The Many Moods of Pinot Noir

own rooted Pinot Noir vines at Sanford & Benedict Vineyard in Santa Rita Hills

own rooted Pinot Noir vines at Sanford & Benedict Vineyard in Santa Rita Hills

So far in discussing different styles of wine, we’ve explored two of the most widely planted grapes in the world—Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. Now it’s time to talk about what may be the world’s most beloved grape, Pinot Noir.

Pinot Noir from its region of origin, France’s Burgundy appellation, has an almost fanatic following among wine geeks and collectors. The top vineyards of Burgundy—its “grand crus” and “premier crus”—are, on the whole, very small, and usually divided up among many producers. There’s a relatively tiny quantity of red Burgundy, which is what Pinot Noir is called in Burgundy, compared to the vast amounts of Bordeaux produced, and the increasing demand for it by collectors worldwide has led to enormous prices and scarcity.

Domaine de la Romanee Conti tasting

Domaine de la Romanee Conti tasting

Pinot Noir has also become wildly popular in the United States, with its acreage having grown dramatically over the past 15 years. California and Oregon both produce large quantities of Pinot Noir these days, and the demand appears to still be growing. The number of festivals and events devoted to Pinot Noir–like the Pinot on the River event focused on Sonoma County Pinots I wrote about in the last post on my blog–also dwarf those devoted to any other grape.

Pinot Days San Francisco

Pinot Days San Francisco

It certainly helps that Pinot is one of the most versatile varieties when it comes to food pairings. Its delicate flavors and usually good acidity match up ideally with salmon, duck and lamb, but also go well generally with poultry, lighter meats, vegetables and heavier types of fish. It also tends to be lower in alcohol than some of the bigger, heavier red varieties, thus meeting the current interest in wines with less alcohol.

The grape, one of the oldest varieties of vitis vinifera currently cultivated, has a thin skin, which makes it highly susceptible to a variety of diseases and rot. Unlike Cabernet Sauvignon, which derives so much of its coloring matter, or anthocyanins, and tannins from its thick skins, Pinot’s thin skin results in red wines that are lighter in color and lower in tannin. Compared to most popular wine grapes, Pinot is also very sensitive to wind, temperature extremes, the types of soil in which it is grown and how it is pruned.

So what are the different styles of Pinot Noir? Since so many growers and winemakers refer to it as a “fickle” grape, explaining that it is both hard to grow and often tricky to make wine out of, perhaps we should refer to the “moods” of Pinot rather than styles.

As an early ripening grape that needs lots of hang time to ripen fully, the most important contributor to style is the climate in which it is grown. It does not do well at all in very warm climates and tends to excel and produce more flavorful grapes when grown in cool climates like Burgundy, New Zealand, Oregon and cooler, more coastal portions of California, like the Sonoma Coast, Carneros and Santa Lucia Highlands.

Pinot Noir is more prone to mutation than most grape varieties, and there are a lot of available clones, including some that have been particularly selected by French authorities to excel in cool climates and be relatively disease free. These are known as the Dijon clones. Other clonal selections have developed in California itself, and seem to do better in warmer locations than the early ripening Dijon clones. Some of these clones tend to produce wines that feature red fruits, like raspberries and cherries, while others tend toward blue and black fruit characteristics, like black cherry and darker berries. Other contributors to the style of the finished wine are the decision whether to pick it earlier or later, whether stems are included in the fermentation, the length of time the juice is allowed to mix with the skins (maceration time), and how much new oak is used in barrel aging.

Pinots from Testarossa and Roar

Pinots from Testarossa and Roar

Some of the successful California producers who aim for a riper, fruitier style include David Bruce, Roar, Sojourn, Testarossa and Kistler. They will wait to pick at optimum ripeness and sugar levels, and often use extended cold macerations to extract as much color and flavor as possible from the skins. Excellent California producers that pick earlier, going for a higher acid and more minerally style, include Arcadian, Calera, Copain and Littorai. Producers whose vineyard locations and clonal selections tend to produce the most structured and ageworthy Pinots include Fort Ross, Mount Eden and Pisoni.

Since Pinot Noir is so sensitive to its environment, Pinot grown in particular areas takes on noticeable flavor characteristics. Russian River Pinot Noirs, for example, are known for a distinct cola flavor, while Anderson Valley Pinots have strong spice notes. In Burgundy as well, Pinot Noir grown in northern villages like Gevrey-Chambertin tends to show more blue and black fruit characteristics, while the great villages of Vosne-Romanée and Chambolle produce wine that has more red fruit characteristics and delicate, floral noses. Further south, in Nuits-St. George and Pommard, the fruit takes on an earthier and often more tannic character.

