Of all the major wine grapes, Pinot Noir is probably the most challenging to describe. Unlike Cabernet Sauvignon, which apparently can thrive in any number of soil and climate types, Pinot Noir is "picky.” And, that may be too kind a descriptor. It has been called "The Heartbreak Grape" (by Marq de Viliers), with more than a little justification. Or as America's legendary winemaker (the late) Andre Tchelistcheff put it: "God made Cabernet Sauvignon whereas the devil made Pinot Noir."
It is one of the oldest winemaking grapes known today, with origins dating back as far as the 1st Century BC. When one considers how delicate Pinot Noir is compared to Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Malbec and other thicker-skinned red grapes, it's a bit miraculous to see how many countries have embraced planting it. And, it's not only the beautiful red wines that Pinot Noir produces. Its contribution as an ingredient of great sparkling wines cannot be overlooked.
Without getting too deep into it, Pinot Noir is notorious for its ability to mutate. For that fact, we can be thankful for its genesis into such delightful grapes as Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris (Grigio), Pinot Meunier and several others.
NORTH AMERICA - UNITED STATES
Oregon's history of winemaking is so new that it is almost impossible to believe how successful Pinot Noir has been there. Its history really only began in 1970, not even 50 years ago! We can thank David Lett, the founder of Eyrie Vineyards in 1966, for having the foresight (or good fortune!) to have decided to plant his first vines in the Dundee Hills of the Willamette Valley, south of Portland. He planted Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris. He guessed, correctly, that Pinot Gris would become very important, if not Oregon's signature white wine.
Today, we look for Pinot Noirs mainly from the Willamette Valley and its six sub-districts: the Dundee Hills, Chehalem Mountains, Eola-Amity Hills, McMinnville, Ribbon Ridge and Yamhill-Carlton District. Also, as of 2018, it is grown in the Van Duzer Corridor, adjacent and to the west of Eola-Amity Hills.
If "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” the Willamette Valley should be very proud of itself. Two of France's most notable Burgundy vignerons have established themselves in the region: Maison Joseph Drouhin and Maison Louis Jadot.
California's history with Pinot Noir reflects the ongoing maturation of winemaking in the Golden State. Like most of America's winegrowing history, various grapevines were usually planted by newly arriving immigrants from Europe, with winegrowing experience from their former countries. Sometimes the grapes that they were accustomed to worked, sometimes it didn't… There are plenty of vineyards in California that started out with Riesling, Barbera and Gamay. The resulting wines were far from satisfactory, mainly because of the vineyards' locations.
By the 1940's, it was obvious that Cabernet Sauvignon was a winner. Consumers of the era seemed to prefer slightly sweeter white wines, so Chenin Blanc and French Colombard were pretty successful too, in the beginning. Among the "losers" at that juncture, was Pinot Noir. It was planted and turned into wine in the 1940's in the Napa Valley, but it was a fairly unremarkable version of what would become one of the great wines of California. Realizing that Pinot Noir was not suited to the warmth of the Napa Valley, relatively new wineries in Monterey County and Coastal Mendocino County took note and planted Pinot Noir in their vineyards; they started producing quality wines in the 1970's. Today, one can't deny the success of Pinot Noir in parts of Monterey County, Sonoma County, Mendocino County, Santa Barbara County, the Carneros District of Napa and Sonoma and some areas of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Indeed, some of the most sought-after wines in California are the exceptional Pinot Noirs being offered by the likes of Sonoma's Williams-Selyem, Rochioli, Peter Michael and DuMol, for example. There are MANY more!
NEW YORK STATE
Pinot is growing in vineyard acreage, but it is rare to find it outside of New York State's Finger Lakes Region or in some trendy "American" restaurants in New York. Like Pinot Noir virtually anywhere, if it's really good, it's going to be on the expensive side. But, the cooler climate and soils of upstate New York are pretty favorable for the production of quality Pinot Noir.
Due to Lake Michigan's benevolent influence, there are some really interesting wines being crafted in the state of Michigan, especially in the Leelanau Peninsula and the Old Mission Peninsula. Among those wines are some distinctive Pinot Noirs. Much like the situation in New York, you sort of have to "be there.” Michigan wines are slowly but surely making their presence felt to wine lovers in the surrounding states, but you have to look hard - or make a road trip if you happen to live close enough.
Yes, our neighbor to the north grows some Pinot Noir. We don't see much of it in the States, but it's there.
As one might expect, BC leads the pack, with the influence of maritime climate from the north Pacific. Several coastal areas, particularly the Fraser Valley, Similkameen Valley and the Okanagan Valley are producing high quality red wines, including Pinot Noir.
Best known for "Ice Wine", Ontario has a few tricks up its sleeve. There are some fortunately located Pinot Noir vineyards along the north shore of Lake Erie and on Pelee Island, in the western end of Lake Erie.
