The History of Pinot Noir
Pinot Noir is one of the oldest grape varieties in the world, with origins in the Burgundy region of France. The name comes from the French word Pinot (pine) for its tight, pine cone-shaped clusters and Noir (black) for the dark color of its skin.
Early evidence suggests the Celts were growing Pinot Noir in the first century BC. Some theorize that the Romans brought the vines with them when they conquered Gaul (France).Whether the grape was already there or they brought it, the Romans loved Pinot Noir so much that they documented it, sang its praises, and spread the vine all over Europe.
Long after the Roman conquerors left Burgundy, the Pope in Rome appealed to French noblemen to help with an invasion of infidels in the Holy Land. Many Dukes in Burgundy, happy to increase their chances of going to heaven by doing God’s work, willed their land to the church before going off to war. Many of them did not return, so the Roman Catholic church inherited a bundle in real estate and the monks took an active role in the planting and maintaining of vineyards. The Benedictines owned large holdings of vineyards as early as the 10th century AD. Two hundred years later, the Cistercians began dedicating their monasteries to creating and understanding wine and winemaking.
The Cistercians believed that devotion to hard labor brought them closer to God and they took caring for the vineyards very seriously. Over hundreds of vintages, they maintained detailed records, describing exactly how and where vines thrived or withered and how the resulting wines tasted. They noticed differences in color, which wines had more body and which were more aromatic. This devotion to detail, and the discovery that wines reflect their growing locales, created the idea of terroir and permanently shaped the future of wine production in Burgundy and all over the world.
► Note – This article is a part of our wine varietals list.
Pioneers of European origin brought vines to Oregon with them in the 1800s. They planted acres of vineyards, taking advantage of the fertile farmland, moderate weather, and abundant water. However, most of the vines were lost as the state adopted prohibition in 1916 (three years before the federal ban) and ended it in 1933, as the last state to do so.
In the 1960s, a small band of modern-day pioneers sought a new home for Pinot Noir in Oregon, realizing that the Willamette Valley showed striking similarities to Burgundy. Starting with David Lett in the Eyrie Vineyard of Dundee Hills, several others followed throughout the 1970s. In 1979, the Eyrie Vineyard 1075 South Block Pinot Noir finished in the top 10 at the Gault-Millau Wine Olympiad and Oregon immediately became the center of attention for Pinot Noir producers.
Today Oregon’s landscape has been altered with massive plantings of Pinot Noir and the wine economy is thriving. Garnering recognition from critics worldwide, these wines hold a coveted niche spot in the wine industry. It is undeniable that Pinot Noir is here to stay.
Pinot Noir is a thin-skinned grape that generally grows in tight clusters shaped like pine cones. Because of this, it is prone to disease and rot. The thin skin does not protect well against pests and makes the grapes more sensitive to heat and dehydration. It also makes them more prone to bursting after a rainfall. These characteristics make it a very difficult grape to grow.
It was previously believed that Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Meunier, and all the other “Pinot Family” members were distinct grape varieties. However, DNA profiling has shown that they are the same grape! Each one in the family is a mutation or clone of Pinot Noir and there are hundreds of them.
Grapevines self pollinate, so they tend to be the same year after year. However, the older the vine, the greater its tendency to morph as time goes by and Pinot Noir is an ancient grape. The clones have a multitude of characteristics that can range from growing traits, such as early ripening or looser clusters, to aroma and texture features, such as darker fruit flavors or finer tannins. These can vary widely depending upon the clone as well as where it’s grown.
Production of Pinot Noir wine causes more discussion and dispute than any other grape. Most of this centers around finding and describing the variety’s “true” expression. No other grape matches this level of variation with even the tiniest change in growing conditions. Because of this, examples from all over the world are undeniably different from each other, but all unmistakably Pinot Noir.
Pinot Noir is the original member and remains the patriarch of the Pinot family. Today, when we say “Pinot” it is generally understood as Pinot Noir.
Where It Grows
Pinot Noir grows all over the world and in all types of climates, but it thrives in cool conditions. The following are some of the best-known regions.
