September 2, 2015
Understand Pinot Noir Across Regions
While the uninitiated might think that Pinot Noir is just Pinot Noir, wine enthusiasts know the varietal varies drastically based on where it’s grown and produced. “Pinot Noir is a remarkable grape, with a profound ability to reflect its terroir, which is why it has been so fascinating to see it establish itself in several diverse winegrowing regions,” says James Hall, winemaker and co-founder of Patz & Hall in California’s Sonoma Coast. If you’ve ever found yourself wondering whether you prefer French or California Pinot, or perhaps how Pinot from Oregon compares to New Zealand or Australia or South Africa, keep reading!
“With riper fruits, modern wine technology, warmer growing conditions and wine made to drink earlier rather than cellaring them, I’ve seen a lot of changes with these six countries with growing Pinot Noir over the past 30 years,” adds Paul Mekis, director of wine for Rosewood Hotels & Resorts and the sommelier for Madera (a one Michelin star restaurant). Although Pinot Noir is a nuanced variety that can express itself in dramatically different ways even within the same region (and even in different blocks in the same vineyard), there are some generalizations that can be made about the grape. Take a look:
When it comes to French Pinot, it’s all about Burgundy, “the progenitor of Pinot Noir,” asserts Hall. “The soils of Burgundy are where the grape evolved—so Burgundy is Pinot Noir’s most natural home, and when the weather is perfect, the great wines of Burgundy are the standard by which all other Pinot Noirs are judged.” So what can you expect from Burgundian Pinot? With a varied climate known for its challenging conditions, vintage is key, says Hall. Expect to pay a pretty penny for wines from this region, which are some of the most expensive in the world. French Pinot also tends to be “higher in acid, more mineral driven and less fruity, with more savory notes,” says Hall. Lynn Penner-Ash, winemaker and co-owner of Penner-Ash Wine Cellars in Oregon's Willamette Valley, agrees: “Classically, Burgundian wines are more red fruited, brighter in acidity and with more austerity to their tannins. They’re also more old school and produced with lots of hand work, rather than mechanized tools often found in American wine regions.” It’s unanimous—Mekis also says to expect higher acid in French Pinots, with notes of “dried rose petal, raspberry, tart cherries, forest floor and limestone, plus lower alcohol that tends to age longer and pair with foods better.”
California’s wine regions are so varied and vast that it’s difficult to make a generalization about all Pinot Noir from the state. But for comparison’s sake, most of the state’s best Pinots are grown in the cooler coastal regions, like Sonoma, Anderson Valley and the Russian River Valley, where marine influences, fog and cool nights amend issues with heat, says Hall. These regions also receive abundant sunshine, ensuring really ripe wines that have less variation between vintages than somewhere like Burgundy. As a general rule of thumb, California Pinots are usually bigger, bolder and fruitier than other regions says Hall, with notes of sweet black cherry, black raspberry, cola, vanilla spice and big rich lush fruits, adds Mekis. “They’re dark in color for Pinot Noir with fairly high alcohol and usually spend 14-16 months in small French oak.” Though decidedly less expensive than Burgundian Pinot, the best wines from the very best vineyards can be quite expensive (as in hundreds of dollars per bottle), though the good ones start around $30 to $50 per bottle.
Many wine drinkers find Oregon Pinot, particularly from the Willamette Valley, to be a hybrid between light, high acid Burgundy Pinots and bold, fruity California Pinots, says Hall. It’s cooler in Oregon than in California, though not as cool as Burgundy, and as such the wines have a nice bright, acidity and fresh fruit flavor, says Penner-Ash. “You can taste the berries we grow here, and our wines are more fruit forward than Burgundy, so you can drink them younger.” Adds Mekis: “Oregon Pinots are a bit earthier with strawberry, dried herbs, exotic spice and tea notes.” Vintage can vary a bit more here than California—“in warmer vintages, it can produce deeper, more extracted wines, while in cooler years the Pinot Noirs can be more delicate and mineral driven,” says Hall. Expect the same price point as California ($30-$50 per bottle entry point), though Penner-Ash adds that “if anything, our wines should be more expensive because we’re getting less crop per acre than California.”
“After Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir is really the star in New Zealand’s Central Otago and Marlborough regions, a very cold maritime winegrowing region—colder than Burgundy—which results in very bright, fresh, nervy Pinot Noirs with lots of cranberry and red cherry notes,” says Hall. Mekis seconds that notion: “Vines are planted closer together to hold in the heat, [so you get] elegant notes of raspberry with a stronger spice and meaty aromas.” Likewise, Penner-Ash says she picks up an herbal note in their wines that reminds her of Oregon Pinots, particularly what Oregon was like in the early years. Pinots from New Zealand are more reasonably priced, as the region is still growing (albeit rapidly), so expect to find good wines starting at $15 to $25 per bottle.
As Pinot Noir grows best in cooler regions, you’ll find it in Australia’s coolest areas, likeVictoria, the Yarra Valley and McLaren Vale. “While a focus on Pinot Noir is fairly new in Australia, there is a huge wealth of winegrowing and winemaking knowledge, and there is a real desire to establish Australian Pinot Noir on the same level as Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay,” says Hall, who finds Australian Pinot Noirs to be very structured and acid-driven, with nice red fruit notes. Similarly, Mekis gets hints of ripe cherry, black raspberry on the nose and violets, dried leaves and earthy tea. The price point is a bit above New Zealand, but still less than Oregon, California and, of course, Burgundy—expect to spend at least $25 per bottle for a good expression.
“While South Africa has a great established wine industry, Pinotage—a crossing of Pinot Noir and Cinsault—has a much richer history in the country than Pinot Noir, which is a very small production mostly in the Walker Bay region,” explains Hall. That being said, the Pinot that does come out of South Africa can be quite good, though particularly more earthy with tar and strawberry notes. Penner-Ash finds their Pinots to be very dark fruited, as does Mekis, who “always gets a baked cherry flavor with gamey notes of smoke, licorice, earth and granite rock.” Naturally, you’ll find the best values from this region, with good wines starting in the $10 to $20 per bottle range.
Be sure to whip out your Coravin so you can personally sample Pinot Noir from around the world, without having to open multiple bottles at once (read: goodbye waste!).