France, of course, is considered to be the ancestral "home" of Pinot Noir, with the most acreage of any country devoted to its vineyards. In Burgundy, particularly the Cote d'Or, where most people would say Pinot Noir is at home, more than 11,000 acres are planted. And it is undoubtedly this Burgundy region that gives Pinot Noir its most typical profile as a finely polished red wine, with characteristic aromas of earthiness and red fruits (think cherries) in its youth, evolving into hints of mushrooms, gaminess and fine leather over time. Burgundian Pinot Noir is typically higher on the acid scale and moderate on the tannin scale. Arguably, the most famous villages are Chambolle-Musigny, Gevrey-Chambertin, Vosne-Romanee, Vougeot, Nuits-Saint-Georges, Morey-Saint-Denis, Volnay and Pommard.
As for the rest of France, Pinot Noir is found in several other appellations. Among them are Champagne (where it is even more widely planted than in the Cote d'Or), Alsace and the Loire Valley.
In Europe, the next contender for Pinot Noir acreage is Germany. In Baden alone, more than 13,000 acres are planted to "Spätburgunder,” as Pinot Noir is known there. One can be forgiven for being surprised at the Burgundian qualities of many of these German red wines. Even from as far north as the Ahr Valley, some quite powerful, dark, concentrated Pinots are being produced. German Pinot Noir has definitely stepped up to the plate!
Fortune Magazine recently printed an article entitled "Germany Might Be Producing the Best Pinot Noirs Available Today" (by Jim Clarke, July 14, 2019).
In Austria, the grape is known as Blauburgunder ("Blue Burgundy"). It has distinctively "French" characteristics, i.e., dry, medium-bodied, leaning toward red fruit aromas and flavors. It is grown mainly in Burgenland and Lower Austria.
SWITZERLAND AND ITALY
Pinot Noir is also grown, albeit in smaller volumes, in Switzerland and in the South Tyrol of northern Italy. In Switzerland, it goes by the name "Blauburgunder" and is produced in Neuchatel, Schaffhauzen, Zurich, St. Gallen and Bundner Herrschaft. In Italy, is known as "Pinot Nero"; it is an important component of the sparkling wines of Franciacorta.
MOLDOVA, SLOVENIA AND SPAIN
There was once a large amount of Pinot Noir planted in central Moldova, but the infestation of phylloxera (root louse) pretty much wiped out the vines. And, the former Soviet Union's control didn't help to sustain those vineyards that still existed from 1940 to 1991.
Slovenia also has some Pinot Noir, produced mainly in the Goriska Brda sub-region of the Slovenian Littoral and in Slovenian Styria.
There is also some Pinot Noir planted in Catalonia, Spain, but the grape is not currently recognized as "worthy" of being allowed in an any Denominacion de Origen (DO) wines. As in many countries, it does contribute to some of the sparkling wines being produced in Spain today.
SOUTH OF THE EQUATOR
Given the European origins of most of the immigrants to Australia, it should come as no surprise to find that planting grapevines was high on the agenda. The major growing regions are in Southern Australia, especially the in the states of New South Wales (Southern Highlands), Victoria (Yarra Valley, Geelong, the Bellarine Peninsula, Beechworth, South Gippsland, Sunbury, Macedon Ranges and Mornington Peninsula), South Australia (Adelaide Hills), Western Australia (Great Southern Wine Region), all of Tasmania and in the Australian Capital Territory (The Canberra District).
As one might expect, the cooler the region is, the more delicate and "Burgundy-like" the Pinot Noir. Most of the Australian land mass is inhospitable to wine grape growing, but the extensive coastal ranges and valleys allow the moderating influences of the Southern Ocean, with its Antarctic-influenced cooler temperature. From the western-most areas of Margaret River, near Perth, to the eastern-most vineyards of Hunter Valley, Australia continues to prove itself as a viticultural haven.
Much like Australia, New Zealand was flooded with European immigrants who had an appreciation of wine. In the late 1800's, the first grapevines were planted. Pinot Noir was not the chief grape at the time, and even after it was planted, it was not particularly successful. The clones at the time were susceptible to several plant diseases such as "leaf roll virus,” and there was a limited number of clones of not very interesting quality Pinot Noir available for planting at the time.
Never underestimate the power of lovers of Pinot Noir. Today, it is, behind Sauvignon Blanc, the most important wine grape being grown in New Zealand. The reputation of New Zealand Pinot Noir today is based on the quality of the wines being produced from Martinborough in the north to Central Otago in the south. That reputation is of the highest caliber. The style of the wines ranges from the delicacy of Burgundy's Santenay to the richness and power of Sonoma's Russian River Valley.
REPUBLIC OF SOUTH AFRICA
Two regions stand out in South Africa, largely because of their cool climates. Walker Bay and Elgin are the appellations to look for.
Recently, Argentina and Chile have shown real promise in the production of Pinot Noir.
The best areas in Chile, thanks to the cooling influences of the Humboldt Current are San Antonio, Casablanca Valley and the very southern Bio Valley. Also, Pinot Noir is planted in the Leyda Valley, a small wine district in the Aconcagua region.
Pinot Noir is a "development project" in Argentina; it has already demonstrated its worth in some very good sparkling wines in the cooler mountainous regions to the southwest of Buenos Aires and is making some very good still red wines in Patagonia. Time will tell if the world market will respond to these reasonably priced offerings.