Pinot Noir is one of the oldest grape varietals in the world. Originating in Burgundy, France, where it is the source of some of the world’s best wines, the grape is now grown in California and Oregon in the U.S., as well as in Chile and New Zealand.
Difficulties with Pinot Noir occur at virtually every step of wine production. It is genetically unstable, and the parent vine can produce offspring that bear fruit totally different in size, aromatics, and even flavor. This has resulted in hundreds of inferior clones that need to be sorted from the good ones. Any affliction that can affect vines occurs commonly in Pinot Noir. Because it leaves early, it is susceptible to spring frost. It is a perfect host to the sharpshooter leafhopper, which causes Pierce’s disease and can wipe out a vineyard in three years. Leaf roll, a viral infection, is common. The vine is not very vigorous so there may be not enough leaf cover to protect the fruit from birds. This plus the fact that the grape is very thin skinned means berries can shrivel quickly and dry out if picked too late.
Pinot Noir is even difficult to ferment. It ferments rapidly and violently, sometimes out of control. Color retention is a common problem because of the thin skins. Finally, a process known as acetification can occur, causing aromatics and flavors present during fermentation and aging to disappear when the wine is bottled.
Pinot Noir prefers cool climates and chalky, well-drained soils. If grown in warm weather, the delicate aromas and flavors don’t develop. Burgundy has just such a climate and terroir. Willamette Valley, Oregon is at the same latitude as Burgundy and has a similarly cool climate. Pinot Noir grows best in cooler regions of California such as Carneros and Russian River. Cool climates are the most varied, so different vintages vary greatly.
So why do vintners bother with such a difficult grape? Because it can make incredibly aromatic, flavorful wines with a perfume of strawberry, raspberry, black cherry, tea, mint, violets, and spices. The flavors (similar to the aromatics) are delicate but can be quite intense. Pinot Noir tends to be a medium bodied wine with soft tannins and a balancing acidity. Done right, it can be like liquid silk—a profound experience. Aging in oak enhances these characteristics beautifully. It is a wonderful food wine, matching well with Salmon, fowl, ham, and lamb.
There are differences among Pinot Noir from Burgundy, California, and Oregon. Burgundies tend to be lower in alcohol, more structured, and less fruit juicy than American wines. They have more earthy and herbal notes and tend to age longer. Many critics feel Burgundy is a better food wine—it accepts food without overwhelming it, and its lower alcohol and slightly higher acidity balances and brings out the nuances in the accompanying dishes. California Pinot Noir tends to be softer, more lush, and more fruit forward, has a higher alcohol and usually less structure. It is a better wine for drinking on its own.
Oregon seems to be somewhere in the middle of the two. The climate is more similar to Burgundy, but the soil is richer and more volcanic. Oregon Pinots differ greatly among themselves, but tend to be more earthy than California Pinots with a complexity sometimes rivaling Burgundy. The fruit forwardness, however, more closely mimics California.
Another difference among the wine from Burgundy, California, and Oregon is the price. Burgundy is the most expensive, with almost nothing drinkable below $20.00 and prices from the best growers starting at $100.00. Domain de la Romanee Conti wines are over $1000.00 per bottle at release, are the most expensive wines in the world, and are sold out every year. However, some Burgundies are quite affordable, like Seguin Gevrey Chambertin at $47.99 and Regis Bouvier Bourgogne en Montre Cul at $29.99.
California does some really nice Pinot Noir in the $15.00 to $25.00 range, such as Wyatt, Au Bon Climate, Block Nineteen, and Banshee. There are some pricier ones that are really awesome. Try Melville Estate for $27.99.
Oregon is making a lot of really great Pinot Noirs, and this grape has become the state’s signature red grape. Holloran makes two wines. The entry level offering, at $22.99, is called Stafford Hill and is my choice for the best Pinot Noir in the store at this price point. The upper level one is only $7.00 more and is a beautiful mix of perfume, flowers, fruit, and earth. There is a small producer called Tyee whose barrel select Pinot is wonderful at $28.99.
New Zealand is becoming as well known as much for its earthy, funky Pinot Noirs as it is for its Marlboro Sauvignon Blancs. Sherwood and Allan Scott are good values at under $20.00 and are fairly typical of Pinots from this country.
Finally, some definite bargains are coming out of Chile, which is known best for its Carmenere and Cabernet. Llai Llai is a nice example for $10.00 and Cantaluna and Root One are in the same price range. These wines are good places to start if your wallet is a bit light because they are true Pinot Noir. Be careful of inexpensive California Pinot Noirs. Syrah is often added generously to the blend (in California to be called a specific varietal the wine must contain only 75% of that grape) so you may get a pleasant, quaffable wine, but it tastes nothing like Pinot Noir.
Pinot Noir can be amazing and can be a great wine with dinner or by the glass on your patio. As tricky as it is to grow and make into wine, it can also be tricky to shop for. So ask your wine geek for the best….it will be an awesome experience.