This great grape of Burgundy has been a wine-world nexus of legend and disappointment for at least two millennia. It can achieve such glorious heights of seductiveness and heart-rending power that it is the one grape variety that ambitious winemakers worldwide want to wrestle with at some point in their career path.
A capricious (and therefore expensive) vine to grow, Pinot Noir only thrives in a narrow range of climates, and while it will yield fruit in the hot regions that the much more flexible Cabernet Sauvignon is routinely grown in, the main charms of Pinot Noir--a sensuous essence and graceful subtlety, along with the more cerebral transparency of provenance--are lost to what would be better-off sold in a jar as imitation cherry jam.
It is exactly these charms that have fascinated and excited drinkers of Pinot Noir since the Romans occupied France. In its youth, it has flavors and aromas akin to cherries, violets, raspberries, and rosehips. As it matures, it sheds these nubile elements and acquires qualities that remind me of some experiences I've had while camping--woodsy, game-y notions that are warming and unforgettable.
Burgundy is still the standard-bearer for this variety, producing Pinot Noirs of a sensational assortment of characteristics within a 60km span of the roughly 80km length of the Côte d'Or and Côte Chalonnaise combined. Depending upon the growing area, it can be extraordinarily perfumed and shimmering, or zesty and bold, or intensely powerful and rich, all without losing the essential ethos of Pinot Noir.
Pinot Noir is also grown with great success in Oregon, California, Italy, Austria, New Zealand (especially Central Otago, but really almost anywhere is good), and Australia (esp. Yarra Valley in Victoria and Margaret River on the southwestern coast). There are many excellent examples from other regions of France (Alsace, Champagne, and the Loire Valley), and from less commonly considered growing areas like Germany, Austria, and Italy.
In my experience, Pinot Noir is not for everyone, insofar as a drinking it without food is concerned. It often has a fragile, nervy, and mercurial character, even when the wine is quite robust. Merlot is much more of an everyman's wine, and is (or was, but is becoming so again) appropriately popular. I have found that those who dislike Pinot Noir in general, actually enjoy it with an appropriate food pairing. Because of the wide variety of flavors and styles in which Pinot Noir can be cast, it is good to know the wines you are choosing from before going in, or consult with your sommelier or wine retailer.
Tasting Pinot Noir
One should use a bulbous glass when tasting Pinot Noir. The commonly accepted design for a Pinot Noir Glass looks like a brandy snifter on a tall stem. This glass is designed to give the aromatics of Pinot Noir room to expand before directing them to the taster's nose through a small opening.
When tasting many other wines alongside Pinot Noir, one should taste Pinot Noir first. This is true for white wine as well. White wine can (and Riesling will) cause the taster's perception of Pinot Noir to be distorted and unpleasant.
Pinot Noir with Food
There is hardly anything that really doesn't work with Pinot Noir, though sweet and/or spicy foods are typically not a good combination, but I've had many exceptions. Also, it isn't terribly good as a companion for most smoked fish, but see below for an exception.
Land: roast beef, steak tartare, charcuterie, lamb loin, pork loin, rabbit, veal, liver, duck, game birds, quail, squab
Cheese: Époisse, Gruyère, aged goat, Brie
Fish: salmon, trout, smoked bluefish, scallops, tuna, shark
Fruit & Vegetables: mushrooms, cherries, beets, fennel, eggplant, root vegetables
Unless you're looking for deeper knowledge about Pinot Noir, you may stop here without missing a thing....
More on Pinot Noir (for those with the desire to fill up on relevant info)
The Pinot family is a convoluted one. Pinot Noir is one of the more ancient vine varieties, and is, as a result, genetically unstable. This led to the mutation of the vine into Pinot Gris (and Pinot Gris then mutated into Pinot Blanc, so the mutation hardly helped stabilize the vine). We also have other mutations of Pinot Noir, the most important of which is Meunier (aka Pinot Meunier). Also found in the Pinot family are the many progeny of Pinot and Gouais Blanc: St. Laurent, Auxerrois (also known as Pinot Auxerrois), and further on down the family tree, Chardonnay.
