Somm Session: Pinot Noir Wines
Wine lovers are often intrigued by the history and origin of their favorite varietals, and Pinot Noir wines certainly have a long and interesting story. Centuries ago, growers noticed these small grapes grow in tight clusters that they compared with a pinecone, hence its name – Pinot is French for pine. There are several distinct types of Pinot grapes, including sub-varietally identifying color variations (blanc, rouge, noir, gris, rose, violet, tenteurier, moure, etc.) The French word for black is Noir, so these dark-colored grapes are called Pinot Noir. If you’re interested in Pinot Noir pronunciation, try rolling “pea-know-nwa” off your tongue.
Pinot Noir grapes were first cultivated in the Burgundy region of France, during the 1st century CE. The fine reputation of these wines led to some international export of grafts from the stock vines, and today, vineyards in about thirty different countries boast Pinot Noir grapes.
The ancient Pinot grape may actually represent a direct domestication of the Eurasian wild grapevine (and hermaphroditic-flowered) Vitis sylvestris. Most wild grapevines are dioecious, with exclusively male or exclusively female flowers, and this natural selection feature makes the wild grapevines stronger. In cultivated grapevines this feature allows the vine to be more focused on the ability to produce excellent fruit!
While the hermaphrodite-flowered grapevine is self-pollinating, it can also be cross-pollinated. The proximity of fields of different types and qualities of grapes almost inevitably led to the introduction of mutations and altogether new varieties including Chardonnay, Aligoté, Auxerrois, Gamay, Melon, and many others, stemming from the Pinot Noir vines. Researchers test the DNA of the grapes’ skin, fruit, and even leaves to discern the origin and designation of the vines. Growers who want to be assured of consistency use grafting to embed the original plant into new vines.
How It's Made
The juice of the Pinot Noir grapes is uncolored, and the finished wine is colored by the skin’s anthocyanin. Pinot Noir grapes are made into a variety of delicious wines, including red and rosé, and even sparkling white wines, and award-winning champagne. In fact, Pinot Noir is the most-planted grape varietal (38%) used in sparkling wine production in Champagne and other wine regions.
Pinot Noir grapevines are cropped to achieve a lower yield of grapes for better quality wines. Pinot Noir wines are among the most popular in the world. Here in the U.S. we have vineyards in all fifty states, with our top wine producers including California, Washington, and New York. Both California and Oregon have produced some exceptional Pinot Noir wines as well as some of the best red wines in recent tastings.
Unfortunately, these thin-skinned grapes are notoriously difficult to grow, as they ripen slowly and unevenly and are susceptible to vine molds. In many countries, the terroir for Pinot Noir is a more intermediate climate with long, cool growing seasons. This slower ripening imparts a more earthy taste to Old World wines, while those grown in New World warmer climates — like California, Oregon, or Australia — have a more noticeable fruity bouquet.
Pinot Noir is a dry red wine that tends to be of light to medium body, with a pleasant boldness. Its medium-high acidity adds freshness and balances the nuanced flavors. While most wines with a lighter body tend to be lower in alcohol than the heavier-bodied wines, the alcohol in Pinot Noir depends on the climate where it’s grown as the ripening process influences alcohol levels. Pinot Noir from cooler regions like France and Germany often has 12–13.5% ABV, and when grown in warmer climates like California and Australia it can range from 13.5–15% ABV.
A Food Friendly Wine
The magic starts when the grapes ferment into wine, as chemical compounds are produced that are identical to those found in other fruits and foods. This creates a fruity red wine with an aroma of black or red cherry, raspberry, currant, and other berries. As it ages in fine French oak barrels it acquires sweet vanilla and toast characters.
The five basic tastes — sweet, salty, sour, umami, and bitter — are all your tongue is really capable of tasting, but the lasting impression this wine leaves in your mouth is far more complex. Wine lovers describe the flavor and aroma in terms of its sweetness, alcohol, acidity, tannins, and oak. If you’re wondering if Pinot Noir is sweet - it’s known as a pleasant wine that’s not too dry, but certainly not sweet. Pinot Noir is classified as a dry red wine that many lovers of sweet red wine also enjoy.
Tannins are the proteins found mainly in the skins of the grapes, so they're less prominent in white wines. Once a wine starts to age, the tannins begin to break down in the bottle, giving the wine a more complex taste with a warmer and softer feel that lingers. You'll feel these well-balanced wines more in the mouth, and they tend to bring out a smile.
A Holiday for Pinot Noir
August 18 is International Pinot Noir Day, but we can enjoy this velvety-smooth wine year-round. Blending the nuances of sweet red fruit, tart cherry, and earthy mushroom, Pinot Noir’s taste is classy, food-friendly, and welcome as a complement to any table or cellar. Pinot Noir is a low-tannin red wine that pairs exquisitely with pasta, chicken, mushrooms, and even fatty fish like salmon. As a light-bodied red wine, it’s also popular as a complimentary refreshment with the perfect charcuterie board.
Red wine is typically served in glasses with larger bowls, which allow more surface area of the wine to reach the air. This helps the wine demonstrate the aromas and flavors we enjoy. Unlike white wines, which are served cold (43-55°F) in glasses with longer stems for holding without warming the wine, darker wines are enjoyed at less chilled temperatures. The light-bodied red wines are great at 55-64°F, while more full-bodied red wines prefer 60-68°F and the fortified dessert wines fall close to the middle of these.
Pinot Noir in the Spotlight
Pinot Noir is one of the most popular types of red wine. Ironically, the popularity of this light red wine was enhanced by a movie that won an Academy Award in 2005, when the central character was compared to Pinot Noir grapes, as “Thin-skinned. Temperamental. In need of constant care and attention.” The film Sideways was not so fortuitous for other red wine types though, as Merlot was disparaged by the same character, and Merlot growers attested an estimated $400M loss in income over the next decade. There may have been many reasons for the overall increase in wine consumption, of course.
Some people assume that Old World wines are preferable and therefore the best Pinot Noir wine comes from the vineyards in Burgundy France. We can attest that those ancient vineyards are a treasure and certainly some of the best Pinot Noir comes from there. But French judges have come to appreciate the uniqueness, quality, and sophistication of California wines, and in some cases, prefer them over French wines. In the legendary 1976 blind tasting known as “The Judgement of Paris,” nine French judges selected wines from California as their favorites. This certainly opened doors to more international exports and experiments.
The pursuit of the best bottles of wine, whether it’s sweet red wines, dry sparkling champagnes, or the perfect Pinot Noir should be savored. We can agree that there are plenty of delicious choices available. Let’s keep tasting and keep open minds that welcome pleasant surprises!