Pinot Noir, the great grape of Burgundy, is a touchy variety. The best examples offer the classic black cherry, spice, raspberry and currant flavors, and an aroma that can resemble wilted roses, along with earth, tar, herb and cola notes. It can also be rather ordinary, light, simple, herbal, vegetal and occasionally weedy. It can even be downright funky, with pungent barnyard aromas. In fact, Pinot Noir is the most fickle of all grapes to grow: It reacts strongly to environmental changes such as heat and cold spells, and is notoriously fussy to work with once picked, since its thin skins are easily bruised and broken, setting the juice free. Even after fermentation, Pinot Noir can hide its weaknesses and strengths, making it a most difficult wine to evaluate out of barrel. In the bottle, too, it is often a chameleon, showing poorly one day, brilliantly the next.
The emphasis on cooler climates coincides with more rigorous clonal selection, eliminating those clones suited for sparkling wine, which have even thinner skins. These days there is also a greater understanding of and appreciation for different styles of Pinot Noir wine, even if there is less agreement about those styles–should it be rich, concentrated and loaded with flavor, or a wine of elegance, finesse and delicacy? Or can it, in classic Pinot Noir sense, be both? Even varietal character remains subject to debate. Pinot Noir can certainly be tannic, especially when it is fermented with some of its stems, a practice that many vintners around the world believe contributes to the wine’s backbone and longevity. Pinot Noir can also be long-lived, but predicting with any precision which wines or vintages will age is often the ultimate challenge in forecasting.
Pinot Noir is the classic grape of Burgundy and also of Champagne, where it is pressed immediately after picking in order to yield white juice. It is just about the only red grown in Alsace. In California, it excelled in the late 1980s and early 1990s and seems poised for further progress. Once producers stopped vinifying it as if it were Cabernet, planted vineyards in cooler climates and paid closer attention to tonnage, quality increased substantially. It’s fair to say that California and Oregon have a legitimate claim to producing world-class Pinot Noir.