Pinot Noir is the red wine grape of Burgundy, now adopted (and feverishly studied) in wine regions all over the world. The variety's elusive charm has carried it to all manner of vineyards, from western Germany and northern Italy to Chile, South Africa, Australia, and perhaps most notably California and New Zealand. It is the patriarch of the ‘Pinot’ family of grape varieties – so called because their bunches are similar in shape to pine cone (pinot in French). Other members of this family are Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Meunier, Aligote, Chardonnay and Gouais Blanc.
Pinot Noir causes more discussion and dispute in the wine world than any other grape variety, most of which centers around the wine style which best represents the ‘true’ Pinot Noir. Examples from Central Otago are so different from those grown in Santenay that even an untrained palate can tell them apart. Yet both are unmistakably, unquestionably Pinot Noir. It is this strength of character which has made Pinot Noir such an internationally successful and desirable grape variety. The same is true of Cabernet Sauvignon, its opposite number from Bordeaux, although Cabernet vines are much less choosy about the environment in which they are grown. While Cabernet can be relied on to give good yields and make acceptable quality wine, ‘Pinot’ is decidedly fussier, and varies wildly from watery, acidic candy water to some of the richest, most intensely perfumed wines on earth.
Happily, Pinot Noir has sparked more than just dispute; it is well known for causing near-obsession among collectors and connoisseurs. This Pinot 'fanaticism' has its roots in 1980s California but there are now devoted Pinot fans over the modern wine world. No other vine variety has come close to causing this level of interest. Interestingly, in Pinot Noir’s homeland (the Cote d’Or and particularly the Cote de Nuits), the traditional vigneron has focused not on the intrinsic qualities of the grape itself, but the nature of the soil and climate in which it grows. After all, Burgundy is the home of terroir. Although many find it hard to believe, there are consistent, perceptible differences between Pinot Noirs from Volnay and Pommard - two Burgundian villages separated by less than one mile. For decades New World wine regions held red Burgundy up as their target style, but the early 21st century has seen the western United States and New Zealand (first Martinborough, then Central Otago) finding their own individual expressions of Pinot.
Although typically used to make single-variety wines, in Champagne Pinot Noir is blended with its cousins Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier to the region's famous sparkling wines. In the cool northern French climate the berries rarely attain optimal ripeness, so only very rarely is dry, still red Pinot Noir produced in Champagne. The highly successful Pinot-Chardonnay partnership has been adopted for sparkling wine production in wine regions across the world, from Alsace to Tasmania.
The identifying characteristic of Pinot Noir wine is found in its strawberry and cherry aromas (fresh red cherries in lighter wines and deeper–colored stewed black cherries in weightier examples) often complemented by hints of undergrowth – sous-bois in French. Well-built Pinot Noirs, particularly from warmer harvests, also exhibit notes of leather and violets, sometimes approaching the flavor spectrum of Syrah.
The question oak in Pinot Noir winemaking is frequently raised, as are the length of fermentation and the option of a pre-ferment maceration (cold soak). Cooler temperatures lead to fresher fruit flavors, while longer, warmer fermentations and pigeage result in more extracted, wines with greater tannic structure. In order to retain as much 'Pinot' character as possible, many producers have now turned to biodynamic viticulture, avoiding the use of commercial fertilizers which may disrupt the variety's sensitive chemical balance.
Synonyms include: Pinot Nero, Pinot Negro, Spatburgunder, Blauburgunder.
Related grape varieties include: Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Meunier, Aligote, Gouais Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinotage.
Food matches include:
Europe: Beef Bourguignon; stewed rabbit and hare (civet de lapin et lievre); pappardelle pasta with a rabbit and porcini mushroom ragù
Asia: Peking duck; seared pepper-crusted yellowfin (ahi) tuna
Americas: Grilled salmon with roasted fennel; crumbed beef Milanesa; dark chocolate truffles
Australasia/Oceania: Harissa-marinated pork ribs; seared kangaroo and pinenut salad
Africa/Middle East: Fried chicken livers (sawda dajaj)