Grape varieties

Pinot noir: The ultimate grape guide

What does it taste like?

  • Forest fruits
  • Gamey
  • Cherry
  • Violets
  • Strawberry
  • Forest floor

Where does it come from?

Pinot noir is notoriously fickle at ripening with considerable vintage variation. Its quality is defined by climate and terroir with neighbouring vineyard sites producing phenomenally different wines. Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in Burgundy.

The continental climate is marginal in terms of grape ripening, with substantial rainfall often during flowering and harvesting times. The preference towards early-ripening means pinot is well-suited to a region with a relatively short ripening season. It does however, result in considerable vintage variation.

The appellation structure in Burgundy is at best complicated and, at worse, baffling. In Bordeaux, a château name is largely a trademark that can increase or decrease in size, as the owner purchases land. In Burgundy, a vineyard name is attached to a specific plot of land where the size can not be altered. Each vineyard then has its place in the AC hierarchy. For added complication, each vineyard may be split amongst a number of owners (a throw-back to the Napoleonic laws of inheritance), with each owner creating his own style of pinot noir wine. It is therefore essential to know the merits, or otherwise, of the individual owner; the grower is almost always more important than appellation.

A good grower will make lovely wines from modest vineyards and superb ones from great vineyards, whereas a bad one will make a terrible wine even from a great vineyard. Even in difficult years a good grower will turn out honourable wines.

 Burgundy's Clos de Vougeot vineyard is famous not just for its exquisite wines but for the number (80) of growers who own vines within its walls.The regional level AC will have the word bourgogne in the title; Bourgogne AC and Bourgogne Hautes Côtes de Nuits AC. Wines at this regional level are of red fruit character, low in tannins and with sappy, fruity acidity. Ideally, these should be drunk young and fresh.

At a district level, the word Bourgogne is dropped and the district name stands alone, Côte de Nuits Villages AC and Côte de Beaune Villages AC, for example. These wines offer more elegance, complexity and intensity with the perfumed character being more apparent. The wines generally have better ageing potential but do not challenge the potential of the communes.

At the peak of the appellation hierarchy are the communes and their premier cru or grand cru vineyards. All of the red grands crus can be found in the Cote de Nuits save one, that of Corton. These wines offer the best in terms of style, quality and ageing potential.

The Côte d'Or is considered to be the finest area of production in Burgundy and its northern section of Côtes de Nuits is the heartland. Each wine is a reflection of the owner's wine philosophy and, with so many owners, the styles of wine are many and varied. Fermenation and maceration times vary and oak-ageing can alter radically; there are no set rules and each domaine has its own idiosyncrasies. In youth, the wines show vibrant, fresh raspberry and cherry aromas, fleshy in body, refreshing in acidity and with gentle, soft tannins. With maturity comes complexity and some wines have the capability of developing very intriguing aromas and flavours ranging from ripe, jam fruits to game, tobacco and truffles, with wines often being redolent of sous-bois, or undergrowth, accompanied by velvety, soft tannins.

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California is the shining light in terms of American pinot noir but the state of Oregon, and the Willamette Valley in particular, is home to some finely crafted, excellent pinot noirs.

Located on the Pacific North-West, the majority of vineyards are exposed to the marine airflow off the Pacific Ocean. Rainfall is plentiful but, crucially, does not usually fall heavily during harvest time. It is a marginal climate and the choice of vine variety and site selection is fundamental. With its thin skin, pinot noir has the ability to achieve not only ripeness but also complexity.

The wines of Oregon are plump and fleshy with fruit aromas, predominantly of ripe cherries. The structure is pleasing with a well-crafted balance of acidity, tannin and alcohol. The palate is pure and fresh with spicy notes that linger on the finish.

Head down Highway 1 and you reach the Oregon border with California and the American heartland of pinot noir production.

As with Oregon, the cooling influence of the Pacific Ocean plays a major role in maintaining and developing the fresh, fruity delicacy of pinot noir. The rolling sea fogs sufficiently shroud the key vineyard sites with a cool atmosphere to capture the variety's capricious nature.

Sonoma County's Russian River Valley viticultural area produces some of the finest examples of Californian pinot noir. Full and opulent, the wines are finely perfumed with cherry-scents and sweet, jammy, raspberry flavours, backed by gentle tannins. Where oak barrels are used, they are done so sparingly so as not to unbalance the wines delicate fruit character.

South of Sonoma County is Carneros. As with the Russian River Valley, the wines here show wonderful, fresh-fruit aromas and flavours with a balanced structure and palate-pleasing tannins.

