All about the Pinot Noir grape & its wines
Writing my wine blog post A Quick Guide to New Zealand's Wines made my mouth water for Pinot Noir so I thought I would pour myself a glass and write about this tricky grape and its amazing wines.
Pinot Noir was a very unfashionable wine for many years when the market favoured bigger, brasher and more alcoholic styles of wine but since the early noughties it has become more in vogue, helped to an extent by the 2004 film "Sideways" starring Paul Giamatti. Whilst his character's obsession with Pinot Noir was somewhat OTT, there is no doubt that once a Pinot Noir fan, there is no going back because there is little that compares with Pinot Noir's combination of complexity, silky texture and light elegance.
These characteristics are part of the reason that Pinot Noir is a safe bet to give as a gift or to take to a dinner party. Admittedly it can be expensive but it is usually woth it. Let's take a look at the Pinot Noir grape and its wines, which foods pair well with Pinot Noir and why Pinot Noir tends to be expensive.
Features of the Pinot Noir Grape
- The home of this grape is thought by most to be Burgundy in France though some argue Germany and even further afield. The lighter bodied red wines produced in Burgundy are considered the epitome of Pinot Noir as this grape reflects well the differences in terroir of that region. However it is also grown in the USA, New Zealand, Germany, South America and Switzerland to name but a few Pinot Noir-producing countries. Most of these have tried for years to emulate Burgundy's red wine style and its success - and many producers are succeeding.
- Pinot Noir is also seen in some rosé wines and it is one of the black grapes permitted in Champagne and consequently it is seen in many sparkling wines made in the champagne style.
- Long considered to prefer a cool climate, the Pinot Noir grape is being grown increasingly in warmer climate areas. Due to its thin skin it dislikes the frost and ripening too quickly so it won't respond well anywhere that's too cold or too warm. If it's too hot there's a risk of the fruit flavours becoming jammy. And if it's too wet, the grape is susceptible to all sorts of moulds and diseases so nowhere too rainy. Well, I did describe Pinot Noir as a tricky grape.
- Whether this long-standing reputation is fair, Pinot Noir does require more than a little TLC in the vineyard and subsequently in the winery, whether grown in a warm or cool climate region. Therefore it tends not to be seen so much in commercial style, entry level wines (though there are some so the "better value" examples are best avoided if you want to try a good Pinot).
- Pinot Noir is also known as Spätburgunder, Blauburgunder, Savagnin Noir or Pinot Nero, amongst many other synonyms. It has a tendency to mutate so there are many recognised clones of the grape - over 1000 - and this means that there are differences in leaf shape, berry size, berry colour etc and different clones grow better in different places.
- As might be expected, Pinot Noir is related to the other Pinots, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Meunier. In fact current thinking is that these are all mutations or clones of the same grape.
Features of Pinot Noir wine
Despite the red Burgundy style being the holy grail, not all Pinots are the same due to the many differences in clones, growing techniques, terroir, vintages and wine-making techniques. But generally you can expect your Pinot Noir to be:
- Light & translucent red in colour
- Light in body
- Low in tannins
- Pretty high in acidity which makes them lovely and refreshing
- Perfumed or fragrant
- Complex in its aromas and flavours
- A varietal wine i.e. 100% Pinot Noir as it is rarely blended with other grapes
- Smooth with a silky texture
- Aged in oak, usually, although the oak will often be used rather than new so that it does not overpower the fruit flavours and aromas
- Age-worthy; good Pinot Noir should keep for c. 10 years and improve with age in that time
As a general rule for Pinot Noir's profile:
Cool climate Pinots are usually lighter, more elegant and flavours a little more herbaceous and earthy so expect mushroom, truffles, sharp cranberry, raspberry and sour to sweet cherries. Some also show floral aromas like violet and rose
Warmer climate Pinots are a bit bigger, richer and fruitier with riper raspberry, strawberry, black cherry and ripe plum with spice, liquorice and gamey aromas.
Again as a general rule, Burgundy, German, Swiss and Oregon Pinot Noirs fit the cool climate profile whilst Central Otago, South American and Californian Pinots are closer to the warm climate profile; other New Zealand Pinots fall somewhere between the two.
To compare different styles why not try one of my Pinot Noir mixed cases or add some of my Pinot Noir wines to a mixed case of your own.
By way of guidance my current Pinots (pictured above) increase in intensity from on the left:
- the light and fruity Pinots from Andreas Bender in Germany and perhaps surprisingly La Vierge in South Africa
- the great value single vineyard Burgundy from Domaine Bachey-Legros to
- Pegasus Bay's Pinot Noir which has become more Burgundian and more elegant over the years and regularly achieves a number of amazing scores from wine critics to
- Oregon's Willakenzie - more medium-bodied but classic Oregon to
the more intense but still velvety smooth Californian Masut Pinot Noir
Why is good Pinot Noir expensive?
As already mentioned Pinot Noir is considered a difficult grape to grow
Because the grape is so picky about its growing conditions it cannot be grown everywhere, meaning it has rarity value
Pinot Noir's yields are low even in warm climate areas adding to its scarcity
Production tends to be intensive and small-scale, adding further to its value
It is usually aged in new French oak barrels which are not cheap
- And to some extent it has a reputation for not being at the value end of the wine shelf.
You will however generally get what you pay for.
Food that pairs well with Pinot Noir
Pinot Noir is a wine that can be savoured on its own - but has the added advantage of going well with a range of foods:
- It is a red wine that will cope with stronger flavoured fish such as salmon and tuna
- It is a classic match for turkey and all the fruity trimmings
- It copes well with the saltiness of roast ham or gammon
Its acidity cuts through the fat of greasier meats like duck, goose and pork belly and
the earthy flavours of many Pinots will be a great complement to mushroom-dominant dishes
For more information read my food and wine matching blog post
Pinot Noir, perfect for...
As you can probably tell I am a big fan of Pinot Noir for which I make no apologies. But aside from my own personal preferences, I often recommend Pinot Noir to people who tell me they don't drink red wine but would like to because Pinot Noir wines are a soft, low tannin option. In fact it's probabaly one of the most inoffensive red wines which is why it's always a good bet for taking to dinner parties plus it matches a whole range of foods - and should impress your hosts.
It benefits from being served in a wide-bowled wine glass and is best appreciated as a treat on a quiet night in, perhaps watching Sideways...
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Lindsay Cornelissen DipWSET is passionate about good quality wine and set up Wines With Attitude to share that passion with other wine lovers.