Buyer and Master of Wine student Matthew Horsley gives us a guide to the best regions for pinot noir, one of the world's most beguiling and charismatic grape varieties.
Tricky to grow, difficult to
understand and produced in
the most marginal of climates;
what is the allure of this delicious
but enigmatic grape?
Pinot noir, the moody grape
The great Burgundy writer Clive Coates MW likens pinot to Bizet's temperamental Carmen.
Having never seen Carmen I'll have to take his word for it. But what I do know is that pinot ripens
early and hates the cold, both during winter and at
flowering. A cold growing season and pinot struggles
to ripen, giving mean-tasting and astringent wines; too
warm and they lack structure and freshness. If yields
are too high the wines are dilute and uninteresting;
too low and you won't be in business very long.
Despite its idiosyncrasies however, no grape reflects
its terroir better than pinot noir – neighbouring
vineyards can produce distinctly different wines, often
at drastically different prices. But perfect terroir does
not a great pinot make, and it takes a skilled vigneron
to unlock pinot's charms.
What does pinot noir taste like?
'Blockbuster' is an adjective rarely used for pinot noir, its pleasure is in its sensual, seductive aromatics, ranging
from cherries and redcurrants, to oriental spices, forest
floor and mushroom as it ages. Its thin skins produce
wines typically pale in colour and medium-bodied.
But that's not to say pinot doesn't pack a punch. In the
right place and in the right hands it can possess wonderful
concentration and intensity of flavour with a structure that
allows pinot to age magnificently. Great pinot can sing
while young and old, a rarity among great red wines.
Where is it grown?
Burgundy is pinot noir's homeland, shining most brightly
in the Côte d'Or. While the region is complicated, there
are four tiers to keep in mind – Bourgogne (using grapes
from across the Burgundy region), Villages (from a named
village), premier cru (from a named premier cru vineyard),
and grand cru wines (from a named grand cru vineyard).
'So, a grand cru is better than a premier cru wine?' Well…
not exactly. 'But Village wines are always cheaper than
premier cru wines, right?' Wrong. 'So how do I know what
to buy?' Good questions… Burgundy is about the land, but
most importantly it's about the people. We recommend
starting by tasting by producer, finding out whose wines
you like and going from there. This is part of the appeal!
The cooling influence of the Pacific makes for excellent pinot in USA's west coast (Vineyards near Sebastopol in Sonoma, California)
But what about outside Burgundy?
In Alsace the theme of terroir continues with a
patchwork of soils, but production methods often play
a greater role in determining style, the wines typically
spending time in large old oak barrels to bring
wonderful purity of fruit. In Germany, where pinot
noir is known as spätburgunder, key regions such
as Baden give richly fruited pinot that can develop
savoury character at an early age.
The USA's west coast dominates production
thanks to the cooling influence of the Pacific.
Styles range from firm, fresh and saline in the
northern regions of Oregon and Sonoma Coast,
to richer, fuller and darker fruited in the southern
areas such as Santa Barbara.
The Pacific plays a key role in Chile too and Limarí,
with its limestone soils, is home to some of Chile's
finest, more mineral styles of pinot noir.
South Africa, often seen as the most traditional of the
new world pinot producers, relies on cool sites and
high-quality French oak to give wines of structure with
savoury notes and wonderfully ripe fruit. A smart first
stop outside Burgundy.
In Australia there's a trend towards pure, pale coolclimate styles from regions like Mornington Peninsula
and Tasmania. Here the wines give redcurrant and
cherry flavours moving to oriental spices with age.
New Zealand pinot generally divides in two:
red-fruited and savoury styles from coastal regions
such as Martinborough and Marlborough, or Central
Otago's fuller bodied and dark-fruited. Both are
equally delicious and offer some of the finest pinot
outside of Burgundy.
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