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Known for its high acid, low tannins and incredible ability to age, pinot noir produces some of the most sought-after wines in the world. However, despite its many redeeming qualities, it’s not always smooth sailing with this finicky variety.
On the viticultural side of things, pinot noir is actually quite difficult to grow, as its thin skins make it very susceptible to hazardous climate conditions. In the cellar, the fruit’s ultra-delicate juice also makes it highly receptive to vinification and aging techniques, so a meticulous attention to detail is required.
When all things work together for good, pinot noir grapes produce some of the most exquisite, aromatic and thought-provoking wines on the market. As always, knowing what you’re getting into and seeking out great producers is the key.
Pinot noir is a red grape variety that creates light- to medium-bodied wines high in acid and low in tannins. The grape is known for being highly temperamental, as it requires lots of attention in the vineyard since it can be prone to rot and disease. Pinot noir gets its name for the French word for pine (pinot), as its clusters grow in the shape of a pine cone, and the French word for black (noir), because of its dark-hued skins.
The pinot gris (or grigio) grape is considered to be a mutation of pinot noir, meaning that its DNA profile is exactly identical to that of pinot noir. It’s likely that pinot blanc was the original form of pinot and came long before pinot noir, though the latter is more commonly cultivated today.
It’s believed that pinot noir comes from France’s Burgundy region, where it’s still widely planted today. Its other notable homes include, but are not limited to, Australia, Austria, Germany (where it’s called spatburgunder), New Zealand, the United States (California, Oregon and New York’s Finger Lakes) and elsewhere in France (Alsace, Champagne and the Loire Valley). Pinot noir is one of the most widely planted red grape varieties around the world.
The grape is vinified in a variety of styles, and its final flavor profile is heavily dependent on where it’s grown and the vinification techniques imparted on it. A common practice in pinot noir vinification is whole-cluster fermentation, meaning that the grapes are fermented with their whole bunches (stems and seeds included), as opposed to being destemmed prior to vinification. Most pinot noir wines see some form of oak (generally neutral) during the aging process, though there are plenty of steel-vinified pinots found on the market.
Depending on where it's grown and how it’s made, pinot noir can take on a variety of characteristics. Whole-cluster fermented pinot noirs take on spicy, stemmy and herbal flavors. When aged in used woods, notes of cinnamon, vanilla and/or baking spice are common. Overall, pinot noir wines are known for their flavors of cherries, red fruits, mushroom and wet soil.
In New World regions, pinot-noir-based wines tend to be juicier, plumper and fuller-bodied. Their alcohol levels are usually slightly higher and the acid tends to be lower. In Old World regions, pinot noir often takes on more earth-driven notes. Alcohol levels are more moderate, and acidity tends to be higher. As pinot noir ages, more vegetal and “barnyard” notes commonly break through on the palate.
Pinot noir’s high levels of acid and low levels of tannins make it incredibly food-friendly on the table. Traditional pinot pairings include game birds, roasted poultry, casseroles and French-inspired stews, though you should also try these wines with charcuterie, cheese boards and fatty fish such as tuna or salmon. Basically, the world is your oyster here, although we wouldn’t recommend pairing pinot (or any red wine, for that matter) with actual oysters.
These are eight bottles to try.
Chacra Barda (Patagonia, Argentina)
This textured and tasty pinot noir is produced from biodynamically farmed fruit in the heart of Argentina’s Patagonia region. Expect layered notes of strawberries, tart raspberries, game, mushrooms and earth on the palate. Chacra is a joint venture between Piero Incisa della Rochetta, of the family behind Sassicaia, and renowned Burgundian vigneron Jean-Marc Roulot.
Chanterêves Bourgogne (Burgundy, France)
Headed by Burgundy native Guillaume Bott and Japan-born Tomoko Kuriyama, this up-and-coming micronégoce needs to be on your radar. The pair works exclusively with sustainably and organically farmed fruit and uses a light hand in the cellar. The zesty Bourgogne rouge jumps with flavors of red fruits, strawberries and wet soil.
Enderle & Moll (Baden, Germany)
This natural German spatburgunder is produced by a young winemaking duo who’s passionate about organic fruit and hands-off vinification. Flavors of cranberries, cherries and damp earth jump from the wine’s complex yet easy-drinking palate. Sip it chilled with happy-hour snacks.
Ghislaine Barthod Bourgogne Rouge (Burgundy, France)
This medium-bodied stunner from Ghislaine Barthod seriously overdelivers for the price. Notes of cherries, violets and dusty red fruits harmoniously collide on the wine’s well-integrated palate. The fruit comes from the estate’s Bons Batons parcel, located at the crossroads of Gilly les Citeaux and Chambolle-Musigny.
Kumeu River Village (Auckland, New Zealand)
This thirst-quenching bottle from New Zealand gorgeously illustrates the country’s potential for world-class pinot. Notes of red currants, forest berries and white pepper ooze from the wine’s delicate light-bodied palate. Watch out, Old World regions. This New World bottle is certain to give you a run for your money. It’s best enjoyed chilled.
Tyler (Santa Rita Hills, California)
Produced at the hands of Justin Willett, one of the region’s most talented winemakers, this ripe yet restrained pinot oozes with flavors of sweet red cherries, wild berries and chalk. It’s made with partial whole clusters and vinified in mostly neutral oak. Enjoy it with mushroom-based sauces and crockpot chili.
Vivier (Sonoma Coast, California)
After falling in love with his American wife in France, Burgundy native Stéphane Vivier headed to Sonoma to bring his viticultural talents to the U.S. His entry-level pinot is smooth, silky and dominated by flavors of strawberry jam, citrus peel and sweet spice. Its fruit comes from three vineyard sites in the Petaluma Gap. The wine then ages in seasoned French oak and is bottled unfined/unfiltered.
Walter Scott Cuvée Ruth (Willamette Valley, Oregon)
This ruby-hued pinot from Oregon’s Willamette Valley is dominated by mineral-driven notes of ripe raspberries, black tea and pepper. Firm tannins and bright acid lead to a long, lingering finish. The wine is produced with 30% whole clusters and aged in 40% new oak. Sip it with roasted meats or grilled veggies for a simple yet satisfying pairing.