by Paige Donner
Pinot noir is a very fickle grape, requiring the utmost attention and respect in every phase of the winemaking process. Winemakers are the first to testify to this, claiming that grapes that have been handled too much can end up making wines that lack flavor and harmony.
Clearly, Pinot noir is a risky (and more expensive) proposition for the winegrower, the winemaker, and the wine drinker. But it is precisely this high-stakes gamble that makes pinot noir all the more alluring and rewarding.
There is much debate as to the origins of the variety, although one currently popular theory is that the Pinot noir grape is an offspring of Pinot meunier and Gewurztraminer. This union helps explain the characteristics behind the beloved Pinot noir. As author Stuart Pigot notes in Planet Wine, “Pinot meunier gave Pinot noir its bright, berry aromas and initial charm, while Gewurztraminer its silkiness, extravagance, nobility, and fickleness.”
The name Pinot Noir is derived from the French words for “pine” and “black” in reference to the varietals’ tightly clustered dark purple cone-shaped bunches of grapes. Therefore, Pinot noir refers both to the grape varietal as well as the wine that it produces. The skin of the Pinot noir grape is relatively thin, making it a tricky, albeit rewarding, candidate for wine production.
As mentioned by Karen MacNeil in The Wine Bible, “Winemakers adopt a minimalist approach, and often a percentage of the grapes is not crushed. Instead, whole grapes are put directly into the fermenting tanks, which also helps maximize fruity flavors in the wine. To keep those fruit flavors dominant, many wine-makers are also extremely careful and sparing in their use of new oak for aging.”
Oregon, inspired by the similar climate characteristics of Burgundy, staked its reputation on Pinot noir with much success. Thanks to ocean fog, California has shown that it too has no shortage of spots cool enough to keep Pinot grapes on the vine as they develop fine fruity flavors and texture. Notable Pinot regions in California include Los Carneros, the Russian River Valley in Sonoma and Santa Maria north of Santa Barbara.
Pinot noir is what put Oregon on the map internationally, and is the most planted in the state by far. Wineries in Oregon tend to be small family affairs. Chardonnay, Riesling and Pinot gris follow. Oregon has no such thing as cheap, bulk wine. The climate is distinctly cloudy and cool, especially in the Willamette Valley where most of the wineries are clustered. This gentle climate, which highly resembles that of Burgundy, allows for wines of good acidity and balance, moderate alcohol, and an ideal degree of flavor.
Summer Wine Reads: Johnson, Hugh. The World Atlas of Wine, Ed. 4. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994; MacNeil, Karen. The Wine Bible. New York: Workman Publishing, 2001; Pigott, Stuart. Planet Wine. London: Mitchell Beazley, 2004; Robinson, Jancis. Jancis Robinson’s Wine Course. London: BBC Books, 1995.