Exploring Pinot Noir’s Global Flavor Profile


5 minute Read

Exploring Pinot Noir’s Global Flavor Profile

Grape varieties are the most common way we communicate our wine preferences to sommeliers or shop owners. “I like a Pinot Noir,” someone might say. Simple and straightforward, right?

The problem with this variety in particular is that, while Pinot Noir has some classic varietal markers — red fruit, for instance — it can actually taste remarkably different depending on its region. Is the guest asking for a full-bodied, candied fruit bomb, like California Pinot Noir? Or a delicate, cool-climate Mosel Spätburgunder?

Despite the fact that Pinot Noir is made in nearly every major wine-producing country, it is actually a very difficult grape to grow successfully. That it’s grown in areas as dissimilar as Champagne and California is due to its popularity among wine lovers, not its adaptability. A thin-skinned grape, it splits and sunburns easily. It’s also an early-budding variety, making it susceptible to late-season frosts. Pinot Noir works best in regions with long, cool growing seasons and well-drained, limestone or clay-based soil.

That’s not to say that Pinot Noir can’t grow in warm areas with fertile soils, but it probably shouldn’t be grown in these areas. This is why some Pinot Noir wines, particularly inexpensive, mass-market ones, are high in body and alcohol, with less distinct flavors.

It’s difficult to pinpoint one classic style for Pinot Noir around the world but, generally, quality Pinot Noir should hover around medium-bodied, with high acidity, enough tannins to give the wine structure, and notes like red cherries and berries, herbs, and floral qualities. Despite being on the lighter side of the red grape spectrum, Pinot Noir can stand up to aging in new or old oak, but it’s often based on producer rather than region.

Champagne

Champagne, France

While it’s not one of the first regions that comes to mind when comparing Pinot Noir styles, it’s actually the most planted grape in Champagne. It can be tough to recognize, though, because Pinot Noir typically isn’t used as a red wine here; producers typically press Pinot Noir grapes off their skins right away.

Champagne’s location pushes the limits for ripening, so Pinot Noir should be planted in areas that get enough sun exposure. It finds its best iterations in the vineyards of the Montagne de Reims, in the heart of Champagne, and the warmer Aube. Champagne’s chalk and limestone soils, along with cooler temperatures, boost Pinot Noir’s acidity, but compared to the other grapes of the region, Pinot Noir is known for contributing structure, richness, and body to blends. Some producers also use Pinot Noir to produce a red version of Coteaux Champenois, the name for still wine in Champagne, or to make the Aube speciality Rosé de Riceys, a still rosé wine.

Burgundy

Burgundy, France

It’s fairly impossible to sum up the style of Burgundy’s Pinot Noir wines into a few sentences, but it’s safe to say that Burgundy is the king of the Pinot Noir grape. It’s the predominant grape grown in the region, and the two are so closely associated that a person need not name the grape variety at all. Red Burgundy simply is Pinot Noir.

Burgundy has Pinot Noir’s ideal climate: a long, cool growing season, sun-angled slopes to promote ripening, and limestone-based but varied soils. This environment is, in fact, the reason why red Burgundy can have so many different iterations from the same grape. This is why the wines of Gevrey-Chambertin, known for structure and intensity, can differ so greatly from those 10 minutes down the road in Chambolle-Musigny, known for elegance and aromatics.

While Pinot Noir plantings overtake Chardonnay in quantity throughout Burgundy’s heart, the Côte d’Or, the more northerly Côte de Nuits sub-region is more famed for its red wines. Regardless of where red Burgundy is from, Burgundian Pinot Noir is sure to be layered, acid-driven, and earthy, often one of the most ageable wines in the world.

Germany

Baden, Germany

Many only know Germany for its Riesling, but its key red grape is actually Pinot Noir, called Spätburgunder in German. First documented in Germany in the 14th century, Pinot Noir is grown throughout Germany’s winemaking regions, from the Mosel to Rheingau to the Ahr. Styles can vary from light and lean to rich and oaked, often depending more on producer than the region. Overall, German Pinot Noir tends towards a linear style, rather than a fat one.

The German region most associated with Pinot Noir is Baden. A large region just across the French border from Alsace, Baden specializes in rich, layered, savory Pinot Noir wines, particularly from the warm, sunny Kaiserstuhl area, known for its volcanic and loess soils.

Willamette Valley

Willamette Valley, Oregon

Oregon has adopted Pinot Noir as its signature grape since the 1960s, when a few California producers traveled north to find a cooler climate for the grape. The Willamette Valley is the heart of the state’s production. The area is akin to a warmer, wetter Burgundy, with a long, cool growing season that can be quite unpredictable year to year. While each of the Willamette’s six sub-regions has a different mesoclimate and soil, producing different styles of Pinot Noir, the overall region tends to have a hybrid Old World-New World style. Willamette Pinot is lighter and earthier than most California examples but has more round, juicy red fruit than most Burgundy, with a distinct cherry-cola note.

California

Santa Barbara, California

Pinot Noir has played a minor role in California winemaking since the 1800s, but in the past 20 years it’s become a statewide favorite. Unfortunately, its popularity means that some producers are planting Pinot Noir in hot, fertile areas, meaning that much of the Pinot Noir coming out of California is full-bodied, boozy, and uninteresting. However, several California regions succeed in making balanced, restrained, layered Pinot Noir wines grown in a variety of soils. In Sonoma County, the warmer Russian River Valley produces fruitier styles of Pinot Noir, while Carneros and the Sonoma Coast are known for cooler-climate, lean but sunny styles. Several areas of the more southerly Santa Barbara County, including the Santa Maria and Santa Ynez Valleys and the Sta. Rita Hills, are also being recognized for restrained, earthier styles of Pinot Noir with plentiful candied fruit.

Chile

Casablanca, Chile

While Pinot Noir vines have been present in Chile for years, it wasn’t until recent years that winemakers began to critically analyze the country’s regions in which Pinot Noir best succeeds. Therefore, like in the U.S., some Chilean Pinot Noir can be generic. But in the country’s cooler-climate coastal and southern zones, Pinot Noir is very promising.

Winemaker Rodrigo Soto of Ritual Wines thinks that Casablanca’s cool, coastal influence and granitic soils produce a unique style of Pinot Noir from Chile, layered, with round fruit, while Matías Cruzat, head winemaker at Viña San Pedro’s 1865 Winery, notes that examples from Elqui and Leyda can be elegant and fresh. Winemakers are also experimenting in the sparsely planted southern regions like Bío Bío. Chile may not have found a singular Pinot Noir identity just yet, but its variety of climates and soil types may prove to make it one of the grape’s most exciting countries.

New Zealand

Central Otago, NZ

New Zealand may be best-known for the aromatic Sauvignon Blanc grape, but it has several excellent Pinot Noir regions as well, known for producing full-bodied but not overblown styles. The Marlborough region produces the most Pinot Noir in the country, but it can be variable in quality. On the North Island, the Wairarapa subregion of Martinborough makes a dark, tannic, savory style of Pinot Noir that some liken to Burgundy. Central Otago is the New Zealand region most famous  for Pinot Noir, as the winemakers here have adopted the grape as their local specialty. High-altitude and southerly, the climate can be difficult, with cold winters, short, hot summers, and little rain. The grapes here, planted on varied soil including schist, clay, and loam, are able to gain high potential alcohol while maintaining high acidity. Central Otago Pinot Noir is generally medium-to-full-bodied, with seductive aromatics and soft, ripe red fruit.

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