Pinot Noir | Tasty Yet Tempramental

Harry Lambourne
29th November 2023

Pinot Noir is one of the world’s favourite grape varieties. It has garnered acclaim in the both the Old World and the New. If you like red wine, it’s almost impossible to avoid and sits apart from many of the world’s most famous grape varieties.

Pinot Noir can be lighter and fresher, than grapes such as Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, but it still packs an intense and complex flavour that causes the best examples to go for thousands of pounds a bottle! Domaine de la Romaneé-Conti is one such example.

This article will take you through all things Pinot Noir. We will teach you about the grape itself and the common tasting notes which you can expect with Pinot Noir. Then, we’ll take you on a tour of the old and new world wine nations in which Pinot Noir has found the most success. It is planted in every corner of the globe, but these regions are the most well known.

Let’s jump into all things Pinot Noir.

The Pinot Noir Grape Variety

Pinot Noir Grapes
Pinot Noir Grapes

Pinot Noir is one of the world’s most revered yet temperamental grapes. It’s acidic, with low to medium levels of tannins and can vary greatly in alcohol levels.

Generally, Pinot Noir will be made into single varietal wines, with the exception of sparkling wines where it is often blended with other grapes. You’ll see this in Champagne, (where it is combined with Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier), but you’ll also find it across France. Pinot Noir regularly makes an appearance in a variety of styles of Crémant.

We mentioned that it’s temperamental and that certainly is the case. It is susceptible to diseases, mildew, rot and frost damage. This is in part due to the fact that this particular grape variety is an early budding and early ripening variety. The first shoots are protruding from the vine at the worst time of year. Frost, in particular, can devastate the crops in areas such as Burgundy where it is an especially prevalent problem.

In terms of the usual flavours, Pinot Noir can produce a variety of floral and fruity aromas. Common fruity tasting notes include cranberry, raspberry, strawberry, cherry and red plum. Less common notes include blueberry, blackberry and blackcurrant.

Then, you can also get aromas of violet, rose and earthy qualities of mushroom, forest floor, game and leather. These earthy qualities are often exacerbated through bottle ageing. The grapes can also be aged in oak. This will impart notes of vanilla, cedar and smoke.

Oak ageing is one technique winemakers will employ on Pinot Noir grapes. However, this is often reserved for the finer wines which have the tannins, flavour concentration and complexity to stand up to oak ageing. It’s not uncommon for winemakers to go the other way. Methods of whole-bunch fermentation and stainless steel ageing look to preserve the natural fruit-forward characteristics of the wine. These styles will be lighter, fresher and easier to drink with low levels of tannins.

Old World Pinot Noir

Burgundy

There is only one place that we can begin when discussing this particular grape variety. Nowhere does it gain more respect and demand than in the French region of Burgundy.

Burgundy dates back to the 1st century, but it really gained tractions due to the fastidious work of Benedictine monks. These monks laid the groundwork for the modern Burgundy wine region. They set to divide it out into small vineyard areas based on their terroir, (as opposed to delineating areas by Châteaux’s which was done in Bordeaux).

You can still see this structure today. Small pockets of vineyards are scattered across Burgundy. They’re grouped by terroir and then delineated by quality. You have entry level Burgundy, then Village level wines. Next are the Premier Cru offerings and finally, the truly rarified and special Grand Cru wines.

Now, much of Burgundy is dedicated to white wines from Chardonnay. Yet, the red wines are all made from Pinot Noir. You can find great examples across Burgundy, but if you want something special look for the appellation of Côtes du Nuits within the broader region of Côte d’Or.

Burgundy Wine Region - Côte d'Or
Burgundy Wine Region – Côte d’Or

Here, you can find deeply earthy and savoury Pinot Noir with more tannins than the fresher examples. Oak ageing will often be used and the best wines will have the potential to be cellared for years.

Whether it’s a Bourgogne Rouge or a Côte du Nuits, Burgundy has it all to offer in the world of Pinot Noir. This is a great place to start your journey, or a wonderful place to treat yourself to something special.

We should also give an honourable mention to both the Loire Valley and Champagne. The Loire Valley produces some great fresh example of Pinot Noir and of course, Pinot Noir frequently stars in the Champagne wine region, (particularly in Blanc de Noirs offerings).

Germany

Now we move onto Germany. Above all else Germany is known for white wine, (Riesling in particular). Yet, if there is one red grape variety that shines in this old world wine-making nation it is Pinot Noir. In Germany, it is known as Spätburgunder which translates to ‘late Burgundy’.

Pinot Noir is actually the second most planted great variety across this whole country and Germany is the third largest producer of this variety in the entire world. As the grape is so prone to changes based on terroir, German Spätburgunder is not a one note wine.

It varies greatly depending on the region in which it is grown. Yet, there are some characteristics that they often share. The German style of this grape variety will generally be lighter with low tannins and a strong acidity. This is due to Germany being a cool climate. Expect crisp red fruit notes to shine through, occasionally they’ll have a certain vegetal kick.

Pinot Noir is grown across the country, but there are a few regions which have established themselves as sources of great quality. The Franken and Rheinhessen regions are both well known for great Pinot Noir, yet two regions stand above the others. They are Ahr and Baden. Both are leaders in red wine production within Germany and are recognised as sources for world-class Spätburgunder.

