The many faces of Pinot Noir

There’s a reason it’s called the “Heartbreak Grape.” It’s difficult to grow, difficult to keep stable in the vineyard, difficult to vinify and not always dependable for aging. The wines often are expensive and can be adversely affected by vintage, making many of them difficult to sell, in spite of booming popularity. Here are some fun facts about Pinot Noir, its incredible ability to reinvent itself and how our understanding of the wine has evolved over the past couple of decades!

Pinot Noir’s name means “black pinecone” alluding to the shape of the grape bunches. It is a delicate, thin-skinned varietal, noted for far lower levels of color and mouth-drying tannins than Cabernet Sauvignon. Pinot Noir wines are typically pale in color & light in body, with delicate, silky tannins, relatively high acidity, and very complex aromas.

The finest Pinot Noirs can age gracefully for a decade or more, particularly those produced in cool climates. France’s Burgundy, Oregon’s Willamette Valley, Chile’s Casablanca Valley, New Zealand’s Central Otago, Australia’s Tazmania and numerous cool-climate regions of California, including Carneros, Russian River, Anderson Valley and parts of Santa Barbara are among the most highly regarded regions in the world for Pinot Noir.

Pinot Noir is an ancient vine, originating in Burgundy, France, and thought to have more than a 2,000 year history, there. It is believed that man’s cultivating the vine for so many years led to genetic instability and a propensity for mutation. A single vine of Pinot Noir can develop a branch of grape bunches that bear no resemblance to the grapes on the rest of the plant. If this branch is cut and grafted, it can be cloned, or copied, creating new vines that produce only the grapes with these unusual characteristics. Vintners around the world choose specialized versions of Pinot Noir cultivated in this way, to create wines with desirable characters, such as stronger aroma, darker color, silky mouth-feel, etc. There are literally hundreds of specialized clones documented by grape resources around the world and it is theorized there are thousands more as yet unidentified.

Sometimes the mutations can be so extreme that the grapes have visible differences, such as gray or green color, or even unusual looking leaves. These various mutations have been embraced as unique varietals, such as Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio and Pinot Blanc/Pinot Bianco, both of which are technically cultivars of Pinot Noir!

Pinot Noir is a chameleon, meaning, it likes to take on the character of wines with which it is blended, even in minute quantities. Controversy over blending has led to a proliferation of “Pinot Purists” who pan wines that have been enhanced for color, structure, or body by as little as only 1% of other grapes.

In the USA, Pinot Noir has had an interesting history. “Suitcase Cuttings” from France (a moniker given to vines illegally smuggled into the country, typically without permission from the estate from which they were clipped) were planted in California in the early portion of the 20th century. Some people claimed their vines came from top vineyards in Burgundy! It wasn’t fully understood at this time how susceptible Pinot Noir was to mutation. Many of the vines completely changed in their new environment, and by the 1980’s, much media hype was placed on US Pinot Noir having little in common with French Pinot Noir! This led many California producers to replant their vineyards with certified French Pinot Noir Clones. In addition, cultivars that became special in their own way over time in the USA were identified and embraced. California’s famed Swan Clone, which was allegedly brought as a suitcase cutting from the famed Romanee-Conti vineyards in Burgundy, and Coury clone, smuggled from Alsace, France, are examples of these. By the early 2000s, the United States’ ability to produce world-class pinot noir was universally acknowledged. Then came Sideways… and the rest, as they say, is history!!

Pinot Noir is expected to tell the story of the region in which it was planted, and Pinot lovers embrace its multitude of styles, even if they aren’t fully aware of the many clones that were chosen to create a vintners special bottling. Try a couple of Pinots side by side to see the differences for yourself and raise a glass to the Heartbreak Grape!

Sara Guterbock, CS, ISS, CWE, DipWSET, is education director for Mutual Distributing Company of North Carolina.

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