Pinot Noir is an international red grape variety that is vinified not only in red but also in white for the production of classic method sparkling wines. Delicate and rather demanding, it has much less adaptability than other international grape varieties but, where it finds the optimal conditions for its growth, it is capable of producing some of the best wines in the world.
The origin of Pinot Noir is very ancient. It is speculated that it was cultivated in Burgundy as early as two thousand years ago and that when the Romans invaded Gaul, the grape variety was already present in the area. In the first century AD, the agronomy writer Columella described in his “De Rustica” a vine that could be identified as Pinot Noir.
However, in the absence of further evidence, its existence in Burgundy in Roman times could not be proven with certainty until now. However, genetic studies conducted by the INRA in Montpellier have revealed that Pinot Noir is the ancestor of several grape varieties including Syrah, Chardonnay and Gamay, which would confirm its preexistence to these and its ancient origin.
During the Middle Ages, the continuity in the cultivation of Pinot Noir in Burgundy was ensured by the work of Circestine and Benedictine monks who used it to produce wine for mass and, over the centuries, it achieved such good fortune that, in 1395, the Duke of Burgundy Philip II went so far as to ban the cultivation of Gamay in favor of Pinot Noir. Just from the 14th century the vine began to be called Pynos and then Pinot, a name probably derived from “pine cone” and referring to the elongated and compact conformation of its cluster.
Although Pinot Noir is not an easy grape variety to grow, it has managed to spread to most wine-growing regions of the world. In its land of origin, France, it occupies 32,000 hectares and, in addition to Burgundy, is found in Champagne, where it is vinified in white, and in Alsace. The area of greatest production and also the most popular is undoubtedly the Côte d’Or.
In Germany, where it is known as Spätburgunder, it is the most widely cultivated red grape variety with 11,700 hectares under cultivation.
In Italy it has found its ideal conditions in the northern regions of Trentino-Alto Adige, Oltrepò Pavese and Franciacorta, where it is mainly vinified in white for the production of sparkling wines.
In the United States, Pinot Noir had a real boom in 2004 thanks to the film Sideways: in fact, in the film, one of the two main characters is passionate about Pinot Noir and talks about it on several occasions. Currently, the greatest spread has been in Oregon, but it is in California, and especially on the Central Coast where the ocean helps keep the vineyard cool at night, that the best Pinot Noir wines are made.
In Australia, where the climate was thought to be too hot for Pinot Noir, it has surprisingly been discovered that in the Adelaide Hills and Yarra Valley regions excellent results can be achieved.
In New Zealand it has found its ideal climate in the cooler regions (Wairarapa, Marlborough, Nelson, North Canterbury, and Central Otago), and although the first commercial productions are relatively recent, some wines are also finding a good response in the overseas market.
Pinot Noir is also quite widespread in Argentina, Chile, South Africa and Spain.
Pinot Noir is a delicate vine that needs a lot of care: the compactness of the bunch and the thin skin favor the proliferation of diseases and rot; in addition, it sprouts early and is therefore particularly susceptible to spring frosts. To achieve good results it needs a temperate climate because excessive cold does not allow full ripening and, conversely, heat tends to overripen the grapes, which lose their fruity notes and freshness.
The vine prefers calcareous soils while clay soils, retaining moisture, can favor millerandage and run-off during the flowering period.
The appearance of Pinot Noir is quite varied: there are many biotypes of it that differ in leaf shape and bunch size and shape. The most common biotype in Burgundy has a medium, round, three-lobed dark green leaf. The cluster is small, compact, cylindrical in shape and winged. The berry is medium-small with a thin, pruinose black-purple skin and juicy, uncolored flesh with a simple flavor.
Pinot Noir has an incredible ability to absorb the character of the terroir and to return it powerfully in the wines: for this reason, its expressions can be manifold. The grape variety is used for the production of both red and white wines, particularly classic method sparkling wines.
Red wines, mainly made from Pinot Noir vinified in purity, can be consumed young but in some cases can also prove to be quite long-lived. Typical characteristics of these wines are low coloration, due to the reduced amount of anthocyanins in the grapes, and transparency. The color is bright ruby red in younger wines and veers toward garnet or even orange hues with aging.
On the nose, Pinot Noir offers remarkable aromatic complexity with fruity hints of cherry, currant, raspberry, strawberry and floral hints of violets, to which scents of underbrush, mushrooms, leather and hides are added as it matures. In cooler areas, herbaceous or vegetal notes such as tomato leaf or mint can also be perceived. Aging in wood can give spicy and toasted aromas although it is necessary to avoid these covering the delicate varietal aromas of Pinot Noir, excluding the use of new or heavily toasted barrels and reducing the wine’s stay in wood.
On the palate, Pinot Noir is usually characterized by low tannins, high alcohol warmth and good acidity that is always present but of varying intensity depending on the area where the wine is made. In sparkling wines, Pinot Noir helps to intensify the color, giving brilliant golden yellow hues, and to impart structure and a delicate aromatic note of red fruit.
Given its low tannins, pronounced acidity and high alcohol content, Pinot Noir vinified in red goes well with white meats, game or red meats that are not too succulent, mushrooms, meat-based first courses and even fish such as grilled or barbecued salmon, tuna or swordfish.