Pinot Noir Styles

Pinot Noir is a grape of style and substance, subtly and passion, delicacy and strength.  Yes, it’s complex. And at the heart of that complexity is the way that Pinot soaks up the place it grows.  Perhaps more than any other grape variety, the terroir, the broader ecosystem and the micro climate all put their stamp on this luscious wine.  So here’s some guidance on what to expect of the Pinot’s from different parts of the world as well as within particular countries.  I’m going to generalize because there are too many nuanced differences than can be covered in this post, but at least this will get you on your way and help when you stand in the aisle of the wineshop trying to decide what to buy.

Pinot Noir is a cooler weather grape known for lively fruit flavors, medium bodied, silky texture and good acidity, and they are particularly food friendly wines as a result – and that’s our starting point.  So whether you’re having roasted chicken, a grilled pork chop, some beef Burgundy or seared tuna, there’s a Pinot waiting for you.

Burgundy is the mothership of Pinot Noir.  It is here that the grape was first mastered and here where it is mastered still.  The Grand Crus are wines of real distinction and are priced that way too. The Premier Crus and even the more notable village wines really typify the Burgundian style of Pinot and are much more affordable.  The Burgundian style is characterized by the essence of the earth.  The lovely red berry fruit flavors of the grape (strawberry and raspberry) are underscored by the sense of sous bois.  This is a French term referring to the aroma and taste of the “forest floor,” that scent of undergrowth that is stylistically so Burgundian. It’s also described as truffle or mushroom. It helps define the complexity unique to the region and French approach to celebrating the place more so that the fruity quality of the grape.  To me it is one of the wine’s charms which adds layering to the sipping experience. For some Burgundy basics see this earlier post Beginning Burgundy.

Oregon is America’s Burgundian cousin. The main difference is forward leading fruit flavor. Here I find more Bing cherry than berry tastes and wonderfully structured wines that benefit from the cool and damp.  A little fuller feel in the mouth too but still offering that tingle of acidity that’s so Pinot Noir. I also find more consistency in Oregon than in the myriad of vineyard plots and producers that typify Burgundy.  Oregon does have smaller, less “corporate” producers too, which I like because its more reflective of the Old World approach, but with the devotion to the grape of the New World style of winemaking.

California has embraced Pinot and dominates what is on the shelves.  Each area is a little different… it’s that Pinot thing and I love the diversity of the taste experiences.  Here’s quick look:

  • Russian River Pinot are lovely and rich.  There are darker fruit flavors of plum and cherry.  You might get a little woody taste too.  To me these are the bigger style Pinot from California althugh some from the Central Coast stand up to them.
  • Carneros Pinot on the other hand are bright and lively.  I usually think of cranberries or wild strawberries when I reach for a Pinot from Carneros.  Carneros straddles both Napa and Sonoma. By the way there is Pinot from other Napa and Sonoma areas too. You’ll see more and more from the Sonoma Coast.  This is a really big area and to me the jury is still out on the wines coming from grapes sourced throughout it, so I look for vineyard designations.  I prefer more defined growing sources.  And up and down the Napa Valley Pinot is produced, but it’s a little too ripe and not as acidic as the cooler areas.  One needs to check the source and winemaker approach.
  • Down the Central Coast, in the Santa Barbara area and Monterey, the wines remind me of cherry cola.  Not a full as the Russian River, but still on the darker fruit end.  And there is some delightful wine coming out of the Santa Cruz Mountains just south of San Francisco.  Not a lot of volume but fun to seek out. Let’s not forget SLO – San Luis Obispo.  Again, kind of that mid range in terms of the fruit profile.  In all of these areas you’ll find very drinkable Pinots at quite reasonable price points.

Let’s finish with New Zealand.  Most of them remind me of munching on dried cherries or dried cranberries and sometimes there’s even an aroma that’s like sandalwood incense.  They’re bright and fun with crispy acidity.  There are regional variations within New Zealand and we’ll get more in-depth on Oz another time but if you like Pinot Noir then definitely take a sip.

Pinot Noir is a grape that gives us wine of ultimate diversity.  No wonder it’s a favorite Sip!

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