Pinot Noir is the dominant red wine grape of Burgundy, now adopted (and extensively studied) in wine regions all over the world. The variety's elusive charm has carried it to all manner of vineyards.
These extend from western Germany (as Spätburgunder) and northern Italy to Chile, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and the USA. California, Oregon and New Zealand are arguably the greatest centers for the grape outside its home territory. However great Pinot Noir is made in all of these territories.
The essence of Pinot Noir wine is its aroma of red berries and cherry (fresh red cherries in lighter wines and stewed black cherries in weightier examples). Many of the more complex examples show hints of forest floor. Well built Pinot Noirs, particularly from warmer harvests, suggest leather and violets, sometimes recalling Syrah.
There are two theories regarding the Pinot name. One is that it came about because their bunches are similar in shape to a pine cone (pinot in French).
It may derive, however, from a place name in France such as Pinos or Pignols from where cuttings were obtained. Pignols in the Auvergne, for example, has cultivated Pinot since the middle ages.
The Pinot Family and clonal diversity
It was previously believed that Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Meunier, Pinot Précoce (Frühburgunder) et al were members of a "Pinot Family" of distinct grape varieties. But DNA profiling has shown them to share the same genetic fingerprint. Thus they should properly be considered as mutations or clones of a common variety.
Evidence can be seen in the vineyard; often Pinot vines will bear bunches of fruit of varying colors, or even striped berries. Further, there are over 40 clones classified under the Pinot Noir name by ENTRAV-INRA, the French government agency.
Pinot's clonal diversity and tendency to mutate is linked to its age – it is believed to have existed for 2,000 years. Pinot is also an ancestor of a huge number of grape varieties known today. Together with the venerable, but largely forgotten Gouais Blanc it is a parent of grape varieties including Gamay Noir, Aligoté and Pinot Noir's white-wine counterpart, Chardonnay.
Pinot Noir remains the patriarch of the Pinot grape varieties. The shorthand "Pinot" is usually understood as Pinot Noir in general use.
Viticultural and winemaking options for Pinot Noir
Production of Pinot Noir wines causes more discussion and dispute than any other grape, most of which centers around finding and describing the variety's "true" expression. Examples from Santenay are undeniably different from those made on the other side of the world in Central Otago. At the same time they are all unmistakably, unquestionably Pinot Noir.
It takes a great deal of care and skill to make Pinot Noir perform. The results vary wildly from watery, acidic candy water to some of the richest, most intensely perfumed wines on Earth. This elusive perfection has earned the variety obsessive adoration from wine lovers all over the world.
In Burgundy (Pinot Noir's homeland), the traditional vigneron focuses more on soil and climate than on the qualities of the grape variety itself (this is, after all, the home of terroir). Even very subtle differences in terroir are reflected in Pinot Noir wines made there. There are clear and consistent differences between the wines of Volnay and Pommard, for example, even though the villages are separated by just one mile.
The effects of terroir aren't limited to Burgundy. Many winemakers in the New World attempt to emulate the Burgundy style. Nevertheless, the newer Pinot Noir regions in Oregon, Washington, California and New Zealand offer numerous expressions and interpretations of the variety.
There are many choices to be made in Pinot Noir production, and these are a source of contention among winemakers. This starts with the planting of a new vineyard.
Choice of clones to match rootstocks, soil and other growing conditions while maximizing quality (usually more important than yield in this case) is a complex task. There is not just debate over which clones are best, but also over whether using multiple of clones adds complexity to wines.
In order to retain as much Pinot character as possible, many producers have turned to organic and/or biodynamic viticulture. They seek to avoid the use of commercial fertilizers that may disrupt the variety's sensitive chemical balance.
Most typically the Pinot noir grape is fermented in small open top vats, emplying punch downs to keep the cap of skins in contact with the juice. This allows the cellar team plenty of opportunities to inspect the ferment.
At harvest time, the winemaker must choose whether to ferment berries only, include some stems, or ferment intact bunches. Whole bunch ferments in such vats are not kept in a carbon dioxide atmosphere. Furthermore the fruit is partially or completely crushed by punchdowns.
Therefore carbonic maceration is minimal, though similar enzymatic processes are thought to occur, afffecting the wine's aroma. Higher concentrations of tannin can also result; care is needed to retain balance. Green unripe stems are avoided. Some winemakers use stem contact in every vintage, others only when fruit tannins seem underpowered.
Length and temperature of fermentation is often debated. Cooler temperatures lead to fresher fruit flavors. Longer, warmer fermentations and pigeage result in more extracted wines with greater tannic structure.
It is also quite common to use a cold maceration before the alcoholic one. The standard thinking is that this draws out color and aromatics without extracting tannins. Some producers use dry ice to cool down the berries and burst some of them for color extractions. Care has to be taken against wild yeasts and other spoilage organisms which enjoy cooler conditions.
The question of oak in Pinot Noir winemaking is also a thorny one. How long, percentages of new wood, and barrel size are all important and often debated variables. The use of toghter grained French oak rather than American is not disputed.
Pinot Noir in sparkling wine
Although Pinot Noir earns most of its fame from its still, red, varietal wines, the variety is also a vital ingredient in the production of many sparkling white wines. It accounts for about 38 percent of all Champagne vineyards, with Pinot Meunier at around 32 and Chardonnay 30 percent.
For these, it can be used alone to produce a blanc de noirs. Such wines tend to be richer and more full bodied than those made entirely or predominantly from the other Champagne varieties. Tasting notes often mention red and black fruits.
However it most commonly forms part of multi variety blends. Its most common partner is its cousin Chardonnay, but other members of the Pinot family often paly a role. Pinot Meunier is most common in Champagne while Pinot Blanc is more common Franciacorta. Pinot Grigio is also permitted (usually in smaller percentages) in various Italian sparkling wines including Pinot Nero.
The highly successful Pinot – Chardonnay sparkling wine blend has been adopted by regions all around the world. This includes the major production zones of Europe, the Americas, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.
Of course, Pinot Noir must be a component of rosé Champagne. Traditionally red wine is blended into the assemblage of white wines (often around 15 percent). Increasingly a saigné (bled) rosé base wine is made, running the juice off the Pinot Noir skins after a brief maceration which provides some color but minimal tannins. These occasionally have Chardonnay blended into them to produce very pale examples.
Pinot Noir in still white wines
Still white wines made entirely from Pinot Noir are rare but do exist. They tend to be rich and robust, even when tannic extraction is kept to a minimum. Unsurprisingly they can show similarities to heavier examples of Pinot Gris, but with less aromatic intensity.
Pinot Noir is authorized as a (usually minor) component for still white wines in many Italian appellations. This often occurs in areas where the grape is grown for sparkling wine. Often Pinot Grigio and Pinot Blanc are also grown in these zones.
Synonyms include: Pinot Nero, Pinot Negro, Spätburgunder, Blauburgunder.
Food matches for red wines from Pinot Noir include:
- Pappardelle pasta with a porcini ragu
- Roasted duck breast with plum sauce
- Seared chicken livers on toast
- Christmas dinner