even the most conservative wine drinker to spew flowery adjectives. The most appealing quality of Pinot Noir may be its soft, velvety texture. When right, it is like liquid silk, gently caressing the palate.
Pinot Noir Characteristics
The flavor of Pinot Noir is chameleon-like. When it is young, good wines exhibit the simpler fruity characteristics of cherries, plums, raspberries, and strawberries. Thus, Pinot Noir from just about anywhere can fall into the soft and juicy classification of light, fruity reds.
As these wines mature, they take on more complex characteristics including chocolate, game, figs, prunes, smokiness, truffles, and violets. At its best, Pinot Noir combines a gamut of fruits and earthy flavors, and true to its protean behavior, when this silky, mellow wine achieves greatness, it slips into the medium-bodied, full and fruit category.
Pinot Noir should never be evaluated on color, as even the most perfumed and intense Pinot Noirs can look like rosé sitting in the glass. After all, some of the best Champagnes are made entirely from the Pinot Noir grape (blanc de noirs). This is simply the result of shorter contact with the dark grape skin before fermentation. Especially good Pinot Noirs from Alsace, Irancy, Jura, Lorraine, Sancerre, and Savoie will be lighter red and rosé in coloring.
Choosing a Pinot Noir
As a result of its unpredictable nature, vintages make more of a difference in the production of quality Pinot Noir than for any other varietal. Keep in mind though, Pinot does not have the longevity in the bottle of the darker red wines and tends to reach its peak at five to eight years past the vintage.
The best sites for cultivating Pinot Noir are along Burgundy’s two-mile-wide, thirty-mile-long stretch of hills in the Côte d’Or (“Slope of Gold”) and are usually the safest bets when seeking a good Pinot Noir. Elsewhere in Europe, there are some very good Pinot Noir wines that come out of Italy’s mountainous areas. In northern Italy, Pinot Noir is known as Blauburgunder in some areas and Pinot Nero in others. Pinot Noir is also grown in Switzerland and Germany, as well as some of the eastern European countries, but these areas produce much more variable results.
New Zealand is also among the places that is attempting to make a name in Pinot Noir cultivation. However, here too, the results are unpredictable, as the growing seasons tend to be shorter and the humidity above optimal conditions for consistently outstanding results.
There’s been a great deal of effort in the United States to emulate the great Burgundy Pinots, but vintners are still experimenting to come up with the right formula. Some of California’s better Pinot Noir wines come from the state’s cooler regions such as Carneros, the Russian River Valley, and parts of Monterey, San Luis Obispo, and Santa Barbara counties. While plagued by higher humidity, Oregon’s long, cool growing season can also be conducive to the production of some delightful Pinot Noir wines.
Another chief indicator in selecting a good Pinot Noir is the name of the grower. For example, there are about 80 producers of Clos Vougeot, a 250-acre vineyard with quality ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime in any given year. The top growers (perhaps 6-7 of those 80) succeed almost all the time.
So, my advice: Before venturing out in search of a great bottle of Pinot Noir, do your homework. For the best results, have a particular region in mind, and then educate yourself on the vintages and growers in that area.