La bête noire
As a wine grape, Pinot Noir is the bête noire of its family, Les Pinots—Blanc, Meunier, Gris and Noir. Pinot Blanc makes respectable wines from Alsace and Northern Italy; Pinot Gris, from the same places. Pinot Meunier is a mainstay in Champagne. But while Pinot Noir grows more widely, it does so much more unsteadily.
In a sense, it is the Mae West of the famille Pinot. When it’s good, it’s very, very good. But when it’s bad, it’s as bad as bad gets.
Pinot Noir mutates capriciously (over 230 strains exist, some polar opposites). It benefits from long, slow ripening—difficult to achieve, not the rule, in the cool areas where it best grows (Burgundy, especially, or Oregon). And its winemaker must babysit it, in both the vineyard and especially in the winery. It is the wine world’s most demanding wine grape.
Power & Finesse
But all who work with it succumb to “Pinot envy” because no other wine displays Pinot Noir’s combination of power and tenderness. Power: persistence of flavor and aroma; waves of fruit. Tenderness: can’t-feel-’em tannins; a voluptuous, silken texture.
If Cabernet Sauvignon is Rex Harrison—angular, high-toned—then Pinot Noir is Jean-Paul Belmondo: sexy, smoky, smooth. If Sangiovese is Andy Garcia—sassy, in-your-face—then Pinot Noir is Marcello Mastroianni: soft shoe, polished. If Zinfandel is Harrison Ford—all-American, rough-and-tumble—then Pinot Noir is George Clooney: warm and approachable.
Pinot Noir is also cited as the candidate for the world’s most food-friendly wine. For instance, it is the classic “red wine with fish,” as anyone who has enjoyed grilled salmon with Pinot Noir can say.
To make it into a wine, it’s rather startling how many decisions winemakers must make about making Pinot Noir. In the vineyard, they need to decide what sort of trellis system supports the vines; how much water to give them; the picking date for the harvest (and the “recipe” numbers for the grapes, things such as acidity, sugar and pH levels).
Then, in the winery, they need to determine whether the grapes are fermented as whole berries, with or without their stems, or perhaps as clusters of grapes; whether to use indigenous or added yeasts and, if the latter, what strain; whether the pre-fermentation maceration (if there is one) is cool or warm; how high the temperature goes during the main fermentation; the size of the fermenters and whether they are open or closed; and if the cap (of skins that rise to the top of the fermenting wine) during fermentation is punched down or not and how many times a day and in what manner.
Finally, they need to determine when to press off the wine and in what kind of press; how and for how long to age the wine in oak, if at all; and, if in barrel, the wine’s racking and fining schedule and final bottling date.
What It Likes
Whew—and why the fuss? Three answers: (1) Pinot Noir is notoriously difficult to make and requires constant attention from bud break to bottle; (2) unlike most grapes turned to wine, Pinot Noir is wholly a creature of the various choices made for it; (3) it can taste so delicious that it makes all fusses spent on it worth the while.
It was long thought that the best Pinot Noir required a cool climate, as in Burgundy (this was a consequence of the thinking that the best Pinot Noir was solely Burgundian). But warmer climates—Margaret River in Australia, for example, or much of California—make compelling Pinot Noir. It may not always be “Burgundian,” but it is delicious Pinot Noir.
That said, many terrific Pinot Noirs come from the cooler vine growing districts of Oregon, the Russian River Valley, Carneros, Santa Barbara and Martinborough (not to say Champagne, where even more of it grows than in Burgundy and where it is the foundation for most of the sparkling wine that is made there).
But, about Pinot Noir, the Burgundians will have the upper hand always. For they claim, in fact, that they do not grow Pinot Noir; they merely use Pinot Noir as the vehicle to communicate the voice of individual terroirs.
And perhaps that is the point. More so than any other wine grape, Pinot Noir translates where it grows—its vineyard’s soil, climate and location—into what writer Matt Kramer coins “somewhereness,” the specificity of its site, the voice of a place.
What It’s Like
For years, wine drinkers have debated whether Pinto Noir is best drunk young or aged, Save for lesser wines, the truth is at both times. Almost all Pinot Noir is delicious young, but it goes through an awkward period before its maturity (10 years or more). Open new vintages early, enjoy them and, if they merit it, keep them for 6-8 years before going at them again.
Pinot Noir is described as tasting like strawberries, black cherries, leather, hung game, mushrooms, spice, humus (and on and on)—and its does taste so, and it doesn’t. Some simple, straightforward, well-priced Pinot Noirs do taste like strawberries, but for most Pinot Noir, aromas and tastes are elusive. Some of these descriptors might work at one point, while others do at another.
With food, Pinot Noir is extraordinarily flexible. Of course, classic Burgundian fare such as coq au vin, chicken with tarragon and boeuf bourguignon work perfectly. A cult, it sometimes seems, matches Oregon Pinot Noir with salmon—and nothing else. Many Burgundian cheeses—L’Epoisses, Ami du Chambertin, Langres, Aisy Cendre—are delicious with Pinot Noir, as is the family of triple creams (Pierre Robert, Brillat-Savarin, Delice de Bourgogne, etc.).
~ Bill St John, St John on Wine