Pinot Noir Explained

06 Aug, 2020

Of all the many famous and beloved grape varieties of the world, there is one which inspires more passion and reverence than any other … we are talking, of course, about Pinot Noir. Thousands upon thousands of wine drinkers around the world queue up to worship at the altar of this most legendary of red grapes, best known for creating some of the world’s finest wines in the vineyards of Burgundy but also capable of greatness in many other (often unexpected) corners of the globe. Pinot Noir is renowned for being one of the world’s most temperamental, yet ultimately rewarding grape varieties, notoriously tricky to grow but capable of reaching almost transcendent heights of quality and taste at its best. Pinot treats many wine regions where other grapes thrive with disdain but has found several small pockets of the globe where the growing conditions allow it to do what it does best, including Burgundy, Oregon, and several regions of New Zealand.

On August 18th we at Winerist and many other wine lovers around the world will be taking some time to celebrate this mysterious, magical grape on Pinot Noir Day, so what better time to take a look at some of the things that make Pinot so special? Read on to discover more about some of the hallmarks of this iconic grape and find out why we think that New Zealand produces some of the most unique and exciting expressions of Pinot Noir on the planet!

Why is Pinot Noir so Picky?

Pinot Noir is a delicate, sometimes finicky grape prone to a whole host of diseases in the wrong growing conditions. The grape’s flowers bud very early, making them vulnerable to late spring frosts which can decimate a new crop; in conditions which are too hot, it ripens far too quickly and results in cloying, jammy wines; and it is susceptible to all kinds of vineyard nasties and grapevine diseases, including various kinds of mildew, leafroll virus and the unpleasant leafhopper bug. Pinot is thin-skinned, making the grapes prone to sunburn, and grows in very tightly clustered bunches which limit ventilation and can therefore very quickly lead to rot in poor conditions. Quite the list of challenges, we’re sure you’ll agree!

However, in optimum growing environments, Pinot Noir can transcend all these potential problems to create ethereal, balanced and beautiful red wines. Pinot loves cooler climates and other moderating influences such as sea breezes and even sometimes fog, and so the best examples of Pinot tend to be found in wine regions at more extreme ends of both the north and south of the globe.

What Makes the Perfect Pinot?

As we’ve discovered, Pinot Noir has very, very specific requirements when it comes to growing environments! It is therefore natural that such a sensitive, grape variety will produce wines in an impressively nuanced range of styles depending on where it has been grown. However, there are some characteristics which the majority of good-quality Pinot Noirs from around the world will all share (to a greater or lesser extent!).

Pinot Noir is light-bodied, delicate and beautifully pale ruby red in the glass, although some examples from warmer climates can become a little deeper in colour. Pinot is the perfect grape for those who prefer their red wines light and fragrant, with none of the weighty tannin structure so characteristic of other famous red grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Nebbiolo … its tannins are smooth and silky soft, caressing the palate and aiding a long, luxurious finish redolent with flavour.

When it comes to taste and aroma, Pinot Noir has several hallmark flavours that will often become more or less dominant depending on the growing environment. Look out for primary aromas of red fruit, particularly cherry, cranberry, plum and raspberry alongside floral notes of rose and violet which can often take centre stage in Pinots from warmer regions; whilst cool-climate Pinot Noir often displays an unmistakeable spicy earthiness in the form of mushroom, truffle, cigar smoke and tobacco. Pinot is often oaked during the winemaking process (matured for a certain length of time in oak barrels) and can also take on oaky notes of cinnamon and vanilla. Simply glorious!

Our tastes in wine all ultimately come down to personal preference, so for the majority of wine drinkers there is probably no such thing as the ‘perfect’ Pinot Noir. However, with so many varied styles and interpretations to be discovered in wine regions all around the world, we are sure that there is a Pinot Noir out there to suit every taste!

Pinot Noir Around the World

Pinot Noir’s spiritual home is undoubtedly Burgundy, one of the world’s most celebrated wine regions. Situated in eastern France, Burgundy’s cool climate, ideal soil types and undulating hills have proven the perfect place for Pinot for decades. Burgundian Pinot Noir is ethereal, elegant and poised, with notes of red fruit, mushroom and even truffle creating a unique combination of fragrance and earthiness which red wine aficionados go mad for. The best examples can age for decades and can demand prices which escalate into many thousands of pounds.

Elsewhere in Europe, Pinot is grown prolifically in France’s Champagne region, where it is used to add body and depth to this area’s iconic sparkling wines; is found in many of Germany’s most premium wine growing areas, where it is commonly known as Spätburgunder and is capable of creating delicious still red wines to rival those of Burgundy; and even pops up in the United Kingdom, where it is most commonly used in sparkling wine (similar to Champagne) but can also produce some outstanding examples of still wine.

Heading into the more modern New World wine producing regions, it is fairly easy to find Pinot Noir in most major wine growing areas, although some are wrangling this princess of grape varieties more successfully than others! In parts of California such as Santa Barbara, Pinot Noir appreciates the cooling sea breezes and mists that temper what would otherwise be unbearable temperatures, whilst the cooler climate further north in Oregon is helping to produce some of the best examples of Pinot Noir in the United States. Further down into the Southern Hemisphere, meanwhile, Pinot enjoys the high-altitude vineyards of Chile and has even got to grips with some of the cooler sites in Australia such as the Yarra Valley, where the warmer temperatures create Pinots dominated by bright, bouncy red fruit flavours. A far cry from the restrained elegance of Burgundy but with an energy and magic all their own!

However, there is one Pinot Noir focused wine growing nation in particular which is becoming ever more iconic for the quality and individuality of the wines it produces … we are talking, of course, about beautiful New Zealand.

The Final Frontier – Pinot Noir in New Zealand

Picture credit: NZ Wine Facebook page

New Zealand is one of the world’s youngest wine producing regions, but also one of the most extraordinary. This breath-taking land has proven to be a perfect growing location for many of the world’s great grape varieties, including Syrah, Chardonnay, and of course Sauvignon Blanc. Pinot Noir is New Zealand’s second most planted grape variety and by far the most significant, with around 5,642 hectares of vines accounting for 73% of all red wine produced in New Zealand, which equates to 14% of the country’s total wine production.

This doesn’t mean that all of New Zealand is a Pinot Noir utopia – it can be just as difficult to encourage Pinot to reach its full potential here as anywhere else in the world. New Zealand is an island nation with a largely maritime climate, and so large swathes of both the North and South Island are far from ideal for Pinot thanks to high rainfall and humidity, which can create the perfect conditions for rot and mildews to thrive amongst the densely clustered grapes. However, there are a few specific spots across the region where the specific conditions have allowed Pinot to thrive, particularly Martinborough on the North Island and Marlborough and Central Otago to the South.

Central Otago (or ‘Central’, as it’s affectionately known by residents) is notable for being the world’s most southerly winemaking region, sitting at an impressively low latitude of 45 degrees. As you might have guessed, it sits centrally at the heart of New Zealand’s South Island and has proven the perfect place for Pinot thanks to a very special terrain and climate. Central is protected to the west by the Southern Alps mountain range, a dizzying expanse of peaks which stretches almost the entire length of the South Island. These mountains protect Central Otago from much of the maritime weather coming in from the Tasman Sea which makes the west coast of the South Island one of the wettest spots in New Zealand. Very little of this sea air and cloud reaches Central, allowing warm summer days with long sunshine hours and low overnight temperatures during the growing season to create the kind of climate that Pinot Noir adores.

Pinot Noirs from Central Otago are unmistakable in their energy and brightness, vibrant where Burgundian Pinot is serene. Red and black cherry notes, dried raspberry and rose petal often dominate these wines, working in harmony with Pinot’s natural spicy quality to create a potpourri of aroma and fragrance. Pinot is most commonly used to make still wines in Central Otago but there is also some excellent Pinot Noir based sparkling wine to be found in Central, with one of the most notable producers being the fabulous Quartz Reef.

Head further north to Marlborough and Martinborough and you will discover a whole different side to New Zealand Pinot Noir. Marlborough, on the northern tip of the South Island, enjoys the same long sunshine hours as Central Otago and also benefits from its famous greywacke (pronounced grey-wacky) sandstone soils and ancient alluvial deposits left behind by ancient water which help Pinot Noir here to develop a certain restraint and lightness of touch, intensely flavoured and redolent with raspberry pip and wild strawberry aromas. In a region so closely associated with a certain other grape variety (Sauvignon Blanc, we’re looking at you!) it is a delight to discover the Pinot Noirs of Marlborough and see a different to side to one of the world’s most well-known yet underestimated wine regions.

Martinborough, meanwhile, in the wider region of Wairarapa on the North Island is another fantastic spot for Pinot Noir, sitting just an hour’s drive from Wellington, New Zealand’s capital and the windiest spot in the country! The Wellington winds sweep across and help Martinborough to stay cool and temperate year round, making it by far the most important area for Pinot on the North Island. It is the Pinots of Martinborough that are most often likened to those of great Burgundy, with their black fruit depth and earthy, fragrant, spicy profiles … although many producers here would argue that Martinborough creates fabulous Pinot in a style that is all their own. There is only really one way to make your mind up, though … try some for yourself!

We at Winerist love a celebration, so keep your eyes peeled over the coming days and weeks as we pay tribute to all the things that make New Zealand Pinot Noir so great – and trust us, there is a lot of ground to cover! Check out our articles on the Best Pinot Noirs from New Zealand to try this summer and the Best Pinot Noir and food pairings to get you prepared for the 18th of August!

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