9/26/10 Ridge Lytton Springs Bloggers Tasting
the result of destemming

The practice of fermenting some or a high percentage of whole grape clusters, i.e., stem inclusion, also has a profound effect on the style, flavors and amount of aging required of the wine. Unless the stems are fully ripe, and sometimes even when they are, they impart green notes and flavors to the wine, ranging from camphor and various mints, to green chili pepper, asparagus and green beans. Over time–five to ten years of bottle age–the tannins imparted by the stems can resolve some, and the green notes can evolve to “forest floor” and tobacco characteristics.

Great California Pinot Noirs

Great California Pinot Noirs

A couple of the most famous and highly priced Burgundy producers, Domaine de la Romanée Conti and Domaine Leroy, regularly include a high percentage of stems from their very low yielding grapes in fermentation, and the practice has become increasingly common in Burgundy, Oregon and among a number of California producers. The California producers that currently use the highest level of stem inclusion are Calera, Melville and Rhys. I am personally not a fan of Pinot with high stem inclusion, but there are many who prefer the results of this practice to the more fruit-dominated character of Pinot with low or no stem inclusion.

So what style, or mood, of Pinot Noir do you prefer? And which regions and producers are your favorites? Knowing what the stylistic differences are in wines made from a particular grape variety can help you find the one that most fits your taste preferences. Zeroing in on the region or winemaking techniques that go into producing that particular style of Pinot can also help you locate other producers whose wines you will likely enjoy.

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4 Responses to The Many Moods of Pinot Noir

  1. Hi Richard,
    What an interesting article on Pinot Noir written with such clarity while covering so many aspects of the grape and the wine! Simplicity is the true mark of a fine scholar.

    In the steep ridges overlooking the Pacific Ocean we now have our own AVA –
    Fort Ross-Seaview! No longer will we have to struggle to describe where we are located within the sprawling Sonoma Coast AVA, with descriptions such as the “True Sonoma Coast” and the “Wild Sonoma Coast”. All that is needed to be said will be on the label! And consumers will now know what went into the bottle. The petition process began in 1999 and it is wonderful to have the AVA go into effect at the start of the New Year.

    We are building a tasting room in the vineyard, overlooking the sea and the forests. It will be the only public tasting room in a vineyard on the Sonoma Coast. It has a steep roof, blue windows like the Pacific Ocean and gorgeous views. It should be open by the Spring. We do look forward to welcoming you and sharing our new releases with you!

    Best wishes,
    Fort Ross Vineyard
    Fort Ross-Seaview

    • Richard Jennings says:

      Thank you for the very kind words on the post. Trying to communicate about a grape as complex and varied in its expression as Pinot is a bit of a challenge.

      Fantastic news about the new Fort Ross-Seaview AVA. Congratulations! I do look forward to visiting there. Please let me know when the tasting room is open.

      Warm regards,

  2. Hi Richard,
    Good to hear from you! I will certainly let you know when our tasting room is open.

    2012 is turning out to be quite a tumultuous year for Fort Ross Vineyard. First the approval of the Fort Ross-Seaview AVA, then the construction of the tasting room and finally the Bicentennial Celebration [1812 – 2012] of the old Russian settlement of Fort Ross, with celebrations at the old Fort and the Fort Ross tasting room.

    We were asked to produce special Bicentennial blends of CH and PN for the occasion and were given permission to use a painting done in 1847 by the Russian naturalist, Il’ya Vosnesensky, that is in the Kunstkamera of the Peter, the Great, Museum of Natural History in St. Petersburg on our label. Not many people realize that in 1817 Fort Ross was the site of the first grape plantings in Sonoma and Napa Counties. This was done by the Russian Captain, Leontii Andreianovich Hagemeister, using Peruvian grape cuttings. It is very satisfying being able to continue this grape growing tradition.

    Best wishes,
    Fort Ross Vineyard
    Fort Ross-Seaview AVA

  3. Hello Richard:
    Nice article on pinot noir and its wily ways. You really covered the bases on it. It’s like chasing the unicorn but well worth it. I try to cover it’s Northern outpost in North America. I was able to tour most of the California pinot areas last Summer and it was a great education. My favorite areas were Anderson Valley and the Santa Maria Valley but there was great pinot noir everywhere.



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