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Pinot Noir

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Pinot Noir is often described as being a "difficult" grape, to grow, to deal with in the winery, and to find truly great examples of, but fans are passionate about this veriety, as sensually expressed by the dialogue between the characters Miles and Maya in the 2004 movie "Sideways."

Pinot Noir is one of the oldest grape varieties to be cultivated for the purpose of making wine. Ancient Romans knew this grape as Helvenacia Minor and vinified it as early as the first century AD. Recognized worldwide as a great wine grape, pinot noir has many alias and is grown in Algeria, Argentina, Australia, Austria (called Blauburgunder or Spätburgunder), Brazil, Canada, Croatia (Burgundac), Czechoslovakia, England, France, Germany (Spätburgunder), Greece, Hungary, Italy (Pinot Nero), Mexico, New Zealand, Switzerland (Clevner, but labeled "Dole" when often blended with Gamay Noir), and the United States.

The reputation that gets pinot noir so much attention, however, is owed to the wines of Burgundy (Bourgogne), France. Although the earliest recorded mention of pinot noir was in 1375, the vine was cultivated here for hundreds of years prior.For most of wine history, this two-mile-wide, thirty-mile-long stretch of hills, called the Côte d'Or ("Slope of Gold"), is the only region to achieve consistent success from the pinot noir of Pinot Noir by Tim Ramey.

The quality of Bourgogne is due to a number of factors. Its vineyards slope gently down toward the East, providing the vines with long sun exposure yet avoiding afternoon heat. The soil there is very calcareous (chalky; containing calcium carbonate), offering good drainage. Well-drained soils have a higher average temperature, which assists ripening. Pinot noir seems to reflect more pronounced Gout de Terroir, or flavor of the soil, than other black grape types, making vineyard site selection a critical factor.

Difficulties plague pinot noir at every step, from propagation to even its bottle-aging characteristics. Genetically unstable, the parent vine may produce offspring that bear fruit that is nothing like the parent's in the size and shape of the berry or cluster and will frequently even have different aromas, flavors, and levels of productivity. There are 46 recognized clones (genetic variants) of Pinot Noir in Dijon, France. Ampelographers estimate there are as many as 200 to possibly 11,000 clones of pinot noir worldwide. By comparison, cabernet sauvignon has only twelve identifiable clones.

Nearly every affliction known to affect vines is common among pinot noir vineyards. Although quite tolerant of cold climates, it performs best where seasonal temperature averages 58° to 62° F. As one of the earliest-leafing varieties, however, pinot noir is particularly susceptible to Spring frosts. The sharpshooter leafhopper finds pinot noir a perfect host. This bug carries Pierce's Disease , which can destroy an entire vineyard in as little as three years. Leaf roll virus is prevalent in almost all pinot noir plantings over ten years old. The pinot vines are not very vigorous and often lack adequate leaf cover to protect the fruit from birds, which do much damage. Even if the grapes survive the birds, if not picked promptly at maturity, the thin-skinned and tender berries shrivel and dry out rapidly (notice this shriveling in the photo), resulting in a raisiny aroma and neutral flavor

Pinot Noir grape cluster.Pinot Noir is also one of the more difficult wines to ferment. Partly due to the presence of 18 amino acids, which are naturally balanced in this variety, Pinot Noir ferments violently, often "boiling" up and out of its container, speeding the process out of control. .

Color retention is a major problem for the thin-skinned berries. Pinot is very prone to acetification and often loses the sometimes promising aromas and flavors it seems to display through fermentation and aging, as soon as it is bottled.

There is one component in which Pinot Noir seems naturally quite rich, three to four times higher compared to other varieties, especially when it is grown in cooler and more humid climates: resveratrol. While this may not affect the aspects of sensory enjoyment, it may draw the attention of health-conscious consumers.

Pinot Noir shows some promise and has a possible future in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia, and in New Zealand, although all may prove to have growing seasons that are generally too short and too humid for consistently outstanding results.

Pinot Noir leaf.The popular image persists that California Pinot Noir is a light, fruity wine of no consequence, but California vintners over the past twenty years have been improving site and clonal selections, viticultural methods, and vinification techniques to increase their record of success. The nominees for Best Supporting Appellation in California Pinot Noir are much the same as for Chardonnay: Anderson Valley (Mendocino County); Carneros (in both Sonoma and Napa Counties); Russian River Valley (Sonoma County); Santa Maria Valley (Santa Barbara County); as well as the Pinnacles (Monterey County) and more recently, Santa Lucia Highlands (Monterey County). Sonoma and Monterey counties account for more than half the statewide total of nearly 30,000 acres in Pinot Noir plantings.

