Pinot noir grapes are grown around the world, mostly in the cooler regions, but the grape is chiefly associated with the Burgundy region of France. It is widely considered to produce some of the finest wines in the world, but is a difficult variety to cultivate and transform into wine.
The leaves of Pinot noir are generally smaller than those of Cabernet Sauvignon, but larger than those of Syrah. The grape cluster is small and cylindrical, vaguely shaped like a pine cone. Some viticultural historians believe this shape may have given rise to the name. Pinot noir tends to produce narrow trunks and branches. In the vineyard it is sensitive to light exposure, cropping levels (it must be low yielding), soil types and pruning techniques. In the winery it is sensitive to fermentation methods, yeast strains and is highly reflective of its terroir with different regions producing very different wines. Its thin skin makes it highly susceptible to bunch rot and other fungal diseases. The vines themselves are prone to downy mildew, leaf roll, and fanleaf. These complications have given the grape the reputation of being difficult to grow: Jancis Robinson calls Pinot a "minx of a vine" and André Tchelistcheff declared that "God made Cabernet Sauvignon whereas the devil made Pinot noir."
However, Pinot wines are among the most popular in the world. Joel Fleischman of Vanity Fair describes Pinot noir as "the most romantic of wines, with so voluptuous a perfume, so sweet an edge, and so powerful a punch that, like falling in love, they make the blood run hot and the soul wax embarrassingly poetic." Master Sommelier Madeline Triffon calls pinot "sex in a glass" . Peter Richardsson of OenoStyle christened it "a seductive yet fickle mistress!
The tremendously broad range of bouquets, flavors, textures and impressions that Pinot noir can produce sometimes confuses tasters. In the broadest terms, the wine tends to be of light to medium body with an aroma reminiscent of black cherry, raspberry or currant. Traditional red Burgundy is famous for its fleshy, 'farmyard' aromas, but changing fashions and new easier-to-grow clones have favoured a lighter, fruitier style. The grape's color when young, often compared to that of garnet, is often much lighter than that of other red wines. However, an emerging style from California and New Zealand highlights a more powerful, fruit forward and darker wine that can approach syrah in depth.
It is also used in the production of Champagne (usually along with Chardonnay and Pinot meunier) and is planted in most of the world's wine growing regions for use in both still and sparkling wines. Pinot noir grown for dry table wines is generally low-yielding and often difficult to grow well. Pinot noir grown for use in sparkling wines (e.g. Champagne) is generally higher yielding.
Ferdinand Regner has proposed that Pinot noir is a cross between Pinot meunier (Schwarzriesling) and Traminer, but this work has not been replicated. In fact Pinot meunier appears to be a Pinot noir with a mutation in the epidermal cells which makes the shoot tips hairy and the vine a little smaller. This means that Pinot meunier is a chimera with two tissue layers of different genetic makeup, one of which is identical to Pinot noir. As such, Pinot meunier cannot be the parent of Pinot noir.
Pinot gris is a bud sport of Pinot noir, presumably representing a somatic mutation in either the VvMYBA1 or VvMYBA2 genes that control grape colour. Pinot blanc may represent a further mutation of Pinot gris. The DNA profiles of both Pinot gris and blanc are identical to Pinot noir, The other two major Pinots, Pinot moure and Pinot teinturier, are also genetically very similar.
A more recent white grape sport was propagated in 1936 by Henri Gouges of Burgundy, and there is now 2.5ha planted of this grape which Clive Coates calls Pinot Gouges, and others call Pinot Musigny.
Pinot Liébault is a mutant which has higher, more consistent yields than Pinot noir, but retains its oenological qualities. As such it is explicitly mentioned in some Burgundy appellations.
The Wrotham (pronounced "ruttum") Pinot is an English variety with white hairs on the upper surface of the leaves, and is particularly resistant to disease. Edward Hyams of Oxted Viticultural Research Station was alerted to a strange vine growing against a cottage wall in Wrotham in Kent, which local lore said was descended from vines brought over by the Romans. An experimental Blanc de Noir was made at Oxted, and in 1980 Richard Peterson took cuttings to California, where he now makes a pink sparkling Wrotham Pinot. Wrotham Pinot is sometimes regarded as a synonym of Pinot meunier, but it has a higher natural sugar content and ripens two weeks earlier.
Pinot noir appears to be particularly prone to mutation (suggesting it has active transposable elements?), and has a long history in cultivation, so there are hundreds of different clones such as Pinot Fin and Pinot Tordu. More than 50 are officially recognized in France compared to only 25 of the much more widely planted cabernet sauvignon. The French Etablissement National Technique pour l’Amelioration de la Viticulture (ENTAV) has set up a programme to select the best clones of Pinot. Laurent Audeguin of ENTAV believes that most American clones, such as 'Pommard' and 'Wadenswiel', produce wine that is inferior to and very different from French Pinot; the recent popularity of ENTAV ("Dijon") clones in the US would appear to support that thesis. It has even been suggested that the difference between Oregon and Californian wines is principally a clonal effect, Oregon having mainly 'Wadenswil' (UCD2A) and 'Pommard' (aka 'Coury', UCD4), California has a lot of the well-regarded Joseph Swan clone.