New World Pinot Noir

New Zealand
New Zealand Wine
Central Otago – New Zealand

For the new world, there are a number of places which we could start, but New Zealand Pinot Noir has grabbed the world’s attention perhaps more than anywhere else.

So the legend goes, a New Zealand rugby player stuffed some Burgundian cuttings of Pinot Noir into his rain boots when he was travelling back from Paris, (known in New Zealand as Gumboots). A customs agent and budding winemaker seized them at the border and many argue that this was the beginning of Pinot Noir in New Zealand, (although this is a matter of legal dispute). Clones of this original ‘Gumboot Clone’ spread across New Zealand and a new style of wine was born.

New Zealand burst onto the wine-making scene in the 1980s and has gone from strength to strength. Marlborough Pinot Noir can be found on nearly every wine list and supermarket shelf, but beyond that a number of other regions have established themselves as key Pinot Noir producers.

The New Zealand wine-making nation is split into two separate islands and it is the cooler southern island which excels at this particular grape variety. However, the northern island of Martinborough is known for producing particularly well-structured and intense expressions of this grape variety.

Yet, in the south, Marlborough is king for both Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. The wines of this region are fresh and vibrant with bracing acidity and tart red fruits flavours.

Then, moving further south we reach Central Otago. In Central Otago, the striking red and rocky soil, (from which the region gets its name), gives life to deeply powerful styles of Pinot Noir. You will often find that Central Otago expressions have been aged in oak. They’re often higher in alcohol and have powerful spiced and smoked aromas, which sit above ripe red and black fruit flavours.

USA

Now, the USA is a big nation and Pinot Noir does crop up in a number of regions, but we feel that it is along the west coast where the grape variety truly thrives. California and the Pacific North West are sources of incredible Pinot Noir.

We will begin with California. Interestingly, it was a film that really put the turbochargers on Pinot Noir production in this American wine region. The film Sideways can be seen as responsible for a huge uptick in demand, (the opposite was true for Merlot). This also saw to a great rise in quality as producers sought to capitalise on this demand by making truly great expressions of this great variety.

Napa Valley Wine Region | Californian Wine Region
Napa Valley Wine Region

Now, you can expect the whole spectrum of styles to be found within this single region. The fresh and fruity styles will sit alongside heavy, structured and oak aged examples of Pinot Noir. Napa Valley is more well known for Cabernet Sauvignon and it is instead in Sonoma County that Pinot Noir is most well known. Look for appellations such as Russian River Valley, Los Carneros and the Sonoma Valley.

Next up are the wine regions of the Pacific North West. Both Washington and Oregon state have grown more and more popular over time. Washington is known to excel for top quality Riesling and Rhône Valley blends. However, Oregon is making waves with both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and could become the Burgundy of America.

The climate of Oregon is temperamental at best. Rain and frost can be devastating and temperatures can fall well below freezing. These could be fatal to Pinot Noir grapes, but the winemakers were undeterred. It is the star of the Oregon wine world.

Complex, compelling, yet light and fresh. The slow ripening, due to low temperatures, means that flavours concentrate slowly. They’re intense without being overly baked or jammy in flavour. The best wines undoubtedly come from the famous Willamette Valley region and the Pinot Noir from here truly gives Burgundy a run for their money.

Oregon Wine Region
Stunning Views of the Oregon Wine Region
South Africa

Now, we move onto another continent. South Africa is an incredibly diverse landscape and much of it is far too hot for Pinot Noir to thrive. It should also not be confused with the regional speciality of Pinotage which is a crossing of Pinot Noir and Cinsault.

However, there are pockets which have had great success. These tend to be coastal regions where the local wind pattern, (known as the Cape Doctor), bring cool winds from the Antarctic which are brought to South Africa from the Benguela Current.

If you’re looking to pick up some South African Pinot Noir, then we think you should peruse the Cape South Coast. The sub-region of Hemel-en-Aarde is renowned for world-class Pinot Noir. Elegant, structured but a vessel for tart red fruit flavours and a tasty tang of acidity.

Australia

Last on our list of Pinot Noir producing nations is Australia. The situation here is not disimilar to South Africa. The nation is huge and the climate is varied. Many winemaking areas are too hot to sustain this grape variety, but there are again pockets where it thrives. Once more, these are the cooler, coastal portions of the country.

Great Dividing Range
Great Dividing Range – Victoria, Australia

Victoria is a key area for Pinot Noir production. Although, this is in part due to their use in sparkling wine. The areas of Yarra Valley, Geelong and Mornington Peninsula have found success with single varietal still Pinot Noir, yet you can find traditional method sparkling wines in this area which blend in Chardonnay. The Champagne House Moët & Chandon even founded Chandon Australia in the Yarra Valley.

Then, the island of Tasmania, which sits to the south of mainland Australia has also found success as a purveyor of Pinot Noir. The island has a cool, maritime climate with ample sunshine. This allows for slow ripening and produces racy, acidic wines which a strong and powerful flavour concentration. Expect to find those light and fresh Pinot Noir wines, along with top-tier sparkling wines which feature Pinot Noir.


That’s been our tour of all things Pinot Noir. Obviously, this can be a starting point. Each country will have their own take on Pinot Noir. It can be found in everywhere from Cornwall to Chile. It’s a delicious and diverse treat that we couldn’t recommend enough!


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