Great Pinot Noir creates a lasting impression on the palate and in the memory. Its aroma is often one of the most complex of all varietals and can be intense with a ripe-grape or black cherry aroma, frequently accented by a pronounced spiciness that suggests cinnamon, sassafras, or mint. Ripe tomato, mushroom, and barnyard are also common descriptors for identifying Pinot Noir. It is full-bodied and rich but not heavy, high in alcohol, yet neither acidic nor tannic, with substantial flavor despite its delicacy. 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 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.

Typical Pinot Noir Smell and/or Flavor Descriptors
*Typicity depends upon individual tasting ability and experience and is also affected by terroir and seasonal conditions, as well as viticultural and enological techniques. This list therefore is merely suggestive and neither comprehensive nor exclusive.

Varietal Aromas/Flavors:

Processing Bouquets/Flavors:

Fruit: cherry, strawberry, raspberry, ripe tomato

Terroir: mushroom, earth, barnyard, truffle, leather, meat

Floral: rose petal, violet

Light Oak: vanilla, coconut, sweet wood

Spice: sassafras, rosemary, cinnamon, caraway, peppermint

Heavy Oak: oak, smoke, toast, tar

Herbal: rhubarb, beet, oregano, green tomato, green tea, black olive

Bottle Age: cedar, cigar box

Mouth feel / Texture: weighty, rich, silky, velvety, soft and smooth tannins

(see our latest Tasting Notes [PDF] )

Although Pinot Noir harmonizes well with a wide variety of foods, the best matches to show off the delicacy and texture of Pinot Noir are: grilled salmon, a good cut of plain roast beef, or any dish that features mushrooms as the main flavor element. Classic French cooking has creations based on Pinot Noir, such as Coq au Vin (chicken cooked in red wine) and Boeuf Bourginon. Other main dishes that match well with Pinot Noir include roasted and braised preparations of lamb, pheasant, and duck, as well as grilled meaty fish, such as salmon, shark, and swordfish. Best are foods that are simple and rich. Go easy on the spices, some of which may mask the delicate flavors of pinot noir and generally tend to accentuate the hot taste of alcohol.

by Jim LaMar

1 Pinot Noir Clonal Research is on-going at Cornell University's Geneva Experimental Station with regard to suitable clones for planting in New York AVAs. RETURN

veteran wine writer and passionate Pinotphile Greg Walter's Pinot Report, delivered as a downloadable PDF file, filled with articles and reviews devoted to wines from this grape.

PfW HIGHLY RECOMMENDS the bi-monthly eLetter (by free subscription) of Rusty Gaffney, The Prince of Pinot, who covers all things Pinot, with articles, interviews, recommendations, links, etc.

the definitive book on
North American Pinot Noir

For the latest information, The New York Times Pinot Noir page is updated frequently.

Richard T. Nagaoka's article "Pinot Noir Challenges California Winemakers" discusses factors that make Pinot Noir attractive and elusive.

You may also enjoy Sue Courtney's well-written and information-filled essay "Suited to the Terroir" describing the overall state of Pinot Noir fashioned in New Zealand (watch out, California!).

The Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival returns in late May, since 1998 (note that size limitations of the venue cause tickets to sell-out early).

The International Pinot Noir Celabration, first held in McMinnville, Oregon, in 1987, recurs in late July.

Pinot Days began in January, 2010, in Santa Monica, CA.

The World of Pinot Noir is held annually (since 2001) on the first full weekend in March, at the Cliffs Hotel in Shell Beach, CA.

PfW RECOMMENDS the movie that infected Americans with Pinot-lust

1 Haeger, John Winthrop. North American Pinot Noir. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.

2 Lewin, Benjamin. Wine Myths and Reality, Dover: Vendange Press, 2010.

3 Robinson, Jancis, ed. The Oxford Companion to Wine, 3rd Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006

4. Julia Harding, Jancis Robinson and José Vouillamoz. Wine Grapes: A Complete Guide to 1,368 Vine Varieties, Including Their Origins and Flavours. London: Allen Lane/Penguin and New York: Ecco/Harper-Collins, 2012

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Page created February 11, 2001; last updated December 3, 2015
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