One of the world’s oldest wine grape varieties, Pinot Noir has been cultivated in the Burgundy region of France since the 1st century. The name Pinot refers to the small, tight clusters resembling a pinecone. Of course, the name Noir refers to the red grape since there are other varieties of Pinot such as Gris and Blanc. But we’ll learn more about this in a bit.
When we look this far back in history, it is often difficult to trace the exact lineage of a grapevine. The Aedui were a Gallic tribe during the Roman period. They dwelled in what we now know as the Burgundy region of France and some accounts credit these people with Pinot Noir’s arrival in the area. They invaded both Lombardy and Italy. Another story tells us the grapes were brought to France by the Romans. And yet another version reveals Pinot Noir was already well established in the Burgundy region when the Romans arrived. Barbarian invaders drove the Romans from the area and the Catholic Church became responsible for cultivating the existing grapevines. Over the many years when monks cared for the vines, the fruit quality dramatically improved. By the 6th century, the churches owned nearly all of Burgundy’s vineyards. During the French Revolution, church-owned vineyards were seized and distributed to families of the region. Since around 1789, this model of independently owned and operated vineyards has maintained a hold on Burgundy’s grape growing.
Within Burgundy, the famous Côte d’Or translates as Slope of Gold. This stretch of land 30 miles long and just two miles wide is believed by most wine enthusiasts to be the source of the world’s finest Pinot Noir wines. This slender region has ideal conditions for the finicky grape, including chalky, well-drained soil, a gentle slope, good sun exposure, and above-average temperatures. These characteristics are essential for other areas of the world seeking to grow quality Pinot Noir.
In America, we often look to the Russian River Valley of Sonoma, California, and central Oregon’s Willamette Valley for top-notch examples of this wine. We can also find the vines thriving in Algeria, Argentina, Australia, Austria where it is called Blauburgunder or Spatburgunder, Brazil, Canada, Czechoslovakia, England, France, Germany where it is known as Spatburgunder, Greece, Hungary, Italy where it is labeled Blauburgunder or Pinot Nero, Mexico, New Zealand, Switzerland where it is known as Clevner or labeled as Dole if blended with Gamay Noir, and in Yugoslavia where it is called Burgundac. This grape truly has a global following!
In California, the vine does best in areas with cooling ocean breezes and consistent morning fog. Look to Sonoma, Carneros in the southern intersection of Sonoma and Napa, and even the Central Coast around Santa Barbara. These regions produce Pinot Noir wines that are lusher and richer than most other areas of the world. Fruit-forward notes with a hint of allspice or clove are typical for California Pinot Noirs. When drinking a Sonoma Pinot, I often find myself saying, “What are you getting? Is that Nutmeg or Cinnamon or Clove?”
The vine is challenging to grow, mainly because the plant is genetically unstable. A parent plant can produce offspring or propagated vines that yield different berry sizes, shapes, and even flavors. Just consider Cabernet Sauvignon which has 12 genetically individual clones while Pinot Noir has about 1,000!
In addition to the complications of the genetic variations, the vine is fairly delicate and prone to disease, mold, fungus, and pests. The fruit ripens early in the growing season so a spring frost can devastate the harvest. The vines seem to prefer an intermediate climate with a long, cool growing season. Often the ideal location is a protected valley or near a large body of water. The thin skin of the berries will shrivel and lose flavor if left on the vine for too long. And this skin, which is light purple in color, doesn’t give much color to the finished wine, so careful winemaking practices are required.
As one of the world’s most popular red wines, Pinot Noir delivers red fruit, flower, and spice. Often considered a light-bodied wine, Pinot Noir is a complex grape showing a range of changes as the wine matures. This is why it is one of the only single-varietal wines to command top prices and can age well for years and years. A young wine will show red fruit characters such as cherry, plum, and strawberry. As the wine ages, notes of cocoa, black potting soil, smoke, and truffles can be more evident. If you are comparing a Burgundy to a New World Pinot Noir, the French version will often have notes of soil and flowers such as dried roses or hibiscus. These characteristics are part of the terroir of Burgundy and occur naturally in the grapes. Terroir is a French word that doesn’t have a perfect translation but basically refers to the climate, soil, and overall conditions in a particular vineyard. Often French winemakers will ferment the grapes while they are still in clusters to increase the tannin in what tends to be a light wine. This added tannin can make a young Burgundy seem slightly bitter in its youth but helps the wine to age well. The tangy, bitter notes will soften in time and the wine will gain complexity. These are often bottles well over 20 years old.
