3 Questions Wine Lovers Always Ask About Pinot Noir
The words “pinot noir” on the label of a bottle of wine are a comfort zone for most consumers. We recognize the grape. We’ve probably tasted it before. It’s familiar territory.
However, today’s expressions of pinot noir can also be all over the map in terms of style, aroma, texture and levels of alcohol. When variables are that diverse, and the expressions of it are as assorted as we find them on the shelf today, is pinot noir really so familiar and comfortable?
It was a question I explored last week during a group tasting with enthusiastic and experienced consumers, as we tasted through six different expressions of pinot noir from all over the world. (I wrote about this tasting in the first part of this two-part mini series.) We started in Burgundy, pinot noir’s ancestral home in France that establishes the traditional benchmark for representations of the grape from other regions. We then moved to Piedmont in Italy, a less familiar production area for pinot noir and one that is better recognized for its nebbiolo, barbaresco and dolcetto.
The third wine, from the Victoria appellation in Australia, shifted us from the Old World to the New World and from the northern hemisphere to the southern. The remaining three wines were produced domestically: two from California (Monterey and the Russian River Valley in Sonoma county) and one from the Willamette Valley in Oregon.
Here were three questions and themes we discussed during the tasting, that reflect general consumer curiosity and sentiment around pinot noir, especially as the style and expressions of the grape change and evolve practically before our eyes.
What are the characteristics of pinot noir as a grape?
The general characteristics of pinot noir, especially in its current iterations, are difficult to pigeon hole.
Traditionally, pinot noir has been described as a “finicky” or sensitive grape to grow, and those viticultural challenges have added to the cachet (and the price) of the wines. (This has been the case most notably in pinot noir from Burgundy, though the next generation of growers and winemakers are pushing back against that stereotype.) “The Pinot Noir grower’s lot is not an easy one,” writes wine critic Jancis Robinson MW, pointing to its thin skins and its tendency to ripen early as two notable challenges that growers need to navigate.
Thin-skinned grapes naturally lead to lighter-toned wines in the glass, since the depth of color of the juice is influenced largely by the pigmentation in the skins. Our tasting group saw the spectrum of pinot noir’s color most dramatically when we looked at two examples in particular side by side: 2018 MWC Victoria Pinot Noir, the only wine from Australia in the line up, was significantly more pale in color when contrasted with the 2018 Diora La Petite Grace Pinot Noir from Monterey, California, which showed dark ruby and almost inky in the glass.
We’re seeing a wide variation of styles of pinot noir. Is that due more to location, or to climate change?
They’re interrelated, for sure. Location — meaning the geography and the terroir of a vineyard — shapes and influences its grapes, whether pinot noir or any other grape variety. As climate change continues to impact variables such as weather events, wind patterns, temperature and precipitation, the agriculture of a location will also continue to change. The plants and vines on a piece of land will reflect those changes, which result in a different expression and style of wine over time.
What food should I pair with pinot noir?
Answers to this question are as varied as the expressions of the grape in the glass. Traditional and reliable food pairing recommendations used to be the dishes served in the regions where pinot noir thrives, such as beef bourguignon and pasta dishes with meat. More recent recommendations include everything from salmon to roast chicken.
The point is that what we eat with pinot noir depends on the style of pinot noir. Since the style can vary so broadly, as we saw in last week’s tasting of six examples of pinot noir from around the world, the food pairing recommendations also vary. Which leaves me to finish with my all-time favorite rule of thumb: drink, and eat, what you like.