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 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
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 vine.
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
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 is particularly susceptible
to Spring frosts, because it is one of the earliest-leafing
varieties. 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
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
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.
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
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: Santa Maria
Valley (Santa Barbara County); Russian River Valley (Sonoma
County); Carneros (in both Sonoma and Napa Counties); Anderson
Valley (Mendocino County); as well as the Pinnacles (Monterey
County) and, 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.
Pinot Noir Smell and/or Flavor Descriptors
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.
cherry, strawberry, raspberry, ripe tomato
mushroom, earth, barnyard, truffle, leather, meat
rose petal, violet
vanilla, coconut, sweet wood
sassafras, rosemary, cinnamon, caraway, peppermint
oak, smoke, toast, tar
rhubarb, beet, oregano, green tomato, green tea, black
cedar, cigar box
|Mouth feel / Texture:
||weighty, rich, silky, velvety, soft and smooth tannins
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) Boeuf Bourginon, and Cassoulet.
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
Noir Clonal Research is on-going
at Cornell University's Geneva Experimental Station with
regard to suitable clones for planting in New York AVAs.
PfW HIGHLY RECOMMENDS 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
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.
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
to the Terroir" describing the overall state of Pinot Noir fashioned in New Zealand
(watch out, California!).
Valley Pinot Noir Festival returns in late May, since 1998 (note that size limitations of the venue cause tickets to sell-out
Pinot Noir Celabration, first held in McMinnville,
Oregon, in 1987, recurs in late July.
Pinot Days began in January, 2010, in Santa Monica, CA.
of Pinot Noir is held annually (since 2001) on the first full weekend in March, at
the Cliffs Hotel in Shell Beach, CA.
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