If you know me, you know how I love pairing food and wine, so we have to talk about the versatility of Pinot Noir. Because young bottles will have higher acidity and lower tannins, these wines pair well with everything from chicken to pork, from duck to lean venison, and from mushrooms to cheeses. I love a roast duck with mushroom risotto, pan sautéed bacon, and Brussel sprouts drizzled with honey with a youthful Russian River Valley Pinot Noir (like Gary Farrell, for example). In an older bottling, the fruit flavors will fall out a bit and there will be more earthy notes. For this, I like to introduce fruit into the dish to help heighten the notes in the wine. Try a roasted pork loin with a compote of cherries and shallots in butter, a side of mashed sweet potatoes with just a sprinkle of nutmeg to bring out the spice notes, and a salad of fresh spinach with walnuts, fresh cherries, and Gorgonzola cheese. Maison Albert Bichot is a Burgundy with a fair amount of production and good availability in the U.S. The wines are consistently good, and you have a wide range of price points from a bottle just under $20 at Total Wine to bottlings from Cru vineyards that will start at $250 retail for a current vintage. It’s a label I have confidence in regardless of your price point.
Pinot Noir is also quite well-known in the Champagne region of France. Along with Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier, these three grapes are the only varieties permitted to be grown for sparkling wines in Champagne. While bubbles can be made in other regions of the world and with other grapes, we often see Pinot Noir used for sparkling wines, both white and rosé. A Blanc de Noirs is a white Champagne or sparkling made from a red grape and Pinot Noir is excellent for this. Actually, you can find White Pinot Noir as a still wine. They aren’t common and do take a bit of skill to make, so if you find one, you should give it a try. I enjoyed examples from Pelligrini and Schug while I’ve been in Sonoma. Like the majority of red grapes, the skin is red or purple in color, but the flesh or body inside the skin is white or green. As with all red wines, it is the contact with the skins that give the wine its color. By immediately pressing the grapes to extract the juice and removing the skins to reduce contact gives you a white or rosé wine. In fact, Pinot Noir is one of the few grapes to successfully produces white, rosé, red, and sparkling wines.
The grape has many close relatives. Pinot Blanc or Pinot Bianca is a grape from Alsace in northern France, where they make light wines with a distinct apple character. Pinot Blanc is a mutation of the Pinot Noir grape and is different from a bottled White Pinot Noir as I mentioned earlier. Pinot Gris from France and Pinot Grigio from Italy are the same grape, a mutation of Pinot Noir, and the names derive from the grayish color of the grape skins. These white wines are light-bodied and often served with lunch, although using oak aging can add complexity and depth. Pinot Meunier is not closely related to Pinot Noir. And Pinot Nero is the same as Pinot Noir, just the name used in Italy and some other regions. Pinotage is a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault made in a lab by botanists to create a grape that would do well in the heat of South Africa.
Seriously, there’s a lot to love about Pinot Noir… And did you know, the 1945 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti is often referred to the top wine in the world? This 100% Pinot Noir from Burgandy, often abbreviated to DRC, is just one example of how wine enthusiasts value the diversity and complexity of this grape.
The latest book I have finished even keeps with today’s theme of the Pinot Noir grape. Shadows in the Vineyard: The True Story of the Plot to Poison the World’s Greatest Wine, written by journalist Maximillian Potter, is an accounting of the attempt to destroy the historic and invaluable vines of La Romanée-Conti. Published in 2014 and available in hardcover, paperback, e-reader, and audio, the book tells of the timeline of this famed vineyard, the ransom demand on the Domaine, how the crime was investigated, and the culprit was caught. What’s more, it’s a deep dive into the culture of wine in Burgundy, including how it is intertwined with church and state. I found the story to be fascinating and loved that is did not just focus on the crime but also built up the history and significance of wine in France.
Join me again to for some thoughts on support businesses beneficial to wineries, acidity in wines, and a deeper look at the Chardonnay grape.