Gamay Beaujolais is an early-ripening clone of Pinot noir. It is used mostly in California but is also seen in New Zealand. It was brought to California by Paul Masson. Frühburgunder (Pinot Noir Précoce) is an early-ripening grape that is thought to be a clone of Pinot noir - it's possible that the two are the same mutant.
In August 2007, French researchers announced the sequencing of the genome of Pinot noir. It is the first fruit crop to be sequenced, and only the fourth flowering plant.
Pinot noir is produced in several wine growing areas of Australia, notably in the Yarra Valley, Geelong, the Bellarine Peninsula, Beechworth, Whitlands, South Gippsland, Sunbury and Mornington Peninsula in Victoria, Adelaide Hills in South Australia and Tasmania.
In Austria, Pinot noir is sometimes called Blauburgunder (literally Blue Burgundy) and produced in Burgenland and Lower Austria. Austrian Pinot noir wines are dry red wines similar in character to the red wines of Burgundy, mostly aged in French barriques. Some of the best Austrian Pinots come from Neusiedlersee and Blaufraenkischland, (Burgenland) and Thermenregion (Lower Austria).
Quality Pinot noir has been grown in Ontario for some time in the Niagara Peninsula and especially the Short Hills Bench wine region, as well as on the north shore of Lake Erie. It has also been grown recently in the Okanagan, Lower Mainland, and Vancouver Island wine regions of British Columbia.
Pinot noir has made France's Burgundy appellation famous, and vice-versa. Many wine historians, including John Winthrop Haeger and Roger Dion, believe that the association between pinot and Burgundy was the explicit strategy of Burgundy's Valois dukes. Roger Dion, in his thesis regarding Philip the Bold's role in promoting the spread of Pinot noir, holds that the reputation of Beaune wines as "the finest in the world" was a propaganda triumph of Burgundy's Valois dukes. In any event, the worldwide archetype for Pinot noir is that grown in Burgundy where it has been cultivated since 100 CE.
Burgundy's Pinot noir produces great wines which can age very well in good years, developing floral flavours as they age, often reaching peak 15 or 20 years after the vintage. Many of the wines are produced in very small quantities and can be very expensive. Today, the celebrated Côte d’Or area of Burgundy has about 4,500 hectares (11,000 acres) of Pinot noir. Most of the region's finest wines are produced from this area. The Côte Chalonnaise and Mâconnais regions in southern Burgundy have another 4,000 hectares (10,000 acres).
In Jura département, across the river valley from Burgundy, the wines made from Pinot noir are lighter.
In Champagne it used in blending with Chardonnay and Pinot meunier. It can also appear unblended, in which case it may be labeled blanc de noirs. The Champagne appellation has more Pinot planted than any other area of France.
In Alsace it is generally used to make rosé wines. However, it is also used to make genuine red wines usually called Pinot noir rouge, which are similar in character to red Burgundy and Beaujolais wines but are consumed chilled. Prominent examples are Rouge de Barr and Rouge d'Ottrott. Pinot noir rouge is the only red wine produced in Alsace.
In Germany it is called Spätburgunder, and is now the most widely planted red grape. Historically much German wine produced from Pinot noir was pale, often rosé like the red wines of Alsace. However recently, despite the northerly climate, darker, richer reds have been produced, often barrel (barrique) aged, in regions such as Baden, Palatinate (Pfalz) and Ahr. These are rarely exported and are often very expensive in Germany for the better examples. As "Rhenish", German Pinot noir is mentioned several times in Shakesperean plays as a highly prized wine.
In Italy, where Pinot noir is known as Pinot nero, it has traditionally been cultivated in the Alto Adige, Collio Goriziano, Oltrepò Pavese and Trentino regions to produce Burgundy-style red wines. Cultivation of Pinot noir in other regions of Italy, mostly since the 1980s, has been challenging due to climate and soil conditions.
Large amounts of Pinot were planted in central Moldova during the 19th century, but much was lost to the ravages of phylloxera; Soviet control of Moldova from 1940 to 1991 also reduced the productivity of vineyards. Quality is somewhat variable; Moldovan Pinot can be overoaked and rather rough.
Pinot noir is a grape variety whose importance in New Zealand is greater than the weight of planting. Early in the modern wine industry (late 1970s early 1980s), the comparatively low annual sunshine hours to be found in NZ discouraged the planting of red varieties. But even at this time great hopes were had for Pinot noir (see Romeo Bragato). Initial results were not promising for several reasons, including the mistaken planting of Gamay , and the limited number of Pinot noir clones available for planting. However in recent years Pinot noir from Martinborough and Central Otago has won numerous international awards and accolations making it one of New Zealand's most sought-after varieties.
