Pinot Noir has been cultivated for thousands of years, since Roman times, but it took the hit movie "Sideways" to introduce the grape to the average American. Who can forget the hilarious antics of Miles and Maya as they explore California's Central Coast? This movie did more to promote Pinot Noir than all the marketing money ever spent by the region's wineries. As the laughter has died down, American wine drinkers have continued their love affair with Pinot Noir and have come to revel in the complexities of this incredible grape.
During the past 500 years, Pinot Noir has found its greatest expression in the famed Cote d'Or, or "Golden Slope," in Burgundy. This rolling region in southeast France has the soil and climate to produce Pinot perfection, and the top wines of Burgundy are the Holy Grail to which all other Pinot makers aspire. The wines from the famed Domaine de la Romanee Conti are among the most expensive in the world, frequently selling for thousands of dollars a bottle. Burgundy producers love to discuss "terroir" and the influence it has on their wines. Pinot Noir is particularly reflective of "terroir," which is a combination of the soil in which the grape is grown and the environment in which it exists; surrounding crops and herbs may find some of their flavors reflected in the wine. But despite the magnificent wines produced by Burgundy's top producers, there also is a vast sea of mediocre wine made there. The key to success in finding great Burgundy is to find top-quality producers and stick with them. Names such as Domaine Dujac, Domaine de la Pousse d'Or and Drouhin always are reliable.
Pinot Noir is an inherently difficult grape for a multitude of reasons. The grape flowers early, making it susceptible to spring frosts. The grapes are thin skinned and small, making them sensitive to excessive sunlight. Tight clusters of small berries are subject to rot if there is rain near harvest time, and birds love to eat the grapes, further decreasing yields. When the grapes finally are harvested and in the winery, fermentation can be difficult to control, creating additional problems for the winemakers. Despite these problems, winemakers love to work with this grape. When done well, there is no more satisfying wine in the world.
Because of its grapes' thin skin, Pinot Noir is frequently light in color and can lead you to think that the wine will be lacking in flavor-not so. The inherent aromas of cherry, raspberry and strawberry are quite dominant and frequently enhanced by notes of cola, mushroom, earth and herbs. A whole range of spice characteristics can be found, such as cinnamon, clove and allspice. The addition of fermentation and aging in oak barrels adds yet another layer of flavor from the wood. There are multiple "clones," or genetic variants, of the grape, and each will have slightly different characteristics both in terms of flavor and behavior in the vineyard. Matching the right clone to the right vineyard has been the biggest challenge in producing great Pinot Noir outside of Burgundy. The Burgundians have had hundreds of years to get it right; American winemakers have tried to achieve success in 20 years.
In California, early efforts at Pinot Noir were not particularly successful, but with better clonal selection and appropriate vineyard sites, quality has improved dramatically. The top regions for Pinot Noir are the Russian River Valley in Sonoma, the Santa Lucia Highlands near Monterey and the Santa Rita Hills in the Central Coast. These regions all have good soil types for Pinot, but more importantly have weather characteristics that allow for long hang times and even ripening. In the Russian River Valley and the Santa Rita Hills, morning fog is the ingredient that cools the climate. In the Santa Lucia Highlands, elevation and sea breezes achieve the cooling effect.
Oregon has a latitude virtually identical to Burgundy, and the soils in the Willamette Valley work well with Pinot Noir. Again, during the past 10 years, vineyards and clonal selections have improved, and the wines have become excellent. In this region, the cool nights lead to excellent acidity in the wines, which preserves and enhances their bright fruit characters. David Lett of the Eyrie vineyard was the pioneer in Oregon Pinot Noir, and many great producers have followed him to the state. In recent years, the French have come to the Willamette Valley with the Drouhin family starting Domaine Drouhin, Oregon, and most recently the famed Comte Lafon, purchasing a large vineyard to begin producing wine in there.
South Africa is starting to emerge on the world scene with some superb Pinot Noirs. The maritime climate in the coastal regions is quite suitable for the grape, and a few producers, such as Hamilton Russell, deTrafford and Bouchard Finlayson, are making great wines. Stylistically, these wines are closer to the earthy Burgundian style than the more fruit-forward California style.
In the past decade, New Zealand has emerged as a Pinot producer with great potential. At present, most of the vines still are young, as are the winemakers, leading to some uneven results. Central Otago on the South Island is the most southerly grape-producing area in the world, and it is here that New Zealand will excel with Pinot Noir. This region is quite arid and lies in the lee of the southern Alps, making it very beautiful. On a recent visit, I greatly enjoyed the wines from Felton Road Winery, clearly the best Pinot producer in New Zealand. Other worthy producers are Carrick, Olssens and Mt Difficulty.
Finally, Argentina and Chile are starting to figure out where best to plant this fickle grape, and I believe during the next decade we will see some excellent wines emerge from these countries. The prospect of high-quality wine at reasonable prices makes this an exciting time for Pinot lovers around the world.
Story published Friday, November 7, 2008 ( Volume 3, Number 6 )