France is the largest grower of Pinot Noir in the world. In its homeland, the winemaker focuses more on soil and climate than the qualities of the variety itself. A true Burgundy enthusiast will tell you it is not just the grapes, it is the French concept of terroir, which gives the wine its soul. Thanks to the Monks of the Middle Ages who precisely identified and classified which pieces of land grew the best Pinot Noir grapes, they invented today’s concept of Premier Cru and Grand Cru classifications for the region’s top wines.
The United States is the second-largest grower and although California produces much more by volume, Pinot Noir is Oregon’s iconic grape. The Willamette Valley vineyards are exemplary of the finest quality. Pinot Noir is grown all over the state from the warm-climate vineyards of Southern Oregon to the cooler Columbia Gorge. Decades of research into soils, clones, site selection, and winemaking have continually improved quality.
Sonoma County is very well-known for its Pinots, particularly the Russian River and Anderson Valleys and the Sonoma Coast. Farther south in Santa Barbara County, the Santa Maria and Santa Ynez Valleys and the Santa Rita Hills are also being recognized for more earthy styles.
Other regions leading in plantings of Pinot Noir grapes are Germany, Italy, New Zealand, Australia, Chile, and Argentina.
How It’s Made
There are many choices to be made by the winemaker in producing Pinot Noir. Considering the grape’s sensitivity to terroir, maximizing quality is usually more important than yield. There are not only choices about which of the huge array of clones are best to match root stocks, but also over whether using a multiple of clones adds complexity to the wine. Sometimes clones are vinified and bottled separately, sometimes different clones are blended.
The next choice involves whether to do a pre-ferment maceration. A pre-ferment maceration (cold soak) involves chilling the grape must to about 50-60°F for a while, usually around 3 days, to extract more color and flavor from the grapes.
The fermentation process demands still more choices for the winemaker. Stainless steel brings out the fresh fruit flavor; oak vessels can give it a fuller mouthfeel while preserving the fruit focus. Cooler temperatures lead to fresher fruit flavor. Longer, warmer fermentation can produce wines with a greater tannic structure. A more aggressive punch-down of the cap tends to give more color and tannins while the more gentle pump-over maintains the pale color and lighter tannins.
After fermentation, aging is typically in oak barrels and they are often blended together before bottling to achieve a specific profile.
To retain as much character as possible, some producers have turned to organic and/or biodynamic viticulture, avoiding the use of chemical fertilizers that may disrupt the grape’s sensitive chemical balance.
It takes a great deal of skill and care to make a good Pinot Noir wine. The results can vary widely. In pursuit of perfection, wine lovers all over the world have developed an obsessive adoration of the grape.
How Does It Taste
Pinot Noir is a light to medium-bodied wine that is typically fruit-forward. When tasting, you are often greeted with scents of earth, herbs, and spice. Flavors of cherry, raspberry, and strawberry are common. Aging in oak can bring hints of vanilla, spice, chocolate, tobacco, and oak.
The taste profile varies by climate and the winemaker’s style. Cooler climates produce more delicate and light-bodied Pinot Noir. Warmer climates produce riper and fuller-bodied Pinot Noirs with higher alcohol. Aging in new French oak adds more texture to the wine.
With bright acidity and low to medium tannins, Pinot Noir is a balanced red wine that goes well with food.
Sparkling Wine and Pinot Noir
An overview of Pinot Noir would be incomplete without mentioning its role in sparkling wine. Along with Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier (another red), it is one of the primary grapes used to make Champagne in France. Many producers use all three: Chardonnay for acidity, and bright citrus flavors, Pinot Noir for structure, richness, and body, Pinot Meunier for aromatics and fresh fruit.
Blanc de Noirs (literally white from black) is the term used for Champagne made with entirely black grapes. While many of these are blends of the two varieties, some experts feel that Pinot Noir makes a more elegant wine.
Many wine producers all over the world who use the Méthode Champenoise to produce their bubbly often use Pinot Noir in their blends.
That’s Pinot Noir: a finicky grape that tantalizes winemakers to achieve perfection in their craft evokes rapture from adoring wine lovers seeking that perfection.
♦ In-Depth Varietal Comparisons
If you have any experience with Pinot Noir then you may find some of these comparison pieces interesting, helpful, and educational.