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, Oregon and New Zealand. It is the patriarch of the ‘Pinot’ family of grape varieties – so called because their bunches are similar in shape to a pine cone (pinot in French). Other members of this family include Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Meunier, Aligote and Pinot Noir's white-wine counterpart, Chardonnay.
Pinot Noir causes more discussion and dispute than any other grape, most of which centers around finding and describing the variety's 'true' expression. Examples from Santenay are undeniably different from those made on the other side of the world in Central Otago, and yet they are all unmistakably, unquestionably Pinot Noir. It takes a great deal of care and skill to make Pinot perform, and the results vary wildly from watery, acidic candy water to some of the richest, most intensely perfumed wines on Earth. This illusive perfection has earned the variety obsessive adoration from wine lovers all over the world.
In Burgundy (Pinot's homeland), the traditional vigneron focuses more on soil and climate than on the qualities of the grape variety itself (this is, after all, the home of terroir). Even very subtle differences in terroir are reflected in Pinot Noir wines made there. There are clear and consistent differences between the wines of Volnay and Pommard, for example, even though the villages are separated by just one mile.
The effects of terroir aren't limited to Burgundy, of course – every region has its own particular terroirs, and these are reflected in its wines, particularly when it comes to terroir-sensitive varieties such as Pinot Noir. Although many winemakers in the New World attempt to emulate the Burgundy style, the 'new' Pinot regions in Oregon, Washington, California and New Zealand have their own individual expressions and interpretations of the variety.
The essence of Pinot Noir wine is its aroma of strawberry and cherry (fresh red cherries in lighter wines and stewed black cherries in weightier examples), underpinned in the most complex examples by hints of undergrowth (sous-bois). Well-built Pinot Noirs, particularly from warmer harvests, also exhibit notes of leather and violets, sometimes approaching the flavor spectrum of Syrah.
The question of 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 turned to biodynamic viticulture, avoiding the use of commercial fertilizers that may disrupt the variety's sensitive chemical balance.
Although Pinot Noir earns most of its fame from its still, red, varietal wines, the variety is also a vital ingredient in the production of sparkling white wines. For these, it can be used alone (to produce blanc de noirs), but is most commonly blended with its cousin Chardonnay, and other members of the Pinot family – most obviously Pinot Meunier in Champagne and Pinot Blanc in Franciacorta. The highly successful Pinot – Chardonnay sparkling-wine blend has been adopted by regions all around the world, in Europe, the Americas, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.
Synonyms include: Pinot Nero, Pinot Negro, Spatburgunder, Blauburgunder.
Food matches include:
Europe: Civet de lapin et lièvre (rabbit & hare stew); pappardelle pasta with a porcini ragù
Asia: Peking duck; seared pepper-crusted yellowfin tuna steak
Americas: Grilled salmon with roasted fennel; crumbed beef Milanesa
Australasia/Oceania: Harissa-marinated pork ribs; seared kangaroo and pinenut salad
Africa/Middle East: Fried chicken livers (sawda dajaj)