Ah, pinot noir! Thou art so fickle.
Aficionados of wine made from this iconic grape are well aware of its illusive, unpredictable nature. Why, you might ask?
First and foremost, no two pinots are alike. So inconsistent in quality, it can be a real crapshoot as far as what you get in a bottle when obtaining one. In addition, the finished wine is very expensive. More often than not, you can pay quite substantial prices for a wine made from pinot (especially in Burgundy) and experience mediocrity at best.
It doesn’t get any easier from a production aspect, either. Pinot grapes are difficult to grow and deplete lots of nutrients from the soil. Clonal selection is imperative. Young vines do not make great wine. The grapes are very susceptible to disease, frost, and rot because they are thin-skinned. They don’t like it too hot and are overall delicate and very finicky. This makes the wine expensive to produce and buy if you don’t grow your own. Not surprising, it’s known as the “heartbreak” grape.
Of all the noble grape varieties, pinot is probably one of the most affected by “terroir,” that all-encompassing term that includes climate, lay of land, soil composition, sunlight, heat units, wind, proximity to water, etc. That sense of place that gives a wine its unique character.
Generally speaking, the grape creates light- to medium-colored red wine with garnet overtones. The wine smells of stewed red fruit, spice, sometimes pepper, earth, boiled beetroot, and rhubarb. It possesses soft to medium tannins and light to medium body. It generally ages quite well. However, its flavor does not appeal to everyone.
The most noted place in the world that grows pinot noir is Burgundy, France. This ancestral home seems to be the most consistent origin. That having been said, there is a vast array of styles produced here and prices here are astronomical. There are occasional good ones from other European locales such as northern Italy, Germany, and elsewhere.
There are various other places in the New World that do a decent job with pinot on a sporadic scale. Let’s talk North America for starts.
In Ontario, Canada, Prince Edward County and Niagara Peninsula do an admirable job. British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley seems to excel with it. In the U.S., Oregon’s Willamette Valley, California’s Sonoma Valley (specifically the Russian River Valley and Carneros), and a few other locales have a good handle on it.
In South America, cooler growing regions of Chile (Casablanca Valley) and Argentina (Rio Negro Valley) produce some pretty decent examples.
Australia’s cooler regions, like the Mornington Peninsula and Tasmania, don’t do a bad job, and New Zealand’s Central Otego region produces some wonderful selections.
Even South Africa’s Walker Bay area benefits from the cool breezes off the Atlantic Ocean and creates some fine examples.
The big question in many consumers’ minds is this: If the grape is so inconsistent, hard to grow, and expensive, why do people long for it?
Plain and simple, once you taste a great pinot, you’re hooked. You can then spend lots of time (and money) searching for another that lives up to that benchmark, being disappointed much of the time. Then, just as you’re ready to give up on it, Bacchus himself taps you on the shoulder and presents you with another stunner. Boom, you’re right back into it and hooked again.
That, my friends, is the magic, or rather black magic, of pinot noir.
© Edward Finstein, “The Wine Doctor” 2016. “The Wine Doctor” is Edward Finstein, award-winning author, TV/radio host, renowned wine journalist, international wine judge, professor of wine, and consultant. Visit him at winedoctor.ca, twitter.com/drwineknow, thewinedoctor.blogspot.com, winedoctor.ca/docs-grapevine.html, or facebook.com/edwarddocrinstein?fref=ts .
The pinot noir variety is probably one of the most affected by climate and other factors.