The Many Personalities of Pinot Noir

How can one grape make so many incredibly different wines?

Pinot noir. You either love it, or you just don’t get it. 

The answer is … it’s complicated. What it boils down to is that pinot noir wine styles are dependent on many factors, some controllable, some not so much.

These are factors we can’t control:

  • Climate – sunshine, warmth, and aspect (the angle the rows are planted in)
  • Region – where it’s from, the country and sub-region
  • Vintage – the weather conditions in a given year
  • Soil Composition – the nutrients and type of soil the vines grow in

Lastly, the winemaker is also a big part of the result. Outside of what they can’t control, they make most of the decisions that lead to the finished wine—when to pick the grapes, whether to extract maximum color by cold-soaking before fermentation, whether to use wild or cultured yeast, what kind of barrels to age them in, how long to age the wine before bottling, and so on. All these decisions have a massive impact on the finished wine.

Profiling Pinot Noir

Pinot noir is a red grape that results in a light-colored wine with low tannins. Many people assume that because the wine color is lighter, the wine itself is light-bodied. While this is sometimes true, it’s not always the case.

Pinot noir lacks anthocyanin, a pigment found in grape skins. As a result, the wine doesn’t achieve a very dark color, but a good pinot noir is easily one of the most flavorful wines you’ll ever try. At its best, it’s soft, round, and juicy in the mouth, with distinct flavors and aromas of ripe cherries, cherry cola, exotic spices, and bacon.

How Climate and Weather Affects Pinot Noir Style

Let’s look at climate and vintage, as these are probably the biggest determiners of a pinot noir wine’s style.

Hot Climate Pinot Noir

Hot climate pinot noirs tend to be higher in alcohol and more full-bodied. They also present different flavor profiles that you won’t get in a cool-climate version. Sometimes you’ll find aromas of tomato leaf, or stewed tomatoes. Sometimes, dried fruit or raisins will sneak in there too – which is always a danger because if the grapes are left to hang too long, they’ll shrivel into raisins. Not ideal!

Hot climate regions for pinot noir include California, Australia, Argentina, Chile, and the Provence region of France. However, these regions’ best pinot noirs tend to come from cooler sub-regions, such as Sonoma Coast in California or South Australia.

Cool Climate Pinot Noir

Pinot noir prefers a cooler growing zone, long warm seasons, and not too much heat before harvest. But when does the weather ever cooperate? The Burgundy region of France is the benchmark for pinot noir, and this is where the most expensive bottles in the world come from.

Cool-climate pinot noir wines are higher in acidity, lower in alcohol, and lighter-bodied, but many are purer of fruit and often have a refreshing quality. Many sommeliers prefer cool-climate pinot noirs because they are more food-friendly.

The best cool-climate regions for pinot noir are Burgundy (France), the Loire Valley (Sancerre, France), Oregon, New Zealand, and Canada – specifically those from Prince Edward County, Ontario.

Get to know the many personalities of pinot noir; choose examples from France, California, Oregon, and New Zealand for the best cross-section of flavors and styles.