Common synonyms: Pineau de Bourgoyne, Franc Pineau, Noirien, Salvagnnin, Morillon, Auvernat, Auvernaut noir, Plant Dore, Vert dore, Burgunder blauer, Blauer Spatburgunder, Clavner, Blauer-Klavner, Schwarzer Riesling, Mohrchen, Schwarzer Burgunder, Pinot nera, Blauer Nurnberger, Nagyburgundi
They say that if Cabernet Sauvignon is the thinking man’s wine, Pinot Noir is pure pleasure. But, it’s viewed as a problem child in both the vineyard and the winery, and perhaps the only reason it’s survived over the centuries is that when it comes together just right, it makes some of the silkiest, most sensual of wines.
This is perhaps the oldest variety we know and researchers believe it’s probably a selection from wild vines made by the Romans perhaps as long as 2000 years ago. It appears that Pinot Noir was called Morillon Noir in the Burgundy region of France in the 4th century AD, and by the 14th century it was still known by several names, including Pinot Noir. It was grown in different parts of France, but the Burgundy region made it famous and it was and is a key player in the Champagne region.
If you’ve noticed some variability among the Pinot Noirs you’ve tried, one likely explanation is the difficulty of cultivation. It buds early in the spring, exposing it to frost damage and flowers early, too, increasing the risk of poor pollination. It’s best confined to the coolest wine-growing regions or it loses aromatics and acidity. The yields must be kept low and it has to be handled with kid gloves in the winery, too, or the results don’t justify the effort.
Another reason for variability is that it’s an unstable variety, and tends to mutate more readily than other varieties. It’s not uncommon to find one or more vines in a section with a single shoot that has characteristics that differ from the others on the same plant. If you took cuttings from several different vines from and old Pinot vineyard to start another, you’d probably end up with a number of slightly different representations of Pinot Noir, and some of them better than others. It’s only been relatively recently that we’ve realized that we need to make careful and controlled clonal selections if we want to grow top notch fruit.
This is an early-maturing variety that needs to ripen slowly, which explains why it found a happy home in Burgundy and Champagne. It grows all over eastern France and you can also find it in Germany, Switzerland and parts of northern Italy. Pinot Noir from the new world didn’t make much of an impression until relatively recently. Here in California, for the most part, it made dull, light-bodied red wine until about the 1980s when we began to get smart about clones and where to plant it. The breezy marine influence of the Carneros region is our home for Pinot in the Napa Valley and it does very well in other cool spots in California, notably the Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast, Santa Maria and Santa Rita Hills AVA. Oregon came on strong about the same time we geared up here in California and there’s a lot of excitement about the Pinot coming out of New Zealand.
Pinot Noir prefers to fly solo, in most cases, rather than being blended and tends to reflect its environment more than having a dominant, unmistakable flavor profile. In fact it’s been said that the Burgundians view Pinot Noir as a vehicle for expressing the local terroir more than a showcase for their efforts. The most common descriptors are those of red fruit, like strawberries and raspberries and often a sense of gaminess or earthiness. It’s a thin-skinned grape so the wine is usually very soft on the palate. You can find ones with tremendous color concentration and big tannins but Pinot Noir is more often a subtle, graceful red.
The silky texture makes Pinot Noir easy to enjoy when it’s young and very versatile at the table. It’s a favorite with salmon, but it can run the gamut from grilled Ahi, to the Thanksgiving turkey to roast lamb or a good steak. The soft tannins also make Pinot Noir an easier match with cheese than other reds so it’s a great one to include in your wine and cheese party with cheeses that range from semi-soft to quite firm. You can find delicious recipes to pair with Pinot Noir or any other variety if you go to Colleen’s Kitchen.