Updated: May 25
As one of the fastest expanding grape variety in the last 30 years, Pinot Noir has just made it in the top 10 planted variety. From its power base in Bourgogne, Pinot Noir has conquered the world and is grown almost everywhere. Here is story of the grape, where it grows, how it's turned into wine, how it tastes and where to find interesting examples in Bangkok...
Pinot Noir was born somewhere between what is today France & Germany, and it is believed to have been around long before the roman colonization of Gaul some 2000 years ago. The earliest written evidence of Pinot Noir though; only dates back to 1375, when Philip the Bold ordered the eradication of Gamay in favor of Pinot Noir in Bourgogne. More recent DNA sequencing revealed that Pinot Noir's Mom & Dad may very well be Traminer and Meunier. Having cross-fertilized with Gouais Blanc, it gave birth to Chardonnay, Aligoté, Gamay, Melon de Bourgogne and a hundred more baby grapes.
As for all the other Pinots, they are basically natural mutations of Pinot Noir! Besides, some 50 clones of Pinot Noir have been propagated under almost every latitudes, including South Africa, where a relatively recent "marriage arrangé" with Cinsault brought Pinotage to the world!
Today, France still has the most land under Pinot Noir with 32,000 ha, mostly in Bourgogne and Champagne). It is followed by the USA where 23,000 ha are grown mostly in California & Oregon. Germany still grows 11,000 ha. New Zealand and Italy follow with a little over 5,000 ha each. As for Australia, Switzerland and Chile, they each have a little under 5,000 ha; but the list goes on: Moldova, Argentina, South Africa, Hungary, Spain, Russia... all produce Pinot Noir.
Did you know that California's planting of Pinot Noir increased 65 percent in the decade that followed the release of the movie "Sideways"? Check out how Miles responds to the question: "Why are you so in Pinot?"
Although planted under almost every latitudes; in the vineyard, Pinot Noir has a reputation of being fastidious about where it grows. It is sensitive to multitude of diseases and requires high maintenance. If it prefers cool to moderate climates, its wines can be austere and severe when unripe. Conversely, Pinot Noir will quickly lose its subtle perfumes and finesse if rushed to maturity by too much sun and warmth. Put simply, in cool climates, Pinot Noir does best on the warmest sites and in moderate climates, it does best on the coolest sites. The preferred soils of Pinot Noir are marls, or any mixture of limestone and clay with good drainage and low fertility. In Burgundy, growers tend to plant Pinot Noir at a high density, perhaps the highest in the world, with some 10,000 plants per hectare, often Guyot trained. The objective being the concentration of flavors and controlled yields of around 35 hl per ha. La Romanée Conti goes as low as 24 hl per ha, but for sparkling wines (such as in Champagne) yields can reach over 100 hl per ha without affecting quality.
In the winery, a wide range of options are available for winemakers to turn Pinot Noir in a red wine. Decisions are based on the level of sugar in the grape at harvest, phenolic ripeness and desired finished style. Winemakers in Burgundy tend to de-stem most of the harvest and may choose to include a proportion of whole berries. Cold soak, wild yeast and temperature control are widely practiced and some winemaker will perform post-fermentation maceration. Filtration will be subtle as well as oak maturation, as new oak can easily over-power the delicate scents of Pinot Noir.
In the glass, as a thin-skin grape, Pinot Noir tends to be on the pale side and color range from ruby to garnet according to age.
On the nose, Pinot Noir exhibits scents of red and black fruits: Freshly crushed strawberry, raspberry, cranberry, red to black cherry, black currant. When matured in oak, it might display subtle aromas of vanilla, clove or smoke and with age, these flavors may evolve toward rose, forest floor, leather, earthiness and undergrowth.
On the palate, the bright acidity, silky tannins and moderate levels of alcohol make way to the whole array of flavors identified on the nose or more, from simple to complex and the best examples will leave a long lingering finish.
If you are looking to celebrate Pinot Noir's International Day (On August 18th, 2021) options are almost endless: Wine Gallery brings super premium Burgundians from Domaine Ponsot, Dugat-Py, Domaine Groffier Père & Fils and other famous producers. Many prestigious Premier Crus of the Côte d'Or are available in several vintages. Wine5 imports equally prestigious jewels from Domaine Leroy, Georges Noellat, Benjamin Leroux or Albert Bichot . Wine Garage has well-researched Pinot Noirs from from Villages and Premier Cru sites of Burgundy and more than thirty examples from Jura, Alsace, Germany, New Zealand, Australia, California and Oregon, many of which are issued of organic or biodynamic viticulture. For Pinot Noir as a Sparkling, look for Blanc de Noir or rosés.
To learn more about grape varieties, enroll our next WSET online course .
Anderson K. & Nelgen S. (2020) Which Winegrape Varieties Grow Where? A Global Empirical Picture Revised Edition Adelaide: University of Adelaide Press Bureau Interprofessionnel des Vins de Bourgogne (2021) Pinot Noir Retrieved from: https://www.bourgogne-wines.com/our-wines-our-terroir/our-grape-varietals-our-colors/pinot-noir/the-bourgogne-wine-region-birthplace-of-the-pinot-noir-varietal,2798,10603.html?
Clarke, O. & Rand, M. (2015) Grapes & Wines. New York: Sterling Epicure
Robinson, J. (2015) The Oxford Companion to Wine. New York: Oxford University Press Inc