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Pinot Noir is a vine that produces some of the most sought-after grapes in the world. Burgundy, Pinot Noir’s original home, produces regional, village, 1er cru, and grand cru examples with exponentially increasing prices. Some of the most prestigious sites for Pinot Noir can give rise to bottles that sell in excess of $10,000; however, there is much more to this thin-skinned variety than high price tags. Below we will explore what makes this grape express its winemakers and its climate so well and what to look for in your Pinot Noir.
Pinot Noir is often referred to a finicky. Because it is a thin-skinned grape, there isn’t a ton of protection from various threats to the fruit including pests, sunburn, mildew/mold, and hail. Also, Pinot Noir tends to produce its most balanced examples in cooler climates with long growing season in order to retain acidity as well as ripeness. If the climate is too cold, the grape will become acidic, causing the wine to be astringent and a bit harsh. If the climate is too warm and doesn’t have many cooling influences like consistent winds or a body of water, the resulting wine may be jammy and lacking in structure. For all of these reasons (and a number of additional ones), growers need to be cautious with their vineyard selections. Despite this, when Pinot Noir finds the right climate and the right winemaker, the resulting wine can have an influence on your taste buds for years.
While every grape vine is heavily influenced by climactic and winemaker influences, Pinot Noir can often show these influences somewhat transparently, allowing the consumer to dial-in their Pinot preferences. Wines from the Cote de Nuits in Burgundy will taste dramatically different from Pinot Noir produced in Northern California, Italy, or New Zealand. So, with all of these various factors what should we expect out of our Pinot Noir?
Pinot Noir often carries notes of light and bright red fruits, and earthier notes as well as oak-influenced notes (such as clove, nutmeg, or vanilla) can easily work their way into the wine through aging and oak usage. In connect fruit flavors to geography, it’s helpful to think of Pinot Noir becoming more crisp and tart as the latitude becomes higher, and more ripe as the latitude is lower. While this isn’t true all of the time (certain regions have cooler microclimates even though they may be at lower latitudes), it’s a good rule of thumb. Bearing this in mind, let’s examine a wine from Burgundy: Domaine Deliance’s 2018 Bourgogne Pinot Noir. This wine is from the Cote Chalonnaise, which is just south of the famous Cote d’Or. Burgundy is a relatively cool continental climate with a long growing season. This means that (for the most part) the red fruit profile of Pinot Noir from Burgundy might be a touch more restrained, particularly on the palate, than Pinot Noir from California, for example. The soil diversity, vineyard sites, and microclimates in Burgundy make for massive variation in wines produced, so these generalizations somewhat difficult, but Deliance’s flavor profile generally reflects this idea. A great wine to contrast with this Burgundy would be Alexana’s Pinot Noir “Terrior Series” from Oregon’s Willamette Valley. The Willamette Valley has somewhat warmer summers and different soil types that show themselves in this wine as expressing riper fruits with darker examples such as dark cherries and blackberries. You may also notice that the acid in this wine is a touch lower, which brings down the tart nature of the fruit, allowing it to taste more on the ripe-side of Pinot Noir. For a great taste test, I highly recommend tasting these wines side-by-side to extract the subtle differences between a regional Burgundy and a Pinot from Oregon.
Pinot Noir does not only call France and the West Coast of the U.S. home. Examples can be found from Germany to Patagonia, but here let’s examine an example from New Zealand and from Italy. Massimo Rivetti’s 2016 Langhe Pinot Nero (Noir) from Piedmont, Italy is crafted at a latitude that is around one degree difference from the heart of Burgundy. Piedmont is compared to Burgundy for a variety of reason, including even comparisons of Cru Barolos to Burgundy Pinot Noirs, so one can imagine that the fruit profile of this Italian example of Pinot Noir is relatively similar to that of many Burgundy examples. The fruits are a bit more tart with notes of cranberry, raspberry, and cherry. Underripe strawberry also appears with mild notes of nutmeg and vanilla from a touch of new French oak that imparts itself on the wine. This Pinot from Massimo Rivetti is extremely balanced, and worth a try particularly if you’re new to Italian Pinot Noirs! Moving into the Southern Hemisphere, we travel to the very top of the North Island of New Zealand for Cloudy Bay’s 2017 Pinot Noir from Marlborough. This part of New Zealand sees wide shifts from warmer summers to colder winters, allowing the Pinot Noir to gain ripeness while retaining acidity and not falling into that jammy Pinot category. The wine does contain some darker fruits in its flavor profile with even notes of wet forest floor and rhubarb setting underneath the riper fruit. These are two more excellent examples of wines that should be tasted side-by-side in order to detect some of these variations in flavor, and we promise you will find them!
There is so much more to say, and so much nuance to Pinot Noir, but we hope this is a great start. The wines we’ve highlighted may help in narrowing down which Pinot Noir regions resonate most with you, and we would love to hear your preferences! Happy sipping and cheers!