How to explore pinot noir

Pinot noir is the doyen of the lighter red wine grapes. Some consider that it makes the world’s best wines, full stop. James Halliday walks us through one of his favourite wine styles.

Why is it that so few wine lovers really get pinot noir, wherever it is grown and made? There are a number of ways of answering what is a difficult question, made more complex by the fact that there are far more ordinary pinots than great ones, whatever their provenance.

The first problem with pinot is that it is the most reluctant traveller of all the classic grape varieties. Prior to 1950 there were only a few hectares - probably less than 100 - spread around the world outside of its ancestral home. But even here there is a paradox: chardonnay's travels outside Burgundy began at much the same time, and were initially as hesitant as those of pinot.

Once chardonnay gained traction, it proved to be the greatest traveller of all because of its adaptability to the widest range of climate and soil. It also became clear that it was the most malleable of all varieties in the hands of the winemaker. If wine could speak, it would be chardonnay.

Pinot is the polar opposite. It is incredibly fussy about where and how it is grown, always looking for a reason to second guess growers and makers alike. Both in Burgundy and the New World, chardonnay seems able to ride over the vicissitudes of a troublesome vintage. Thus in 2009 (the bushfire and smoke taint year in the Yarra Valley) and in 2011 (the year it never stopped raining) some superb chardonnays were made. The same cannot be said of pinot: for it three or four vintages in a decade will be good.

Once you get pinot into the winery, you realise it is the stuff of which all good vinous suicides are made. There are countless options available (chill or not; crush or not; whole berries or not; whole bunches or not; and with percentages in play in each instance). All this before you have even begun to ferment the wine.

Since this is not a discussion paper for winemakers, I will simply say from here on there are virtually limitless options and decisions to be made, and if you get one wrong, pinot's response will be immediate and vicious. Chardonnay will simply smile sweetly, and get on with it.

The amount of pinot harvested in Australia in 2010 was 41,392 tonnes, compared to 298,013 for chardonnay, 403,344 for shiraz and 213,922 for cabernet sauvignon. A substantial portion of pinot goes to sparkling winemaking, leaving less for table wine. The most important Australian regions (for pinot) fall within what I call the dress circle around Melbourne, in alphabetical order Geelong, Gippsland, Macedon Ranges, Mornington Peninsula and the Yarra Valley; and Tasmania. Other established regions are the Adelaide Hills and parts of the Great Southern region of Western Australian, most notably Porongurup. By contrast, chardonnay and shiraz are to be found in every one of the 63 Australian regions.

So when did I become obsessed (as I am) with pinot noir? By the end of the '60s I had accumulated a lot of knowledge about Australian wine, and had embarked on the search for what became Brokenwood a year or two later. Pinot noir was an oddity: I purchased some bottles of 1966 Seppelt Great Western Bin U36, and belatedly realised the worst of its many problems was that it had refermented in bottle.

In the last few years of the 1960s, and the first half of the 1970s, under the ever-present tutelage of Len Evans, I drank a lot of great Bordeaux, and assembled a now thoroughly depleted Bordeaux-biased cellar. But something happened: Evans served me a glass of red wine as I stood standing with a few others in the living room of his house in Greenwich. The hairs stood up on the back of my neck as I smelt (and after some time tasted) the wine. It was above and beyond any wine, red or white, that I had ever encountered. It was 1962 Domaine de la Romanee-Conti La Tache.

I had been served the second-greatest red wine in the world, and from that day forward I became utterly obsessed with pinot (the Northern Rhone Valley, top-end cool grown Australian shiraz, and golden oldies from the '40s, '50s and '60s the only competition).

What is it? Why? How does pinot cast its spell? Why did I leave Sydney in 1983 to go to Melbourne? Not so much to head up the then tiny office of Clayton Utz: it was so I could get close to the Yarra Valley, my then-chosen region for pinot noir.

If you have a Riedel red burgundy glass, and pour a fully mature Burgundy, say 20 years old, at cellar temperature (it does not like to be served warm), swirl the wine, and start to explore the bouquet, you will hopefully begin a journey with no end. If it is a great Burgundy, aromas of incredible beauty will appear, constantly revealing some new nuance; you can become totally absorbed in another world, oblivious of your surroundings, unaware that you haven't got around to tasting it.

When that reality dawns, you may hesitate to put the wine in your mouth, lest it comes as a let down. But be consoled by the Burgundian saying 'Get the bouquet right and the palate will look after itself.' And so it does, as a river of fine, supple flavours will flow, gaining intensity on the back-palate, finish and aftertaste - opening like a peacock's tail.

All this explains why Burgundians frown on decanting any wine, even more a very old wine, less you lose some of the bouquet. I don't agree: you either decant and pour immediately, or line up the glasses on the sideboard, and pour each glass with the minimum of vertical movement of the decanter. The often fine sediment of Burgundy can dull the brilliant clarity of the wine, an attribute than no other red wine can match.

Can Australian and/or New Zealand pinot work the same magic? We have only been at it for no more than 40 years, and all the vines are young. Burgundy has been at it since the Middle Ages, monks answering only to God, not Mammon. But don't take no for a complete answer. Blind tastings can come up with completely unexpected results. After all, this is the nectar of the Gods. 

Next article: When should I drink this wine?
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