Exploring the Elegant and Earthy Red Wines Made with Pinot Noir Grapes
Pinot noir is one of the oldest grape varieties in the world. The pinot family of grapes (also including pinot gris and pinot blanc) gets its name from the Latin root "pin," or pine, because the grape clusters are shaped like pinecones. Pinot noir is one of the few grapes in the world that's made into red, rosé, white, and sparkling wines. Here we focus on the red wines made from this elegant grape.
What Does Pinot Noir Taste Like?
Pinot noir can be ethereal but also earthy, and the grape is known for having silky, gentle tannins. Typical fruit flavors found in pinot noir include red cherry, strawberry, red raspberry, and pomegranate. Depending on the growing region and winemaking style, it's also common to find earthy notes of mushrooms, Darjeeling tea, autumn leaves, and forest floor. If the wine is aged in oak barrels, it can pick up vanilla or baking spice aromas. Pinot noir can be one of the most complex wines in the world, and the top examples are filled with elegance and finesse.
Where Does Pinot Noir Thrive?
Pinot noir is thin-skinned, so it thrives in cooler climate growing regions (if you flood these delicate grapes with too much heat and sun, they can turn to raisins quickly). Areas with cold nights and long growing seasons allow the grapes to hold onto their natural bright acidity. Pinot noir is originally from the French region of Burgundy where it was cultivated by Cistercian monks but now it's grown worldwide.
Pinot Noir from Burgundy
The key to the elegance of Burgundian pinot noir is its vast patchwork of limestone-based soils; hundreds of millions of years ago, this area was under the sea. Subregions of Burgundy known for particularly excellent pinot noir are the Côte de Nuits and the Côte Chalonnaise. Burgundy can be a complicated region to understand, as the wines are classified and ranked not necessarily according to the prestige or quality of the winery, but rather by the vineyards themselves. In Burgundy, the land itself is considered the most crucial factor in winemaking. Wines from the best vineyards are called "grand cru" (there are just 33 grand cru vineyards in Burgundy), and the next step down is "premier cru." Wines in both of these categories are incredibly expensive and known mostly as the domain of serious collectors. There are delicious wines at more friendly prices. Look for "village" wines that are named after a nearby town like Albert Bichot Cote de Nuits Villages 2014 ($38.99, wine.com), or simple regional wines labeled "Bourgogne Rouge" such as Michel Magnien Bourgogne Pinot Noir 2017 ($31.99, wine.com) or Olivier Leflaive Bourgogne Rouge Margot 2011 ($29.99, wine.com).
Pinot Noir from the United States
The two leading states producing pinot noir in the United States are California and Oregon, and the trademark styles of each are quite different from each other. California pinot noir tends to be lush, fruity, and rich and concentrated in style, whereas Oregon pinots reflect more bright acidity, high-toned fruit character, and earthy notes. In California, look for wines from coastal areas where the Pacific ocean provides the necessary cooling. The Sonoma Coast is making excellent examples; try La Crema Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2017 ($19.99, wine.com) or Flowers Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2017 ($49.99, wine.com). Sonoma's Russian River Valley is also a rightfully famous producer of world-class pinot noir; we love the stunning Chappellet Grower Collection Apple Lane Vineyard 2018 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($60, chappellet.com). And up in red-wood covered Anderson Valley, try Copain Pinot Noir Edmeades Vineyard 2017 ($65, copainwines.com)
In Oregon, the Willamette Valley was first planted with pinot noir in 1965, and today it's home to some of the most coveted New World examples of this wine. Recommended bottles include Brooks Willamette Valley Pinot Noir 2018 ($23.99, wine.com), Stoller Dundee Hills Pinot Noir 2018 ($23.99, wine.com), and Evening Land Seven Springs Vineyard Pinot Noir 2017 ($37.99, wine.com). For a bottle that's always consistently delicious and under $20, try Erath Pinot Noir 2017 ($16.99, wine.com).
Pinot Noir from New Zealand
If you love New Zealand's most famous wine, sauvignon blanc, you will adore their excellent pinot noir. In the colder southern regions like Wairarapa, Nelson, and Central Otago, you will find wines with great structure, intensity, and liveliness. Try Two Paddocks Pinot Noir 2017 ($54.99, wine.com), Nautilus Awatere River Pinot Noir 2014 ($44.99, wine.com), or Felton Road Calvert Pinot Noir 2018 ($64.99, wine.com).
Pinot Noir from South America
One leading producer that's emerged as a leader of New World pinot noir is Chile; the Pacific Ocean and the Andes mountains provide cool evenings and foggy mornings that contribute to wines that are fresh and approachable. Try Vina Leyda Single Vineyard Las Brisas Pinot Noir 2018 ($18.99, wine.com) or Cono Sur Bicicleta Pinot Noir 2018 ($9.99, wine.com). Argentina's high elevation areas of Mendoza and Patagonia are also making waves for fabulous pinot noir that stands out in a sea of Malbec: we recommend Domaine Nico Grand Mere 2017 ($29.99, wine.com) or Bodega Chacra "Barda" Pinot Noir 2018 ($24.99, klwines.com).
How to Serve and Pair Pinot Noir
Since pinot noir is a lighter-bodied wine, it can be served slightly chilled. The fresher, younger versions should be served around 55 degrees, and the fuller, more opulent styles closer to 65. You can achieve this by putting your wine in the fridge from fifteen to thirty minutes before drinking.
When pairing pinot noir with food opt for medium-rich meats like pork, duck, and chicken thighs. Duck Breast with Cherry Chutney, Pork Chops with Rhubarb Compote, or Chicken Poached with Thyme and Leeks would be perfect. Pinot noir also works well with vegetable dishes: Mushrooms can be especially successful because they are harmonious with the earthy umami notes in the wine and Mushroom Risotto is a classic pairing. If you've ever been skeptical about pairing red wine with fish know that a pinot noir pairs really well with fuller-flavored fish like tuna or salmon; try a chilled bottle with Salmon Steaks With Hoisin Glaze.