Pinot Noir has been frustrating winemakers since the ancient Romans. It's recognized worldwide as a premier grape, but it presents obstacles to winemaking every step of the way, from its propagation to bottle aging.
Pinot Noir first earned its reputation for making the magnificent wines of the Burgundy region of France — and, more specifically, the two-mile-wide stretch called the Côte d'Or. Pinot Noir is also grown in the Champagne region, where it is one of the three grape varieties allowed to be used in its sparkling wine.
A Handful of Trouble
How difficult can Pinot Noir be? Let's count some of the ways. It's finicky about where it's planted and requires a long, cool growing season. Because it is so sensitive to place, you can practically taste its “terroir” when you open a bottle.
The vine is genetically unstable, making the fruit from parent and offspring vines inconsistent. Its buds open early in warmer areas such as Carneros in the Napa Valley, making it susceptible to spring frosts. In addition, its skins are so thin that a heat spike in July can easily dehydrate the grape and produce raisins.
Pinots have a huge family tree. Due to its genetic instability, it has given rise to grapes such as Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Meunier.
Pinot Noir produces the best wines when grown in limestone soil and relatively cool climates. Outside of France it's grown in such areas as Germany, Switzerland, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. It emerged in California in the 1930s and has gained prominence farther north in Oregon.
You might wonder, with all its difficulties, why anyone would go to all the trouble of producing a wine from Pinot Noir. One sip will give you the answer. Pinot Noir has been described as liquid silk. The texture is soft and velvety. Because the grape is less pigmented than other red wine grapes, the wine is lighter in color too.
When it is full-bodied, it's not heavy as well. It can be ripened to high alcohol levels without the sting of tannins and acidity. Typical Pinot Noir flavors are raspberries, cherries, and smoke.
PICKING THE PERFECT PINOT
Saintsbury Brown Ranch Pinot Noir (Carneros, California)
Patz & Hall Hyde Vineyard Pinot Noir (Carneros, California)
Domaine Serene “Evenstad Reserve” Pinot Noir (Willamette Valley, Oregon)
Faiveley, Les Cazetiers, Gevrey-Chambertin (Burgundy, France)