Pinot Noir is a black grape that makes wines that tend to be paler in color and lighter in body than many other reds. The wines will be higher in acid with red fruits such as simple cherry, raspberry or plum dominating the palate. They do have a lower tannin level and I consider Pinot Noir to be a great “starter red” for exactly this reason. This scarcity of abrasive tannins gives these wines a more velvety texture and, thus, that “sex appeal” you may have heard about. While it can also be made into sparkling wines, which is a topic for later discussion, I will focus here mainly on the still wines.
This varietal is notorious for being “high maintenance” and very reflective of variations in vintage and site. It buds early so it is more susceptible to frost in the spring and it is more prone to mold than other reds. Thin-skinned as they are, they do not fare well at all in hot climates and, in fact, do their best in cooler climates. Since their sensitive nature requires more supervision of the vintner, it also drives the cost. As such, if you can, pay a little extra for your choices here as there are some poor examples out there. Those exposed to a really good example of Pinot Noir have been known to describe the experience as sensual, which further adds to the allure.
Pinot Noir has a near exclusive in Burgundy, France, where it is the only grape allowed by law in the higher quality red wines from this region. As mentioned, It is a grape that is going to prominently display the personality of the terroir it calls home, which is very important to the French. If you are like most people, you may think that terroir is synonymous with soil. It is not. It is much more. Oxford defines terroir as "the total natural environment of any viticulture site.” It is a French term with no English equivalent. It includes climate (and microclimates), sun, wind, temperature, water and soil.
The very best - and most expensive - Burgundy Pinot Noir are labeled as “Grand Cru.” As indicated, where the grapes are grown are of utmost importance, even down to where in the vineyard they are found. For example, Grand Cru wines will be made with grapes found “mid-slope,” where they are not as affected by either too much or too little irrigation. As such, a Grand Cru wine will be labeled by particular vineyard, not by village or commune, so you will need to become familiar with them if you find that this is a wine you enjoy and can afford. Chambertin, Charlemagne, Corton, Montrachet, and Musigny are some names to look for. These wines should be aged five to seven years.
The second best (at least in theory) are “Premier Cru.” At this level and the next, the wines are labeled by village or commune, so you should familiarize yourself with them if you find this is a varietal you enjoy and they are closer to your pricepoint. Some names to look for are Aloxe-Corton, Gevrey-Chambertin, Nuits-Saint-Georges, Pommard, Volnay and Vosne-Romanee. Premier Cru wines can come from a single vineyard or a combination of vineyards within a commune. If they come from a single vineyard, you will see a hyphen. These wines should be aged three to five years.
At the next level are the Village wines and we have already gone over the names to be familiar with. We will also add Cote de Nuits Villages and Cote de Beaune Villages, which are larger areas of the North and South, respectively. They are going to be made from blends of different vineyards or lesser spots within a single vineyard. The aging on these wines should be two to four years.
The everyday table wines, or regional wines, as they are called will be labeled “Bourgogne” or “Bourgogne Rouge.” They can come from anywhere within the region and you will want to consume them within three years of their vintage date.
In the United States, you will find really good examples of Pinot Noir coming from the Russian River Valley or Carneros in California or Willamette Valley in Oregon. Wine laws in Oregon dictate the wine must be 90% of the varietal for its name to appear on the label. New Zealand, particularly Marlborough and Central Otago, are also making some really great Pinot Noir. Here you will see a greater concentration of fruit accompanied by higher alcohol levels.
For this exercise, you may contrast an Old World against a New World or you may choose a wine from a cool climate (Burgundy, Oregon or New Zealand) to compare to a wine from a moderate climate (California, or even Chile). In addition to differences in aroma and flavor, look for any differences in color, acidity and tannin. When choosing Old World, don’t feel like you are completely limited to France. Pinot Noir is the most planted red grape in Germany, where it is known as Spatburgunder.
If you are doing this tasting at home and would like to keep the theme going, rent the movie "Sideways.” If you can't fit it in at this time, you can save it for "Merlot" night. You’ll understand why once you see it.
On The Label
Pinot Noir, Bourgogne, Chambertin, Charlemagne, Corton, Cote de Beaune, Cote de Nuits, Montrachet, Musigny, Nuits St. George, Pommard, Spatburgunder, Volnay, Vosne-Romanee
In The Bottle
Red fruit, spice, dark fruit, earth, mineral
At The Table
Salmon, tuna, roasted meats, vegetables, mushroom, game birds, mild cheese