Pinot Noir can produce some of the most emotion-inducing experiences and elevate an alcoholic beverage made from fermented grape juice to an almost ephemeral sensual experience. However, at the other end of its dual personality arch from the seraphic, lies the satanic.
Pinot Noir is the wild child of the wine world. It can be a challenging varietal to control and for many winemakers, growing Pinot Noir is a badge of honour and endurance. Pinot Noir is a promiscuous vine. It is notoriously difficult to grow because of its unpredictability and tendency to genetically mutate: the green skinned grapes of Pinot Blanc’s white wines; the pink skinned grapes of Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris for white or rosé wines, and the black-skinned Pinot Meunier, widely planted in France’s Champagne region and vinified white with no skin contact.
Also, it can degenerate into many different clones. Originating in France in its native Burgundy (Bourgogne) region, for over a thousand years, its capricious nature has led to inconsistencies in quality. Why then, the attraction of so many countries to try to tame this shrew? Like most love affairs, the answer lies more with the heart than the head.
Pinot Noir at its best can be one of the most sensual and seductive of all wines. As a thin skinned black varietal, it shuns hotter climates and prefers the cooler ones: Chile’s Casablanca Valley, California’s Carneros and Sonoma, Oregon state near the Canadian border, France’s northern regions of Champagne, Burgundy and Alsace, Germany (where it’s also known as Spätburgunder), South Australia’s Mornington Peninsula, Yarra Valley and Tasmania, New Zealand’s Martinborough, Marlborough and Central Otago and South Africa’s Elgin and Hermanus.
Its thin skin contains less pigment and tannin than famously thick skinned varietals, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah/Shiraz. Naturally, it produces pale red wines and light tannins. To boost the tannin level in its native Burgundy, sometimes the grapes’ stalks are included with the fermentation.
If Pinot Noir were a national flag it would be a tricolor with red, pink and white, reflecting the colours of the wines it produces e.g. red Burgundy, pink Sancerre and white Champagne all depending on how much, if any, black skin contact is used when fermenting the colourless grape juice. Its pink-skinned derivative Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio can produce either rosé wines or white wines dependent on skin contact, whereas the green skinned Pinot Blanc can produce white wines only.
Pinot Blanc is associated mostly with the Alsace region and used for making the region’s sparkling Crémant d’Alsace. But it is also grown in Germany (aka Weissburgunder), Luxembourg, Italy, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia.
In Canada’s Okanagan Valley, Pinot Blanc is often used to make ice wine from grapes frozen on the vine and harvested in winter. Stylistically, it is similar to and often mistaken for a cool climate Chardonnay. As Pinot Blanco in Italy it is sometimes used for the aged and nutty Vin Santo.
Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio are the same grape but their different names identify their different styles. In France’s Alsace, Pinot Gris is made in a richer style to match white meat stews (replicated in Oregon and New Zealand) with some spice and sometimes made from late harvested grapes (Vendange Tardive) or a sweet style from noble rot, the Sélection de Grains Noble.
The Italian Pinot Grigio style is typically lighter bodied and crisp as an aperitif or to match shellfish and starters. It can vary between simple bulk wine, plain in flavour to the more mineral and pure fruit associated with northern Italy’s Alto Adige. In the early noughties, as consumers shied away from oaked whites, Pinot Grigio as a style found popularity, especially in California as the expression of non-oaked white wine.
In Germany it is known as Grauburgunder but Rulander denotes a sweeter and richer style.
Pinot Meunier is a most useful grape in cool Champagne’s coolest subregions: the north-facing slopes of the Vallée de la Marne and the Aube where companion Champagne varietals Pinot Noir and Chardonnay would struggle to ripen fully. It gives aromatics and a fruity flavour when blended with the other varietals. Pinot Meunier suits these colder subregions because it buds late and ripens early, avoiding the problem of coulure (aka shatter in English) where cold and windy spring conditions can prevent fertilisation of the flowers with none or uneven levels of grapes produced. Its name is derived from Meunier meaning miller because of a downy white underside of the vine’s leaves.
Champagne Veuve Monsigny III
France – 12% ABV
€19.99 at Aldi stores nationwide
Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier dominate the classic blend with Chardonnay. Very attractive baked bead bouquet from aging for five years on its lees, long after the required minimum 15 months. Delicately poised with tangy crisp fruit underpinned by the mouth-watering acidity. A very elegant Champagne that over-delivers on quality.
Food friend: surprisingly good with blue cheese.
Pinot Blanc 2015, Joseph Cattin, Alsace
France – 13% ABV
€13.99 by J&C Kenny at No. 21 Off-licence Group (Listowel, Ballincollig, Blarney, Charleville, Carrick-on-Suir, The Glen Waterford, Coburg Street Cork, Middleton and Ballinacura); Cappagh Stores, Knocknacarra, Galway and The Hole in the Wall, Blackhorse Avenue
Aromas of freshly peeled green apples. A good depth of ripe and juicy Coxes Orange Pippin apples, moderate acidity and alcohol giving an excellently balanced medium-bodied white wine.
Food friend: an excellent all-rounder and a favourite white to order in restaurants with a group when a variety of dishes are ordered.
Pinot Grigio Riserva 2014, Castel Firmian, Mezzacorona, Trentino
Italy – 13% ABV
€16.75 in Dublin at Mitchell and Son, CHQ, IFSC and Sandycove; Wilde & Green, Milltown. Myles Doyle, Gorey, Arklow and McCambridge’s, Galway
Pale lemon in colour. Muted and restrained aromas.
White fleshed fruity flavours with a streak of mineral and white pepper.
Typically crisp and refreshing in style.
Food friend: serve with a creamy smoked salmon pasta dish.
Pinot Noir 2016, Paparuda
Romania 12% ABV
€11.99 at Kelly’s Wine Vaults, Clontarf; Ardkeen Wine Stores, Waterford and WineOnLine.ie
Pale red with a cherry candy aroma.
Decent depth of fresh red cherry flavours with well-balanced acidity, gentle tannins and a long fruity finish.
Food friend: ideal with wild mushrooms in a creamy risotto.
Pinot Noir 2015, Lawson’s Dry Hills, Marlborough
New Zealand – 13.5% ABV
€23 at Nolan’s, Clontarf; On the Grapevine, Dalkey; Carry Out Douglas Cork; Ardkeen, Waterford and WineOnLine.ie
Pungent aromas of vegetal and earthy scents.
A vibrant palate with vivacious red fruits and crisp acidity.
Food friend: baked salmon slicked with a teriyaki sauce.
Spätburgunder 2013, Salwey, Oberrotweiler Käsleberg
Baden, Germany 13% ABV
€26.95 at jnwine.com and The Corkscrew, Chatham Street, Dublin 2.
A rich savoury bouquet of damp leaves. Assertive on the palate with dry fruits well-balanced by refreshing acidity.
Food friend: a Pinot Noir rich enough to match with roast partridge with a sausage, cloves and cinnamon stuffing.
Liam Campbell is one of Ireland’s most experienced wine writers. His work has been featured in the pages of numerous publications, most recently as the Wine & Drinks Editor for The Irish Independent, as well as in Irish Homes, Easy Food and The Dubliner magazines.
Besides writing, his involvement in the world of wine goes deeper: he’s an approved WSET educator and holder of a WSET Diploma, Diploma in Craft Beer & Cider, and he has worked as judge in international wine competitions and as a wine consultant.