Pinot Noir is a picky vine to grow. It expresses its place of origin and growing conditions more than other grapes. Creating wines with low to moderate tannins and high levels of acidity, Pinot Noir gives off juicy berries on the nose and mouth when young, and complex, earthy flavors when aged.
Pinot is a thin skinned grape which doesn’t impart as much color to its wine as a Cabernet Sauvignon or Zinfandel would.
It has a very high level of resveratol in its skins. Not typically used as a blending wine, the most notable exception is Champagne, where it is classicly blended with Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier.
Pinot’s history: Burgundy
Long before Sideways was filmed, Pinot Noir was being cultivated in Burgundy, as far back as the first century.
The monks of the Catholic Church used Pinot as their grape of choice in making sacramental wines.
Over time, these Benedictine and Cisternian monks carefully cultivated and improved the vineyards.
They studied and documented the vineyards, noting which wine was sufficient for the monks, and which wine was spectacular enough to be sent to the pope.
When the French revolution came along in 1789, the vineyards were split up and distributed to families in small plots. The Napoleanic Code further fragmented these vineyards into smaller plots, ruling that children divide the land equally upon the passing of their parents.
As a result, most vineyards today in Burgundy have multiple owners. Some people own just a row or two of vines!
A temperamental vine
Pinot Noir grows best in cool, northern climates with sunny days and well drained soil which offers higher than average temperatures.
A genetically unstable vine, it is prone to mutate and claims both Grigio (Gris) and Pinot Blanc as offspring. It is so genetically unstable that dramatic climate conditions taking place during the ripening of the grapes can create clusters of berries that are mixes of Pinot Noir and Grigio.
In addition to its genetic instability, Pinot Noir is susceptible to just about every malady that could affect it: spring frosts, leaf-roll virus, and Pierce’s disease, to name a few. The leaves often do not provide enough cover to prevent birds from eating the grapes.
Almost every cool climate region has tried growing Pinot Noir, few of which have been successful.
As a relatively early ripener, if planted in a region that is too warm, it won’t have time to develop a depth of flavor. The longer the grapes can hang, the more complex the flavors will be that develop.
If it’s so hard, why make it?“God made Cabernet Sauvignon whereas the devil made Pinot Noir” André Tchelistcheff
Because of its notoriously difficult nature, winemakers take great satisfaction in finding the right conditions to grow it in, carefully nurturing the grapes along, and producing world class wines.
Because it is such a finicky grape, it is often grown in very small areas resulting in limited output.
American consumers began to demand it in droves following the movie Sideways, encouraging winemakers to search for additional areas for plantings.
Pinot Noir fans are passionate about it, always on the search for high quality yet affordable bottles.
Where are the best Pinot Noirs from?
Burgundy’s Côte d’Or is the most well known for Pinot Noir historically and can turn out very expensive, very wonderful Pinots in good years.
Americans are likely to pick up their Pinots from Oregon, particularly the Willamette Valley. Californians have been producing Pinots of more consistent quality in the cooler regions.
You can also find some good Pinots from Canada’s Okanagan Valley, New Zealand and Australia.