The Art of Tasting Wine with James Flewellen: Spotlight on Pinot Noir
Pinot Noir is a light-skinned red grape originating from Burgundy in its modern form. Although, the Burgundians have been working with Pinot for around a thousand years, so the term ‘modern’ should be taken with a grain of salt!
The grape typically produces light-bodied wines with aromas ranging from fresh red fruit (raspberry, strawberry, cherry) to black (blackberry, mulberry) depending on the local climate of the vineyard. Warmer sites tend to produce wines with ‘blacker’ and riper fruit flavours. Alongside the fruit, good Pinot exhibits a fresh minerally, or even pleasantly ‘grassy’ character – complemented by the grape’s naturally high acidity on the palate. With bottle maturation, the wine develops notes of mushroom and decaying autumnal leaves — expressed evocatively by the French term sous-bois — which translates as ‘forest floor’. The thin skins of the grapes mean that the wines are generally low in tannin, though tannins are usually very fine-grained and punctuate the wine sufficiently so it can be enjoyed with food.
Pinot Noir is a notoriously fickle grape and is very difficult to handle. Burgundy’s millennium of association with Pinot Noir means that it produces the best in the world — and that the Burgundian clones of the grape are ideally suited to Burgundy’s continental climate. Explaining Burgundy’s appellation system would take an entire post of its own, but there are two main subregions for Pinot Noir there: Côte de Beaune and Côte de Nuits. These are further divided into villages, which may be further identified by vineyard — and these can be classified as either Premier Cru or Grand Cru indicating the quality level of the grapes.
Outside of Burgundy, Pinot Noir is found in the Loire (under the appellation of Sancerre Rouge) and Alsace in France, and also in Germany, where the grape is called Spätburgunder. The Loire and Germany in particular are typically cooler in the growing season and less sunny than Burgundy, and wines produced there are leaner and lighter, with a more leafy aspect to the flavours and aromas.
Many parts of the new world have attempted to find a new home for Pinot Noir. The most successful are those with a similar climate to Burgundy, although there is no ideal alternative region yet. New world producers are unencumbered by the appellation laws of Europe and can thus apply a range of new viticultural and winemaking techniques to their wines. Some, for instance, will mature their wines in new French oak barrels, which is relatively rare in Burgundy (for the good reason that new oak flavours overpower the subtlety of the grape). The best producers, however, still look to Burgundy as a model and are surprisingly traditional in their winemaking.
The most promising regions for good quality Pinot Noir in the new world are Oregon in the USA, Tasmania and Mornington Peninsula in Australia, and three regions in New Zealand: Martinborough, Marlborough and Central Otago. California has also tried its hand at Pinot, though to my mind the warmer climate there, in general, doesn’t suit the grape. It results in wines with high alcohol and overripe fruit flavours, elements the naturally light-weight grape can’t handle. That said, there are some notable exceptions to this rule, and Au Bon Climat is one of my favourite non-Burgundian Pinots.
The world is certainly mad on Pinot. Oregon hosts an annual international Pinot Noir festival and New Zealand has a similar triennial event (next one not ’til 2016 I’m afraid!). The benefit of this new world explosion of interest in Pinot Noir is that good quality Pinot is now more affordable — although given how difficult and labour-intensive it is to make, if you’re drinking a cheap Pinot, you’re probably not drinking a good one!
James Flewellen is The Rambling Epicure wine columnist. James is a biophysicist at the University of Oxford. Originally from New Zealand, the huge range of wine James discovered in Europe spurred his interest in all things vinous. He became involved in the University’s Blind Wine Tasting Society and has recently completed a two-year term as its President. During this time he represented the University in a number of domestic and international wine tasting competitions, winning several awards. He is currently completing the WSET Diploma in Wine and Spirits. James has a passion for wine communication and education and runs the Oxford Wine Blog and wine tasting courses through the Oxford Wine Academy.