Pinot Noir: A Primer

Posted on Oct 2, 2019


Oregon Willamette Valley wine country

Pinot Noir grapes on the vine.

Pinot Noir makes, in our view, one of the most unique wines of all. This in spite of the fact that it is notoriously difficult to grow and can be maddeningly inconsistent from one vintage to the next. Yet, it is generally priced higher on average than other wines and in fact tops the auctions in terms of the prices it can fetch. Perhaps more than any other wine, it attracts the most ardent followers.

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The vineyards at Domaine Drouhin, a top Pinot Noir producer in the Willamette Valley

Pinot Noir is a lighter coloured, thinner skinned grape that generally produces elegant wines of great finesse, not big brawny wines. As such it pairs wonderfully with food, taking a background position at the table, allowing the food to be the centre and pairing with a great variety of different foods. It is grown all around the world but thrives in cooler climates. Many tasters agree that Pinot Noir transmits the vineyard it comes from more than any other wine.

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Harvested Pinot Noir grapes just brought into the winery.

You have probably heard of several other “Pinot” grapes. Pinot Meunier, the black grape used to make Champagne (along with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay); Pinot Gris (or Grigio) the white grape known to produce crisp and refreshing wines from regions such as Italy and Oregon and fuller styles from Alsace, Washington, New Zealand and Australia; and Pinot Blanc which produces a wine somewhat akin to a lighter style of Chardonnay. These other Pinots are in fact the same grape genetically as Pinot Noir but with a mutation of their colour.

Willamette valley oregon

Pinot Noir grapes

Pinot Noir literally means “black pine”. The Pinot cluster is very tight and conically shaped, similar to a pinecone. It is this tight bunching of the cluster that makes it difficult to grow. The bunch is so tight as to prevent air circulation which can lead to fungus and rot during the growing season. Special care must be taken in managing the canopy (pruning back some of the green leaves surrounding the cluster) so as to permit more air circulation to reduce disease. Pinot, having a very thin skin, is prone to sunburn and the standard protection is to leave more of the canopy on. So, this is how finicky Pinot is to grow: too much canopy can lead to rot, too little canopy can lead to sunburn. Andre Tchelischef, the great oenologist has said “God made Cabernet Sauvignon whereas the devil made Pinot Noir”. Pinot Noir grows best in cooler climates. It buds early and is generally picked early as well.

While Pinot is grown well in cool climate areas around the world, one region stands above the rest as the acknowledged leader in making great Pinot Noir and that is Burgundy. Burgundy is the reference point by which Pinot from all other regions are judged. Whether that lofty position is truly deserved may be open to some debate, but in terms of general perception, Burgundy is the hallowed ground. Burgundy lies in northeastern France at about 47 degrees north latitude.

Willamette Valley Oregon

The views at Youngberg Hill in Oregon’s Willamette Valley

Oregon’s Willamette Valley also sits at a similar latitude, as a point of reference. Burgundy’s weather receives the moderating influence of the Saone River which runs through it. Perhaps two things separate Burgundy from other cool climate regions that grow Pinot Noir. The first is the age of their vines. Pinot Noir has been grown in Burgundy for centuries. While archaeological evidence establishes Pinot Noir existing in Burgundy as far back as 200 AD, the real beginning of viticulture in a meaningful way begins with the Cistercian monks in the 11th Century. Vines won’t last forever, but Burgundy has plenty of old vines, or “vielles vignes” that are 50 years and older. Much of the new world was not even planted 50 years ago, hence much younger vines. The other main factor is soil: Burgundy has a preponderance of limestone in its soil. Jurrasic limestone which contains fossilized sea creatures is prevalent along with Marl, a mixture of clay and limestone which seems to do especially with Pinot Noir.

Willamette Valley Oregon

Winemaker Guillaume Large at Résonance Wines with fermenting Pinot Noir grapes.

It is very tempting to think that applying Burgundian techniques in other parts of the world will result in “better” or at least more Burgundian styles of Pinot Noir. We have to admit that for a time we subscribed to this theory. But we have subsequently come to is that ideas that work well in one terroir may not work as well in a different place. There are many differences between How Pinot Noir is grown in Brgundy versus how it is grown in the New World.  Burgundians generally plant their vines with a 1 metre by 1 metre spacing. This tight spacing allows for 10,000 vines to grow on a hectare of land.

Oregon Willamette Valley wine country

An example of New World spacing.

New World Pinot Noir utilizes a much wider spacing that results in around just 2,000 vines per hectare. Further, in Burgundy you will have 6 – 8 shoots growing from each vine whereas in the New World that number could be more like 16 – 30 shoots. In Burgundy, each vine will produce about 0.5 kg of fruit as opposed to around 2.5 kg in the New World. The theory in the vineyard is that the vine produces energy in its trunk which gets transmitted to the rest of the plant; consequently you ideally like fewer leaves and less fruit per vine so as to transmit the maximum amount of energy to the grapes. We had wondered why more North Americans do not attempt to plant their Pinot Noir vineyards more similarly to the Burgundians? It is interesting to observe how some of the Burgundians who have started wineries in Oregon (Domaine Drouhin, Evening Land, Resonance, Lingua Franca and others) have chosen to farm their grapes. Yes, they have brought over some practices from their home vineyards but they have also used many that were established in the New World. The reality is that the land and climate will tell you how you must farm, and different terroirs will always require different techniques.

