Pinot Noir (PEE-no No-WAHR)


Thought to be more than two thousand years old, pinot noir (along with savagin and gouais blanc) is considered one of the “founder varieties”—the great-great grandparent of scores of other well known grapes from chardonnay and gamay, to corvina and garganega. It is also according to geneticist José Vouillamoz, the likely grandparent of syrah. While the parents and exact origin of pinot noir itself are not known, the grape is thought to have come into existence in northeast France. The name, by the way, is generally thought to derive from pin, meaning “pine,” because the small clusters resemble a pine cone. By virtue of its old age, pinot noir has also beget hundreds of clones of itself. The most well-known is undoubtedly pinot meunier, the so-called third “variety” in Champagne, France, but actually a clone of pinot noir that exhibits more fruity flavors. Two other main clones are color mutations: pinot blanc and pinot gris (pinot grigio). If a computer search were conducted on the words and phrases used to describe pinot noir, this detail would emerge: More than any other wine, pinot is described in sensual terms. Pinot noir’s association with sensuality derives from the remarkably supple, silky textures and erotically earthy aromas that great pinot noirs display. Aromatically and in terms of flavor, the best pinots can exude not only fruit flavors—warm baked cherries, plums, rhubarb, pomegranate, strawberry jam—but also the sense of damp earth and rotting leaves (the French call this sous bois, or forest floor), plus mushrooms, worn leather, and what’s sometimes in Europe called animali—a highly attractive, male, sweaty smell (like a man who’s run one mile; I personally find that five miles is a whole different situation). A old friend of mine who, for many years was the winemaker of California’s famous Etude pinot noir, used to say that great pinot noir always possesses a “hint of corruption.” Pinot noir is lighter in body and far less tannic than cabernet sauvignon, merlot, or syrah. It is lighter in color, too, leading beginning wine drinkers to assume that pinot noir’s flavors are feeble. For the great pinots, just the reverse is true. Though they are often frail in color, their aromas and flavors can be deep and riveting. Of all the well-known grapes, pinot noir is considered the most difficult to grow and make into wine. Because the variety is so old, it has had substantial time to mutate, and thus more than a thousand registered pinot noir clones have already been identified and catalogued, and who knows how many others exist? And of course there are the two major well-known white clones that are color mutations—pinot blanc and pinot gris. Pinot noir is also highly sensitive to climate changes and variations in soil composition, is unstable during winemaking, and oxidizes easily. All this makes pinot noir a riskier (and more expensive) proposition for the winegrower, the winemaker, and the wine drinker than, say, cabernet sauvignon. But it’s precisely this enological gamble that often makes pinot noir all the more fascinating and irresistible. The region of Burgundy, in France, where all the red wines (except Beaujolais), are made from pinot noir is, historically, the most renowned area for the variety. The most expensive pinots still come from this small place, including the most expensive and legendary pinot noir of all: Romanée-Conti from the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Prices for this wine can be significantly different based on the quality of the vintage; but even modest vintages command double-take prices. Two vintages in the late 2000s, for example, carried price tags of $4800 and $12,900. That’s per bottle. In 2010, a single bottle cost close to $6,000 at release. In the New World, Oregon has specialized in pinot noir since the 1970s, and many of the best, delicate pinots in the United States come from here. And New Zealand is fast emerging as the southern hemisphere’s “Oregon.” Yet, I’d argue that no place beats California in terms of the sheer diversity, complexity, and deliciousness of pinot noir. From the Sta. Rita Hills, Santa Maria Valley, and Santa Ynez Valley in southern California to the Santa Lucia Highlands in central California to Carneros, the Sonoma Coast, and the Russian River Valley in the north (plus many other top small appellations in between), California is a hotbed of fantastic pinot.

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