Ever since the movie Sideways came out, there has been a lot of interest in Pinot Noir wines, and with good reason. There are worse ways to spend an evening than sharing a bottle of this exquisite liquid, enjoying the heady aromas full of the promise of things to come, the visual appeal of the almost jewel-like ruby, to purplish-red hues, and the delightfully complex flavors that are both earthy, and fruity. Many may ask ,“ What is all the buzz about? What type of wine is Pinot Noir anyway?”
The Pinot Noir grape is a variety of the species Vitus vinefera,, which includes all grape varieties. It is a very ancient species, genetically only a generation or two removed from the wild grape species it came from. Its’ exact origins are lost to antiquity, but it seems to have grown in the Burgundy region of France as far back as can be determined. It was first described in writing in the 1st Century in Columella’s De re Rustica. There is some speculation that the grape was grown in northern Belgium first, then transported to France by the Roman legions.
Pinot Noir is a varietal red wine made from the Pinot Noir grape. The name comes from two french words meaning “pine”, and “black”. It probably got the name from the fact that it grows in tight clusters resembling pine cones, and it is a dark purple-colored grape.
Pinot Noir grapes grow in cooler regions all around the world, but the most famous come from the Burgundy region in France. The Pinot Noir grape produces some of the finest wines available, but it is very difficult to cultivate, and making wine from them tests the talents of even the most expert wine-makers. It is a very unforgiving grape.
The leaves of the Pinot Noir are smaller than Cabernet Sauvignon, but larger than the Syrah. The plants produce very narrow trunks and branches. They are extremely sensitive to light exposure, crop density (they must be kept at a low-yield), soil types, pruning techniques, and many other factors. The fruit has a thin skin, making them very susceptible to Bunch Rot, and other fungal diseases, as well as damage from insects, birds, and other animals. The vines, in particular, are susceptible to Downy Mildew, Leaf Roll, Fan Leaf, and other ailments. These factors make this the most difficult grape variety to successfully cultivate.
When the grapes are harvested, the battle is still not over. In the winery, the grapes are as touchy as nitroglycerin. They are super-sensitive to fermentation methods, yeast strains, temperature, light, humidity, and are extremely reflective of their terroir (regional characteristics), with grapes grown in different regions producing completely different flavors. Making Pinot Noir wine is a labor of love.
So why go to all this trouble, when there are many more forgiving varieties available? Simply because, when all is said and done, Pinot Noir produces the finest wines in the world. The extremely wide variety of bouquets, textures, flavors and impressions can fool even veteran wine tasters. In the most general of terms, Pinot Noir wines tend to be light to medium-bodied. The bouquet can be best described as somewhat fruity, with notes of black cherry, currants, and raspberries, while at the same time, producing some earthy overtones. Traditional red Burgundy wine, which is 100% Pinot Noir from the Burgundy region (the finest, from Cote d’ Or) of France, is typically fleshy, with “farmyard” overtones. Pinot Noir wines typically have less tannins, and more acid than other reds. The color is usually a bit lighter than most other red wines, but a new, more powerful style has emerged from California and New Zealand that is much darker, and can rival Syrah in depth of flavor. Pinot Noir is also a staple in the production of champagnes, usually mixed with chardonnay.
The Pinot Noir grape is very prone to hybridization, giving rise to many close cousins. This can make it more confusing to determine what type of wine is Pinot Noir. Its’ offspring include Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Moure, Pinot Tienturier, Pinot Fin, Pinot Meunier, Pinot Tordu, Pinoit Gouges, Pinot Musigny, Pinot Liebault, and even an English variety, the Wrotham Pinot. Like Pinot Noir, they all are prone to great regional differentiation. And they can all be used as blends, as long as the wine is predominantly Pinot Noir.
Selecting a bottle of Pinot Noir can be difficult. For this type of wine, the area it was produced in is the most important factor to consider. More than any other grape, the Pinot Noir is just a catalyst to get the soul of the soil of its’ birth into your glass. The difference from one bottle to the next is all in the soil, and the wine-makers art. The very finest wines are unquestionably from Cote d’ Oro in Burgundy. But there are excellent Pinot Noirs from California, Australia, Austria, Germany (where it is called Spatburgunder), Canada, Romania, and other cool-weather areas around the globe.
Generally speaking, Pinot Noir wines are especially good with poultry, beef, pork, fish, ham, lamb and game meats, depending on its’ terroir. It works well with creamy sauces, spicy dishes such as pasta with marinara, or even enchiladas. It is arguably one of the most versatile wines there is.
Pinot Noir is usually consumed young, within a year of production. Aging can mellow the fruitiness, and bring out more of the earthy overtones, but due to the ‘touchy’ nature of the grape, long aging is risky. Five years is the recommended limit.
Now you no longer have to ask yourself , “ What type of wine is Pinot Noir?” You are one of the few, the Proud, the Informed. The next time you are out with someone, and are trying to select a wine, you can fill the room with your brilliance and knowledge. Pinot Noir wines are some of the finest in the world, so treat yourself to some every so often. You deserve it….
By Joel C. Brothers, ND, SHD