Pinot Noir wines are some of the most popular in the world. The name Pinot Noir comes from two French words for “pine” and “black.” The word pine refers to the tightly clustered, pine cone shaped bunches of fruit. This is one of the oldest known grape varietals in the world. This varietal has been planted since AD 100 and predates Cabernet Sauvignon by over 1000 years. This is an ancient varietal that is suspected to be only one or two generations removed from wild vines.
Pinot Noir is a child of the Burgundy region in France, particularly the Côte-d’Or, but it has been transplanted and grown in Argentina, Australia, Austria, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, Croatia, Czech Republic, the Republic of Georgia, Hungary, Kosovo, Germany, Israel, Greece, Italy, the Republic of Macedonia, New Zealand, Romania, Moldova, Serbia, Slovakia, South Africa, Switzerland, Slovenia, Uruguay and the United States. It is grown in all the world’s wine regions except the very hottest.
Pinot Noir is characteristically difficult to grow. This varietal is sensitive to wind, frost, cropping levels and pruning techniques in the vineyard, and to fermentation methods and variations in vinification in the winery. It is susceptible to fungal diseases including bunch rot because of its thin skin. This grape is best suited to relatively cool climates where this early ripening fruit is not rushed towards maturity. Unlike Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot and Grenache, it is intolerant of harsh conditions in the vineyard. All of these issues make Pinot Noir a challenge for both the vine-grower and the wine maker. Jancis Robinson famously called Pinot Noir a “minx of a vine.” The late Andre Tchelitscheff, the legendary maker of some of California’s finest Cabernets, once declared that “God made Cabernet Sauvignon, whereas the devil made Pinot Noir,” but also declared that if he had to do it all over again, he’d make Pinot Noir rather than Cab.
The popularity of Pinot Noir in the United States, Australia, New Zealand, England and Asia surged in the decade following 2004, which saw the release of the movie “Sideways.” The movie’s main character raved constantly about Pinot Noir, while denigrating Merlot. While Merlot sales dropped somewhat after the release of the movie, the most notable effect was the dramatic rise in the popularity and price of Pinot Noir, and in overall wine consumption in those countries.
French Burgundy Wine
French Pinot Noir wines are referred to as “French Red Burgundy.” This is the region where Pinot Noir began around AD 100, and it is what has made the region famous for centuries. The wines of this region have flavors of ripe red berries, and sweet black cherries. These wines are lighter in color compared to many other red wines, due to the thin skins of the grapes. Many red Burgundies can age well for 10 to 20 years or beyond, developing complex fruit flavors, mushroom flavors and flavors of “forest floor,” the smell you get from fallen damp leaves. These are elegant, nuanced wines with relatively low alcohol content. The best of these wines are produced in the Côte-d’Or escarpment of Burgundy. The famous wine Domaine de la Romanée-Conti is from this region. While these wines are exquisite, they can also be quite expensive. The price of these wines is partially responsible for the rise in Pinot Noir production in other countries.
California Pinot Noir
By volume most Pinot Noir in America is grown in California. Much attention was turned to this varietal from the late 1980s to the early 1990s. For some time, Pinot Noir wines produced in California have had the reputation of being more fruit forward, darker and jammier than their French counterparts. However, more recently, some of these wines from the cooler parts of the state in Sonoma County such as the Russian River Valley, and Carneros and Chalone have redefined the more southerly state’s reputation for Pinot.
Oregon Pinot Noir
The Willamette Valley of Oregon is at the same latitude as the Burgundy region of France, and has a similar climate in which the picky Pinot Noir grapes thrive. The Oregon wine industry thrived throughout the 1980s after winnings several second and third prizes compared to French red Burgundies in 1979 and 1980. Pinot Noir has put Oregon on the map for winemaking internationally. As with all great wines, the influence of “terrior” is all important. This is especially clear in Oregon, where the best examples mirror the land itself with wild mushroom, brambles, forest floor and pine flavors. These are characteristics that are sometimes described as “duff.” The arrival of some Burgundian producers in the state and the introduction of women in the winemaking arena has resulted in recent examples of wine from the area that are more elegant and nuanced, much like their French counterparts.
The other area where the Pinot Noir grape is a superstar is in the Champagne region. Here Pinot Noir is blended with Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier to make exquisite sparkling wines. When it is produced as Champagne unblended, it is labeled “blanc de noirs,” which means the white from the black. The Champagne appellation of France has more Pinot Noir planted than any other region in France.
Pairing Pinot Noir with Food
Pinot Noir is often considered to be one of the world’s most versatile food wines. The classic pairing for this wonderful wine is grilled salmon. The rich fattiness and light char of the fish could not have a better match than an earthy Oregon Pinot Noir with its high level of acidity. Also critical to the pairing is the low level of tannin, which thus doesn’t interfere with the lovely flavor of the fish. Great food pairings include pork and poultry, beef and bacon, cheese and chocolate, lamb and fresh herbs and wild game. Pinot Noir also works well with creamy sauces and spicy seasonings. It is light enough to enjoy without food.
Whatever food you pair this wine with, enjoy its complexity!!
Written by Pat Daniel. Permission to publish by Columbus & the Valley Magazine.