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Practitioner’s of Biodynamic farming use cow horns as part of their soil preparations.

One viticultural trend that has gained a strong foothold in Burgundy that is increasingly being practiced New World Pinot Noir vineyards is biodynamic farming. This practice was expounded by Rudolf Steiner in the early 1920s and treats the farm as an integrated and organic whole, one that is naturally self-sustaining and performs best without the inclusion of outside elements (particularly pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers). While controversial, we have tasted at many biodynamic vineyards that were producing outstanding Pinot Noir.

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New World vs Old World tasting at Domaine Drouhin.

Regardless of where Pinot Noir is grown you will note its distinctive style: light red in colour, light to medium in both body and tannin with aromas and flavours cherry, raspberry, strawberry and cranberry. As we first said, Pinot is very transparent to its terroir. In Burgundy, you will in most vintages find a lighter style of Pinot, elegant and somewhat feminine, showing earthy and sometimes herbaceous characteristics. In sunnier vintages, and especially from Grand Cru vineyards, you can get Pinots of great intensity and high tannin that can require over a decade of aging to show their true nature. A great Burgundy will always be complex; primary red fruit of cherry and raspberry with lots of different secondary notes from earthy, mushroom and even barnyard tones to vanilla, clove and black pepper and herbal notes as well, especially where stems are included in the fermentation.

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A glass of Pinot Noir at Soter Wines.

In the New World, Pinot Noir tends to show the effects of climate more. Cooler regions such as Oregon and Central Otago in New Zealand will show a bit more body and darker fruit characteristics and warmer climates such as Chile, California and Australia show a bigger, bolder more fruit driven style of Pinot Noir. For us, a common feature of all Pinot Noir, and one of its most attractive, is its mouthfeel. Regardless of origin, Pinot will always have a wonderful elegance to it, one that a good friend of ours (who was a remarkable blind taster) referred to as “drawing a silk scarf across a satin sheet”.

Pinot Noir is the 10th most planted grape variety in the world. Not surprisingly, France has the most acreage at almost 76,000 acres (about a quarter of the world’s acreage, but given Burgundy’s higher density, its output is even higher still); the US is just behind at 73,000 acres; followed by Germany at 29,000 acres and then New Zealand and Italy at 10,000 acres each.

Pinot Noir Clone tasting

A clone tasting comparison at Iron Horse Vineyards.

You may have noticed on bottles of Pinot Noir reference to the clone or clones used to make the wine. The clone tells you about the vines ancestry, the mother vine that was originally cut and then propagated. While there are different clones of other grape varieties, clonal selection with Pinot Noir makes a significant difference and it is the only grape variety where we hear much discussion about different clones used. The most sought-after clones in the world come, not surprisingly, from Burgundy. In particular clones that have originated around the town of Dijon, arguably the tenderloin district of Burgundy, are the ones getting the most attention. Clones are generally identified by a number.  Dijon clones are always identified by a 3-digit number. Other clones in wide use are Pommard (also from Burgundy) and Wadenswill from Switzerland. Clones are very often inter-planted in the vineyard so as to derive a combination of factors. 115 for instance will give structure and 777 is more known for aromatics. In case you think that fussing over something as minute as the individual close is slicing the matter a bit fine, we did a tasting of different Pinot Noir clones and we were quite shocked at the difference. We visited with David Munksgard of Iron Horse Vineyards in Sonoma’s Russian River Valley. David set us up with four glasses of Iron Horse Pinot Noir, each from the same vineyard, same vintage and made by the same winemaker. The only variable was the clone. We tasted wines made from the Dijon 828 clone, the Louis Martini clone, the Pommard 5 clone and the Calera clone. The difference in clone made each wine quite unique and clearly demonstrated the extent of the clone’s effect on the resulting wine.

Burgundy wine

2006 Gevrey Chambertin 1er Cru Burgundy

Expect to pay a little more for good Pinot Noir than for most other varieties. Village level wines from Burgundy can actually be reasonably good value and can be found in the $20 to $40 range. Chile produces some outstanding bargains with very good quality wine to be had in the lower end of that range. Australia is just starting to come on with very good Pinot and is reasonably priced. Oregon and California are producing Pinots that start around $30 for regional wines and about double that for vineyard designate wines. Top New World Pinot Noir will run at $80 and up, similar to Premier Cru Burgundy. Grand Cru Burgundy, of which there is precious little probably starts a round $200 and pretty quickly gets up to multiples of that number with the more collectible names selling for well into the thousands, especially in the stronger vintages.

We have visited many Pinot Noir wineries in Oregon and California. Some of our favourites include:

Melville

Domaine Drouhin

Brewer Clifton

Youngberg Hill

Alexana

Talisman

Big Table Farm

ROCO

Brick House

Allora

Marimar

Resonance

Walter Hansel

Soter

Iron Horse

Benton Lane

Wildcat Mountain Vineyard

Drinking Pinot at its source with Scott and Marta Rich of Talisman WInes in Sonoma, California.

At one time Pinot Noir was known as the “masochists grape”. This was before the New World had really begun to produce great Pinot Noir and Burgundy could be prone to poor weather at harvest. The result was having a sublime experience with a Pinot and buying the same wine the following year only to be bitterly disappointed. Better techniques in the vineyard and more heat during the growing season have largely taken that name out of use. Today Pinot can be very consistent in terms of quality and is capturing new fans regularly. And we at AdVINEtures certainly put ourselves in that category!

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