Historically, one notable exception was the St Helena 1984 Pinot noir from the Canterbury region. This led to the belief for a time that Canterbury might become the natural home for Pinot noir in New Zealand. While the early excitement passed, the Canterbury region has witnessed the development of Pinot noir as the dominant red variety. The sub-region Waipara has some interesting wines. Producers include Pegasus Bay, Waipara Springs and Omihi Hills.
The next region to excel with Pinot noir was Martinborough on the southern end of the North Island. Several vineyards including Palliser Estate, Martinborough Vineyards, Murdoch James Estate and Ata Rangi consistently produced interesting and increasingly complex wine from Pinot noir at the end of the 1980s and into the 1990s. Early plantings were on the alluvial soils of the Huangarua and Dry River terraces, while more recently growers like Murdoch James have been experimenting with plantings on the califerous hillsides south of the village. The moderate climate and long growing season gives wines of great intensity and complexity. In the 2000s, other sub-regions in the Wairarapa have been developed to the north of Martinborough. Gladstone and Masterton are just two of these.
At around this time the first plantings of Pinot noir in Central Otago occurred in the Kawarau Gorge. Central Otago had a long (for New Zealand) history as a producer of quality stone fruit and particularly cherries. Significantly further south than all other wine regions in New Zealand, it had been overlooked despite a long history of grape growing. However, it benefited from being surrounded by mountain ranges which increased its temperature variations both between seasons and between night and day making the climate unusual in the typically maritime conditions in New Zealand.
The first vines were planted using holes blasted out of the north facing schist slopes of the region, creating difficult, highly marginal conditions. The first results coming in the mid to late 1990s excited the interest of British wine commentators, including Jancis Robinson and Oz Clarke. Not only did the wines have the distinctive acidity and abundant fruit of New Zealand wines, but they demonstrated a great deal of complexity, with aromas and flavours not common in New Zealand wine and normally associated with Burgundian wine. Producers include Felton Rd, Chard Farm and Mt Difficulty. More recently Central Otago has again subdivided into areas producing subtly different wines based on unique terriors such as Bannockburn, Gibbston Valley and Wanaka.
The latest sub-region appears to be Waitaki, on the border between Otago and Canterbury.
A recent blind tasting of New Zealand Pinot noir featured in Cuisine magazine (issue 119), Michael Cooper reported that of the top ten wines, five came from Central Otago, four from Marlborough and one from Waipara. This compares with all top ten wines coming from Marlborough in an equivalent blind tasting from last year. Cooper suggests that this has to do with more Central Otago production becoming available in commercial quantities, than the relative qualities of the regions' Pinot noir. In addition, as the industry has matured, many of the country's top producers have made the decision to no longer submit their wines to reviews or shows.
As is the case for other New Zealand wine, New Zealand Pinot noir is fruit-driven, forward and early maturing in the bottle. It tends to be quite full bodied (for the variety), very approachable and oak maturation tends to be restrained. High quality examples of New Zealand Pinot noir, particularly from the Martinborough region, are distinguished by savoury, earthy flavours with a greater complexity.
Pinot noir is a popular grape variety all over Switzerland. In German speaking regions of Switzerland it is often called Blauburgunder. Pinot noir wines are produced in Neuchâtel, Schaffhausen, St. Gallen and Bündner Herrschaft. Neuchâtel, across the border from Burgundy, is renowned for its Pinot noir, a full bodied dry red wine. In Valais, Pinot noir is blended with Gamay to produce the well known Dôle.
By volume most Pinot noir in America is grown in California with Oregon coming in second. Other regions are Washington State, Michigan and New York.
California wine regions known for producing Pinot noir are:
Oregon wine regions known for producing Pinot noir:
Oregon Pinot noir pioneer David Lett of Eyrie Vineyards first planted Pinot noir in Oregon in 1965, and several other growers followed suit throughout the 1970s. In 1979, Lett took his wines to a competition in Paris, known in English as the Wine Olympics, and they placed third among pinots. In a 1980 rematch arranged by French wine magnate Robert Drouhin, the Eyrie vintage improved to second place. The competition instantly put Oregon on the map as a world class Pinot noir producing region.
The Willamette Valley of Oregon is at the same latitude as the Burgundy region of France, and has a similar climate in which the finicky Pinot noir grapes thrive. In 1987, Drouhin purchased land in the Willamette Valley, and in 1989 built Domaine Drouhin Oregon, a state-of-the-art, gravity-fed winery. Throughout the 1980s, the Oregon wine industry blossomed.
In recent times, wineries in New York State have come to be known for their Pinot noir, in particular the Niagara Escarpment AVA and Warm Lake Estate. The latter, in Lockport, New York, is recognized in the The Oxford Companion to Wine and has been awarded the highest ratings in New York State of any Pinot noir with its 45 acres of Pinot noir being the largest continuous planting east of the Rocky Mountains.
During 2004 and the beginning of 2005, Pinot noir became considerably more popular amongst consumers in the United States of America, Australia, New Zealand and Asia possibly because of the movie Sideways. Being lighter in style, it has benefited from a trend toward more restrained, less alcoholic wines. Robert Parker has described Pinot noir in Parker's Wine Buying Guide: