To make great pinot noir is often considered the pinnacle of a winemaking career. Incredibly fussy about where and how it is grown, the ever-delicate pinot noir grape requires patient, skilled handling from vine to bottle. But when successful, it’s one of the most elegant and complex red wines in the world.
Hailing from Burgundy in France, pinot noir is a thin-skinned, light to medium-bodied varietal that was first brought to fruition under the careful tutelage of Burgundian monks. Since then it has reluctantly travelled the world, bringing its soft tannins and keen aromatics to wine lovers everywhere.
The undeniable truth: Pinot noir is the most translucent, the most transparent, the most hauntingly ethereal and fragile of all wines. James Halliday
The history of pinot noir
Pinot noir is an ancient grape. The earliest use of the name, then spelled ‘pinoz’, was recorded in 1375. It’s also a varietal with one of the most interesting vinous family histories: until DNA testing in 1993, it was assumed that pinot noir, pinot gris, pinot meunier and pinot blanc were distinct varieties found within the pinot family, but instead it’s been confirmed that they’re actually mutations of the same genetic footprint.
It’s also widely believed pinot is the probable grandparent of teroldego, marzemino, lagrein and dureza; a parent of savagnin; the grandparent of chenin and sauvignon blanc; and perhaps, most dramatically, a great-grandparent of cabernet sauvignon – an incredible evolution over the last 1000 years.
While pinot noir is now grown across many international sites, its spiritual homeland is undoubtedly Burgundy. Give or take a century or two, Burgundy was pinpointed as a great wine-producing area by the end of the first millennium. Over the next 600 years, the monasteries and monks painstakingly discovered, defined and refined the process for growing the greatest possible pinot noir.
In regards to Australian pinot noir, it’s possible that a clone made its way to Australia with the First Fleet in 1788, and it was definitely part of the collection of vines that James Busby established in the Hunter Valley in the early 1800s. Despite trying and failing to grow pinot noir in the warmer Coonawarra climate, the varietal successfully took off in Victoria, especially Geelong and Yarra Valley.
In the 1880s, however, vines were wiped out by phylloxera in Geelong and later by the switch to dairying in the Yarra Valley, and it wasn’t until the 1970s that pinot noir made a comeback. Today, you can find first-class Australian expressions coming out of our cooler climate wine regions.
Pinot noir characteristics
There’s an old Burgundian saying that reads: “Get the bouquet right and the palate will look after itself.” This is true of pinot noir. The varietal is often considered ethereal; it’s light and bright with loads of complexity.
Expressions differ depending on the region, but as a cool-climate grape, it tends to be silken with a peacock-feather finish and red fruits ranging from strawberries to black cherry.
Naturally higher in acidity and with fine, soft tannins, you can also find pinot noir with an earthier palate. For example, the pinot noir being made in Tasmania is full of bright red fruit but also boasts mushroom, truffle and forest floor.
When tasting, one must remember that pinot noir is not a big red wine. This is a varietal that’s tricky to perfect, but once you do, it’s all delicacy and finesse.
Where in the world is pinot?
James once said, “The first problem with pinot is that it is the most reluctant traveller of all the classic grape varieties”. And of course, he is right. Prior to 1950, there were only a few hectares - probably less than 100 - spread around the world outside of its ancestral home. But when it finds a home, it settles in for the long run:
“Burgundy remains by far the most eloquent and convincing demonstration of the importance of terroir.” – James Halliday
While the rest of France still dabbles with pinot, Burgundy is its birthplace and it continues to produce the world’s most outstanding expressions. The greater the Burgundy, the more aromatic the bouquet will be. Think flowery, spicy, savoury, forest-y scents.
Pinot noir needs a climate as cool as Burgundy and we definitely have that Down Under. The most important Australian pinot regions include Tasmania, as well as those that fall within what James refers to as “the Melbourne dress circle”: Geelong, Gippsland, the Macedon Ranges, Mornington Peninsula and Yarra Valley. Other established regions are the Adelaide Hills and parts of the Great Southern region of Western Australian, most notably Porongurup.
Pinot noir has become incredibly popular in Australia as an alternative to our famously big, bold reds. Traditionally, Aussie pinot is lighter in colour, boasts a perfumed nose and shows hits of cherry, raspberry and plum flavours balanced by smooth tannins. The pinot noir crafted in Australia also goes into some fine sparkling wines.
New Zealand has unlimited potential for the production of world-class pinot noir. Although small in landmass, it has at least six cool-climate regions crafting delicious vino (Martinborough/Wairarapa, Marlborough, Nelson, Waipara, Canterbury and Central Otago).
The styles of the individual winemakers and those of the regions in which they’re situated vary from moderately to unashamedly powerful; luscious pinot noir varietal fruit is the rule and not the exception, reaching its highest expression in Martinborough. Located at the southern end of the North Island, pinots here are treated to gravelly terraces, which produce wines of restraint as opposed to the more muscular pinot coming out of Central Otago.
When we talk about pinot noir in the United States, we’re referencing Oregon, Sonoma County, and the south-central coast in particular. The success of pinot in Oregon is largely due to David Lett at Eyrie Vineyard, the establishment of Domaine Drouhin and the International Pinot Noir Celebration held at McMinnville each year. When vintages go right, Oregon produces beautiful pinot that’s strikingly diverse.
Sonoma County is home to the Russian River, with pine-clad ridgetops and cold ocean fog. The wines here are altogether different - a slightly wilder experience without compromising on elegance.
Pinot noir is planted in Ontario, and up and down the length of the Okanagan Valley in British Colombia. Opinions are sharply divided on the ability of Ontario to satisfactorily ripen pinot noir given the ultra-compressed (albeit powerful) growing season.
Pinot noir food pairing
Pinot noir and food is a match made in grape heaven. Widely considered to be one of the most food-friendly red wines, you’ve got a plethora of cuisine options to choose from when pairing. The holy grail of pairings is definitely pinot noir and duck. Ask any winemaker or sommelier and they’ll agree: Whether your pinot is cherry-red or a more savoury number, duck is a winner.
Don’t be afraid to pair it with a touch of spice either. Pinot noir is a great accompaniment to lightly spiced Thai dishes or even a mid-morning round of Chinese yum cha. Oily meals such as salmon or pasta will pair well with a light and dry pinot noir, while the more tannic styles complement richer foods like a beef bourguignon. And don’t forget the cheese. Make sure your platter includes creamy Brie, blue and sharp goat’s cheeses and you’ll be dining (and drinking) well.
When to drink pinot noir
For a long time, it was thought that New World pinot noir was generally best opened in its first few years after release. But as New World vines have aged, sites have improved and winemaking has embraced pinot noir, this is no longer the case.
Cellaring is an option for both your Old and New World bottles. While there’s no one-size-fits-all cellaring time, with longevity dependent on factors such as the vintage and style of your pinot, it is recommended that New World styles can be kept for around eight years and really good examples of Old World pinot (i.e. Burgundy) for much longer.
As is the case around the world, cool-climate regions produce much more age-worthy styles. So don’t be afraid to lay down your Tassie, Yarra Valley, or Mornington pinot noir and enjoy it with a few extra years under the label.