Pinot Noir is the star grape in Burgundy’s red wines and Champagne. It is grown throughout Europe and in the New World. With 277,000 acres (112,000 hectares), it is the fifth most planted red grape variety in the world.
That it is so popular with winemakers is a bit surprising. It is not easy to grow. Pinot Noir is a grape that thrives best in a slightly cooler climate. But many winegrowers are attracted by the elegance of the grape. And if they succeed, the reward is great
Pinot noir is an old grape variety that was mentioned as early as the 14th century in Burgundy. In the 15th century, the red wines from Burgundy were highly appreciated, not only in their own region but also by the French king in Paris. Burgundy still produces the most exclusive pinot noir wines.
Pinot Noir’s character
It is light in color, sometimes really light, but it can get deeper color in warmer climates. However, don’t be fooled by the color. A good Pinot Noir has intense and complex aromas. It rarely produces powerful wines, especially not in Burgundy and other cool climates. In a red Burgundy, there should always be more elegance than power.
A Pinot Noir usually has refreshingly high acidity but low levels of tannins. There are aromas of strawberries, raspberries, cherries, violets. Sometimes there’s a hint of spices and coffee, but this often comes from the oak ageing rather than from the grape. With age, the wine can acquire a seductive character of forest floor and autumn leaves and a velvety finish.
Even if one of the grape’s hallmarks is the light style, one shouldn’t exaggerate it. Less successful pinot noir wines can be too thin and too acidic, with a dry and hard finish.
Pinot Noir in the vineyard
The yield is naturally relatively low, but some growers want it even lower. In contrast to Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir is considered a variety that does not tolerate high yields, at least if your aim is a quality wine.
In warm climates, Pinot Noir tends to change its character. The grapes ripen more quickly. With more sugar in the grape, the wine will be richer in alcohol. For some people, this means a Pinot Noir with less quality. But there are many examples of excellent warm-climate Pinot Noir wines that may not taste like Burgundy, but why should they, when they are made in a totally different place?
Pinot Noir buds early and in cool regions, such as Champagne and Burgundy, it can therefore be affected by spring frost. On the other hand, it copes well with harsh winters. It ripens early, which is an advantage as it can be picked before the autumn rains. It has small, dense clusters and a fairly thin grape skin, which, unfortunately, makes it easier for grey rot to attack if it is humid. It is also sensitive to other fungal diseases, so preferably the canopy should be kept airy to allow the wind to dry the grapes.
Pinot noir in the cellar
The character of the wine is, of course, also dependent on what the winegrower does during and after fermentation. If you do a gentle extraction and ferment at around 77 degrees F (25 C), you will have a light, elegant wine. Some producers want to extract as much color and aromas as possible from Pinot Noir. They do this with extended skin contact, sometimes both before and after fermentation. They ferment at a warmer temperature, up to around 90 degrees F (32 C). This gives a full-bodied, even powerful wine. Too powerful for those who think that you should be able to read the newspaper through a glass of Pinot Noir.
Expensive pinot noir is often aged in oak barrels. Well-structured wines can handle the oak, but it is essential to be careful so that the oak does not entirely overtake the delicate red fruit aromas.
Pinot noir is grown on around 26,000 acres (10,500 ha) throughout Burgundy. In the Côte d’Or, it covers 73% of the surface and almost the entire surface of the Côte de Nuit. The red wines from the Côte d’Or are today some of France’s most expensive wines. Among the most prestigious (and outlandishly costly) are the Grand Cru wines from the Domaine de la Romanée Conti (DRC).
There is more Pinot Noir in Champagne than in Burgundy, over 32,000 acres (13,000 ha). The grape dominates the Montagne de Reims and the Côte des Bar. It is often blended with the other champagne grapes, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier, but sometimes it gets to shine on its own in a blanc de noir. A Pinot Noir champagne is rich, with a dense structure.
Pinot Noir is also the grape in red Sancerre and red Alsace. Here the wines are light in style and often very light in color. Some producers are now putting more effort into their red wines, and today there are delicious ones from these regions. However, you have to appreciate the light style of red wines.
In the USA, Pinot Noir has increased spectacularly. The grape is now the third most cultivated variety in the country with 62,000 acres (25,000 ha). California has most of the plantings, of course, and makes some fantastic wines from the grape. But it is Oregon that has received the most attention for its Pinot Noir in recent years.
The first pinot noir vines in Oregon were planted in 1965 in the Willamette Valley. This region is still the epicenter of Pinot Noir in Oregon.
Pinot Noir is the most planted red grape in Germany. Here, they call it Spätburgunder. Germany is the third-largest producer of Pinot Noir in the world, after France and the United States. For a country that most people associate with white wines, there is quite a lot of red wine in Germany. Pinot Noir produces surprisingly full-bodied and tasty wines in Ahr, Rheinhessen, Rheingau and several other regions.
Pinot noir is New Zealand’s most planted red grape. It is grown in several regions of the country, but the most famous Pinot Noir wines come from Central Otago on the South Island. The Frenchman Ferraud, who came here in 1863 to dig for gold, also planted vines that are believed to have been Pinot Noir because he called his wine “Burgundy”.
The smaller Wairarapa region on the North Island also makes exceptional Pinot Noir.
Pinot Noir is increasing in Chile. In cooler regions such as Casablanca, San Antonio and Bío Bío we now have some excellent Pinot Noir. Warm days followed by cool nights in, e.g. Casablanca, gives fine acidity and freshness.
Switzerland, especially in the Valais region, makes excellent Pinot Noir. The Australian island of Tasmania has a cool climate and produces first-class Pinot Noir wines.
Pinot noir continues to grow all over the world.
Total worldwide surface: 277,000 acres
Main countries: France, USA, Germany, New Zealand, Australia, Chile
Character: Light in color, elegance and finesse, aromas of red berries such as raspberries, strawberries, cherries. High acidity, low tannin level. Sometimes autumn leaves and mushrooms. Species and coffee if oak-aged.