In The Know: What is Pinot Noir?

Anyone with a passing interest in will have heard (or read) about Pinot Noir. And mostly it will be how great the wines are, and maybe what a pain in the a$$ the grape is to grow. So let’s take a look at it from the start: What Is Pinot Noir?

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The Pinot Family Tree (or should that be vine?)

The history of the Pinot family is more compelling than the old English aristocracy and has more inbreeding! The name Pinot is thought to refer to the pine cone shape of the bunches as they appear on the vine. It is known that Pinot Noir is quite an ancient variety. Pinot Noir is prone to mutate in the vineyard with uncountable numbers of clones around the world. Sharing the same basic DNA, Pinots Noir, Blanc and Gris have the potential to change into another. Pinot Noir, along with the lowly Gouais Blanc is responsible for the Burgundian varieties Chardonnay and Aligoté, as well as Beaujolais’ ‘Gamay’ and Muscadet’s ‘Melon de Bourgogne’, to name but a few. Despite all the gender bending, one thing that can be agreed upon is that the Pinot family is capable of producing some of the best wines in the world! None more so than Pinot Noir.

Pinot Noir 2

Pinot Noir In The Vineyard

“This is the most elusive grape. It is relatively early ripening and extremely sensitive to terroir. Planted somewhere hot Pinot Noir will ripen too fast and fail to develop any of the fascinating flavour compounds its relatively Rob Hall Yarra Valley Pinot Noir 2013thin skins can harbour. Its perfect place on earth is the Cote d’Or in Burgundy where, if the clones, vine-growing, and winemaking techniques are right, it can convey intricate difference of terroir like no other variety. So haunting are great red Burgundy’s charms that growers everywhere try to emulate them, but so far only New Zealand, Oregon, and cooler corners of California have had much luck. It is rarely blended for still wine, but with Chardonnay and its cousin Pinot Meunier it is part of the standard recipe for Champagne and other top-quality sparkling wine” – The World Atlas of Wine 5th Edition.
The thin skins of Pinot Noir make it susceptible to rot and vulnerable to hail. And if you plant it in the wrong place it will just be woefully bad.

Pinot Noir In the Winery

Wines made from Pinot Noir tend to be low colour and light-medium in weight. The best are highly aromatic with low to medium tannin, medium acidity, capable of being quite complex, and at their best they are able to age for a long term. Some Pinot can stand up to 100% new oak but it does not blend well with other varieties. 

Pol Roger Vintage Brut 2002Uses for Pinot Noir

As mentioned above, Pinot Noir is used as a table wine grape but is also an important component of Sparkling wine production, including Champagne. It is also an excellent wine for the production of Rosé style wines due to its aromatic qualities, lighter body and lower alcohol.

Flavours of Pinot Noir

Red berries; strawberry & raspberry & cherry, plums, rose petal, violets, spice; especially aromatic Asian spice such as star anise, undergrowth/truffle, game meats, minerals; limestone & stone.


Pinot Nero – Italy. Spatburgunder – Germany. And numerous expletives in the local dialect of the viticulture team.

Famous Regions

Burgundy – The home of Pinot. Some of the greatest and most long lived wines in the world.Tollot Beaut Corton-Bressandes Grand Cru 2009
Champagne – The pinnacle of all Sparkling wines. Pinot Noir adds body, complexity and ageability to the blend.
Central Otago – World renowned for full bodied and powerful Pinot, sometimes accused of being Grenache like.
California (Napa Valley, Sonoma etc) – Thrust into fame after 1976 ‘Judgement of Paris’ tasting. The top wines are world class and priced accordingly.
Oregon – Commercial production only started in 1960s. Great climate for Pinot and some wineries show excellent quality.
Mornington Peninsula – Arguably Australia’s best Pinot region. Site selection is crucial to get correct Terroir.
Yarra Valley  – Variable and hard to generalise but there are a handful of wonderful Pinot Noir producers you can’t afford to miss.
Tasmania – Wines from Tamar, Freycinet and Derwent Valley can be excellent.

Bernard Huber Sommerhalde GG 2011 MagnumWhat Makes Pinot Noir So Good?

This is a very personal thing to each taster. In a world where bigger is often better Pinot manages to be delicate, restrained, poised and elegant. But the first time you taste a beautifully aromatic and silky Pinot or Burgundy it will click. There are very few wines that achieve the level of perfume that is often described as ‘ethereal’ in Burgundy. Most other wines get the backhanded compliment that it is ‘almost Burgundian’… Almost but not! Despite its light colour and body, the best Pinots often need a few years or in the case of great Pinot, 25 or so years. It is also quite possible that there is something addictive in Pinot Noir as people obsess over it like no other variety in the world.

P.S. Look Out For The Tadpole.

What is this? An aquatic creature that lives in your Burgundy? No, it is worse. It is a Pinot Noir that has a big ball of flavour when it first hits your palate then tails away to nothing once you swallow it. Often used to describe the bigger Pinot styles you see in Central Otago. Beware the tadpole for they do not grow legs and hop away. Nor if you kiss them do you find a Prince.

What is Pinot Noir?

The greatest grape on earth in my opinion. And one you should get to know. And by get to know, I mean drink a lot of it for the sheer joy that it brings.

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