Your Wine IQ

Pinot Noir

International Varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon   Merlot   Pinot Noir   Syrah

Major Varieties: Cabernet Franc    Grenache    Malbec    Nebbiolo    Sangiovese    Tempranillo    Zinfandel

Regional Varieties:   Baga    Barbera    Blaufränkisch    Brachetto    Carignan    Carménère    Cinsaut    Dolcetto    Gamay    Graciano    Lagrein    Malvasia Nera    Marzemino    Montepulciano    Mourvèdre    Nero d'Avola    Petit Verdot    Petite Sirah    Pinot Meunier    Pinotage    Touriga Nacional

Pinot Noir grapes

Pinot grapes.
This photo is in the public domain.

The Pinot Noir grape, which happens to be one of the most finicky grapes in the world, is also one of the most popular. This is certainly due to its delicious but sophisticated fruity flavors. In the Côte-d'Or in Burgundy, France, Pinot Noir is the only red grape planted; the resulting wines are often considered the best in the world. Nothing can really beat Burgundy for variety, since a piece of ground can produce a categorically different wine from one only a few miles away. For this reason, over 700 ways to classify Burgundy wine exist, with Premier Cru and especially Grand Cru vineyards commanding prices unheard of elsewhere in the wine world.

The great Burgundies undoubtedly surpass even the best imitations, but the Côte-d'Or is not as reliable as some would think. Wines from there can be expensive and overrated. And growers outside of France entirely are having success with the grape. American Pinot Noir is increasing in popularity. Pinot requires weather slightly cooler to flourish; after decades of experimentation, winemakers found that the US region that strikes the best balance is Oregon. Domaine Drouhin, a Burgundy producer, makes some wine in the Willamette Valley, Oregon, as do many of the domaine's rivals, indicating that the Burgundians themselves think the Willamette Valley is their closest competitor.

Australia is not well-known for its Pinot Noir, but New Zealand is one of the few regions in the world that offers good Pinot for less than $30 or $40.

Burgundy wines

A couple of Burgundies from Gevrey-Chambertin,
one of the top villages for Pinot Noir in the world.
Photo by Limegreen on Wikipedia
Licensed under Creative Commons SA 3

One of the main differences between Cabernet and Pinot Noir is that Pinot Noir lacks the tannic bitterness of Cabernet. Of course, this is good for those who dislike tannins, but it creates one great flaw in Pinot Noir: lack of longevity. Tannin is a natural preservative, and Pinot Noir's almost complete lack of it prevents the wine from lasting longer than a decade or two. This is a big disadvantage for the "cellarers" but those looking for immediate gratification will find that great Burgundy's near-term drinkability is a big boon.


The appellation, Savigny les Beaune, which is a prominent Côte
d'Or area, is much more prominent than the name of the actual
Photo by Guenther Eichler.
Licensed under Creative Commons SA 3.

Pinot Noir is considered a light, fruity style of wine, as opposed to big, bold grapes like Cabernet. Though often true, this is misleading, as many a Burgundian producer can tell you. The general New World style is on the light side, but in Pinot's ancestral home styles run the gamut from very feminine to wines like Richebourg that are among the most rich and tannic in the world.

The difficulties faced by the winemaker are nearly infinite in the process of producing Pinot Noir. The grape is very sensitive to light, soil types, and pruning techniques, and is vulnerable to diseases because of its thin skin. It doesn't stop there, either: the fermentation methods and yeast strains can kill even a good harvest of grapes. So finding a good Pinot Noir is difficult, even in Burgundy. This sometimes causes people to avoid its wines, but for those who love a great Pinot the risk and toil that went into making it only enhances the appeal.

French Cabernet, Merlot, and Syrah, the three other international red grape varieties, have all been equaled, or perhaps even surpassed, by New World examples. This is not true of Pinot Noir. We are still waiting for a Californian or Oregonian competitor to even come close to Burgundy in quality. This is a turn-off for people with limited budgets, yet another drawback to Pinot Noir. And Pinots made in bad years, when the production process is not perfect, can be overpriced and unpleasant. However, when everything is in sync, there's nothing a like a great Pinot, and that's why the best Burgundies have sold for no less than $35,000.