WSET® 2 Reading, Chapter 8: Pinot Noir (Class Notes)

Pinot Noir is very fussy about where it is grown, which makes it a very difficult variety for grape growers. However, it is a very easy variety to drink. Unlike some other black grape varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, many Pinot noir wines have soft, light tannins and do not need time in the bottle to evolve attractive flavours. Instead, they are enjoyable to drink at all stages of their life.

THE FLAVOURS OF PINOT NOIR

  • Color: Light color wines.
  • Skins: Thin skins.
  • Fruit: With the right climate, red fruit (strawberry, raspberry, cherry).
  • Non-fruit: With the right climate, vegetal and animal nuances (wet leaves, mushroom, gamey-meaty aromas).
  • Tannin: Low to medium tannin.
  • Oak: It is common to age the best PNs in oak, but the toast and vanilla notes of new oak can easily overpower this variety’s delicate flavours.
  • Climate: Moderate or cool climates. But in regions that are too cool, the grapes will not ripen and the wines will have excessive vegetal flavours (cabbage, wet leaves). In hot regions, it loses its delicate flavours, and the wines are excessively jammy. 
  • Ageability: Some PNs are able to develop great complexity with age. However, except for the very best wines from Burgundy and some other premium sites, most PNs are best consumed while they are youthful and fruity. 

PREMIUM PINOT NOIR REGIONS (THE GOOD)

  • Red Burgundy
    • The classic region for Pinot Noir wines is in Burgundy (Bourgogne). This is where Pinot Noir’s fussiness is most fully exploited: wines from the different villages show slightly different aspects of this variety, so they are given their own appellations.
    • A Bourgogne AC should be a medium-bodied red with a balance of red fruit and savoury aromas, light tannins, and medium to high acidity. Wines from the individual villages, such as Gevrey-Chambertin, Nuits-Saint-Georges, Beaune, and Pommard, generally offer more intensity, complexity and length, particularly those from Premier Cru vineyard sites within the villages. Grand Cru Red Burgundies, such as Le Chambertin, are the most powerful, long-lived, and complex Pinot Noir wines in the world, selling at very high prices because of their quality and rarity.
  • Germany
    • German produces large volumes of Pinot Noir (Spätburgunder in German), mainly in the southern regions of the Pfalz and Baden. These have a cool climate and the typical style is light-bodied with pronounced, perfumed red berry fruit and tannins. Fuller-bodied, barrel-aged styles are also made.
  • New Zealand
    • New Zealand Pinot Noirs are generally more full-bodied, with lower acidity and more intense fruit than the wines from Burgundy. Spicy notes often accompany the red fruit flavours (cherry, strawberry). Central Otago makes the ripest, most intense New Zealand Pinot Noirs. The variety is also grown in Marlborough, where a lighter style is made, and much of the fruit is used for sparkling wine.
  • Australia
    • Most Australian regions are too hot for Pinot Noir, although some premium-quality wines are being made in sites that benefit from the cooling effects of ocean breezes or altitude, such as the Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsula regions in Victoria. Here the style of Pinot Noir can vary from light and delicate with fragrant aromas, to those with richer fruit flavours (strawberry, plum, dark cherry) and more structured, ripe tannins.
  • USA
    • Most of the regions in California are too warm for good quality Pinot Noir, but good examples can be found in Carneros and the cooler parts of Sonoma and Santa Barbara Counties. Californian Pinot Noirs tend to be full-bodied. Most are intensely fruity, with red fruit flavours (red-cherry, strawberry) but some display pronounced animal and vegetal characteristics (leather, meat, wet leaves). A suitably moderate climate is found further north in Oregon, where some very high-quality Pinot Noir wines are produced.
  • South America
    • The Casablanca and San Antonio valleys in Chile are emerging as sources of intensely fruity Pinot Noirs, often with flavors of strawberry jam.
  • South Africa
    • South Africa also makes some high-quality Pinot Noirs, in small quantities, from coastal cities such as Walker Bay.

BULK, INEXPENSIVE PINOT NOIR (THE BAD)

  • California (Central Valley)
  • Australia (Murray-Darling)
  • Pays d’Oc IGP
  • Chile

Because Pinot Noir is such a tricky grape to grow, there are few inexpensive sources. Many of the regions that produce large volumes of inexpensive varietal wines, such as California (Central Valley), Australia (Murray-Darling), and most of France’s Pays d’Oc IGP, are simply too hot for Pinot Noir. Chile successfully produces some inexpensive Pinot Noir wines in a soft, fruity style.

PINOT NOIR IN BLENDS

Pinot Noir produces its finest still wines unblended (although it is used as a component of many sparkling wines, including most Champagne). In Burgundy, Pinot Noir can be blended with Gamay but, apart from a few obscure exceptions, a red Burgundy will be 100 per cent Pinot Noir.

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