Growing location imparts an ineffable set of qualities to Pinot Noir that is impossible to duplicate except from the same set of vines. Apart from Riesling, it is the grape that most eloquently expresses terroir, or the combination of soil, micro-climate, and various uncontrollable human macro influences, of a given growing site. One can perhaps correlate the ethereal Pinots from Russian River Valley to the ethereal Volnays grown in the Côte de Beaune of Burgundy. However, from vineyard to vineyard in RRV the wines have an individualistic character, and this same effect is even more dramatically exemplified in Volnay, due to strictly defined sub-regions based on, usually, soil type. The differences between these wines side-by-side and half-way across the world can be even further radicalized by the winemaker's actions in the winery.
Pinot Noir is not just difficult to work with on the vine, but also in the winery. It never endures recipe winemaking (though some try to subject it to this), because questions continuously arise over the fragile juice that is turning into wine. A notoriously thin skin leaves yearly concerns about the wine's potential tannin content as an oenologist tries to extract what little color is willing to leech out of the grape skins without also getting too much tannin. I.e., one can easily have overly tannic wines trying to achieve the dark purplish-red typical of Pinot Noir. This is bad because grape skin tannins are much less appealing ("mouth-puckering" comes to mind) than tannins acquired from an oak barrel (which is more-or-less pleasantly tongue-gripping). Conversely, the skins can often contain very little tannin, so no amount of additional soaking will yield tannin in the appropriate character and in enough quantity to ensure longevity. To solve this winemakers may leave the stems in the fermentation vat (if they don't already use a whole-cluster method) to impart necessary tannic structure. This has its own problems, as the stems may not be fully "ripe" themselves, so the tannin character they can impart is potentially quite harsh. Another concern revolves around pigéage (which is the punching down of the cap that forms during fermentation) or pump-overs (which uses a vacuum pump to keep the cap wet). Generally the gentler the better (pigéage is gentler), but I have heard some winemakers argue for pump-overs in certain vintages.
France, with the world's tenderloin of Pinot Noir production in Burgundy's Côte d'Or, continues to produce the most soul-stirring examples of this hallowed variety. In addition to the Côte d'Or and Côte Châlonnaise mentioned above, Pinot Noir is planted to a limited extent also in the Côte d'Auxerre in northern Burgundy, and the Mâconnais at the southern end. Champagne holds the single largest area of Pinot Noir in France. Aside from using it for sparkling wine, several estates make still red wine, often blended with Meunier. The reds and rosés of Sancerre in the Loire Valley are made from Pinot Noir, and it is also the only legally allowed red wine grape in Alsace.
Pinot Noir is Germany's most noble red variety, and it increasingly successful in Pfalz, Rheingau, and Baden. Germans refer to it as Spätburgunder or Blauburgunder.
In Austria, it is an important if minor variety in the Burgenland (that would be the German for Burgundy...), the country's principal source of red wine, where it is grown alongside St. Laurent, Blaufränkisch, and Zweigelt. Austrians often refer to Pinot Noir as Blauer Spätburgunder.
Pinot Noir is a commonly found grape in Switzerland where it is often blended with Gamay to make Switzerland's most famous (which isn't saying very much--market penetration of Swiss wine is not good) wine, Dôle.
California has perhaps the most reliable climate for growing grapes in the world, and Pinot Noir is grown widely there, but is most successful (to my mind), in no particular order, in the Central Coast, Sonoma County, Mendocino, and Carneros.
Oregon is more climatically aligned to Burgundy, and the wine profiles are similarly diverse. A source of some sensational Pinots, most of the wines in Oregon are made in the Willamette Valley. There is an excellent case to be made for the Pinots of the Rogue Valley in southern Oregon, which are typically more dense and velvety.
New Zealand is now well established as a source of fine Pinot Noir. Central Otago has been showing great promise, but Marlborough and Christchurch (esp. Waipara) produce excellent wines as well. The wines tend to start at an expensive tier (around $30), but top out far below the most expensive wines from Burgundy, California, and Oregon...for now.
Known as Pinot Nero in Italy, it is widely planted in Lombardy, in the northern reaches of Italy, where in addition to making red wine, it is used in Franciacorta for that region's sparkling wines.
Spain has very little Pinot Noir planted, and given the typically high average temperature of the growing season, this will likely stay that way. There are plantings across eastern Europe, but nothing has as yet taken hold as a new hot-spot for Pinot Noir.
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