The grape also flourishes in Santa Barbara in south California. The city and surrounds conjure up images of palm trees, beaches and an LA lifestyle, and yet pinot noir, a cool-climate grape variety, thrives here. This is in thanks, again, to the Pacific Ocean's calming and cooling influence on the day-time heat. Santa Maria Valley, within Santa Barbara, is an enclave for pinot noir. The wide river floodplain opens out the vineyard land to the sea fogs enabling the grapes to ripen whilst blanketed by cool air. The wines are equally as fine and well-structured with an aroma and palate that is a touch more fruit-forward.

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As with California, the key to successful, quality production of pinot noir in Chile is the location of the vineyard – cool regions being essential.

Chile's coolest sites are located on the coast. The influence of the Pacific Ocean is at its strongest where the coastal mountains are lowest or non existent, which, strange as it may seem, is in the far north of the country. Coastal influence is thus frequently stronger than latitude.

Leyda Valley, Casablanca and San Antonio are three such areas, each gaining in fame for the quality of pinot noir wines produced. The cool climate accounts for the refreshing nature of the wine, as well as for the acidity, with such a delicious, ripe and full style appealing to those who find Burgundian pinot too slight.

The wines are, again, cherry-scented with additional plum notes and show silky tannins and structure. The best have a unique intensity of flavour and a finesse that is often not seen in the Americas, with a richness and concentration of fruit flavours that are mouth-watering.

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New Zealand has joined the ranks of Burgundy and California as a world class producer of pinot noir. These excellent wines stand out for their haunting perfume and pure-fruit flavours. Of all the grape varieties thriving in New Zealand, pinot noir shows the most distinctive regional diversity.

Martinborough, located on the southern end of the North Island, is the country's most exciting area, making superb pinots with lovely, dense plum fruit. The long growing season is particularly suitable to the slow, gradual ripening that this Burgundian grape so enjoys.

Marlborough, on the northern tip of the South Island, produces the juiciest wines. Attractively smooth and elegant, the wines combine fresh red-fruit aromas and flavours with light spice notes and fresh acidity.

The other key region is the South Island's Central Otago, home to New Zealand's, and the world's, most southerly planted grape vines. It is also the country's only vineyard area which boasts a continental climate providing great temperature variations and a long growing season. Pinot noir can have difficulty reaching full maturity here although the best seasons produce the country's most dazzling expressions of the grape. Full flavoured and wonderfully pure, the greatest wines of this scenic region are in high demand around the world. Their impressive concentration, exquisitely scented aromas and plump fruit flavour are outstanding.

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Fine pinot noir is considerably more elusive in Australia than New Zealand. A cool vineyard site is not just desirable, but essential in order to capture the aromatics and fruit flavours. The state of Victoria is home to those winemakers who have experienced greatest success with pinot noir.

The Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula and Geelong are three key areas within Victoria that should be the focus of those wishing to buy Australian pinot noir. All three boast a cool, maritime climate that allows slow ripening and the retention of fresh fruit flavours and aromas. The wines are restrained and pure, with extraordinarily subtle tannins, considerable length and depth and with excellent cherry and plum fruit.

The frequently forgotten state of Tasmania, due to its south latitude, is another pinot noir enclave in Australia. Its temperate climate makes it Australia's coolest wine-producing region and pinot noir can be exceptional, with a delicacy and lift that is often lacking in wines from the mainland.

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What style of red wine is pinot noir?

Pinot noir is arguably the most charismatic of all grape varieties, and without doubt the hardest to get right. When it works, though, it's sublime. No other grape has the same power of seduction, from its naturally delicate colour to the charming raspberry and cherry notes of a young pinot noir, through to the more gamey aromas that appear with age.

Where should I start with pinot noir?

Old world: Burgundy is the spiritual home of fine pinot noir, producing wines with a silky texture haunting herbal, forest floor aromas that come with a bit of age. Germany and Austria tend to make light-bodied, cherry-scented pinot noir.

New world: Cooler areas of the new world – New Zealand, the Pacific north-west and cooler areas of Chile – are best for growing this sensitive, thin-skinned grape. Expect a more velvety palate, riper fruit flavours and less herbal aromas than you'd find in European pinot noir.

Pinot noir is also a key Champagne grape, bringing depth, backbone and added complexity to blends with chardonnay and pinot meunier, to produce some of the world's finest sparkling wines.

There are many versions of pinot noir, which mutates easily and which growers find exasperatingly difficult to grow successfully. It remains therefore an irresistible challenge to wine-growers as far apart as Oregon, Argentina, New Zealand and Hungary.
Sebastian Payne MW

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Rosie Allen

The Society's Brand Marketing Manager

Rosie Allen

Rosie joined the team in 2016 and oversees all our content including 1874 magazine and Discovery pages.

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