The drama queen of grapes, Pinot Noir is notorious for being difficult to care for, and challenging to get right. But with its complex history and natural delicacies, it’s no wonder Pinot Noir grapes are a tad precious. You can find a good Pinot Noir just about anywhere you go to buy wine, but not every Pinot Noir is created equally, and each one comes with its own fascinating story. Keep reading for the lowdown on Pinot Noir: its history, flavors and pairings, modern interpretations, and of course, its scandals.
So, first and foremost, what is Pinot Noir? The Pinot Noir grape is a varietal, just as Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay are varietals. The grape itself is a sneaky one, simultaneously needing sunshine to thrive and sufficient shade and cool weather so as not to wither. This is where winemakers would begin talking in-depth about microclimates and terroir and their effects on Pinot, but we’ll leave that for another time. Pinot Noir grapes have a much thinner skin than many other varietals, which is why these grapes can so easily shrivel up when confronted with too much sun. An environment of foggy mornings, warm, sunny days, and cool nights is Pinot Noir’s happy place.
While Pinot Noir has been growing for thousands of years, its more recent history began in the Middle Ages. The grape itself originated in the Burgundy region of central France but has since migrated to dozens of regions around the world. Like many other wines, Pinot’s history began with the monks. The Cistercian monks throughout France began making sacramental wine but eventually realized their agricultural bounty could produce a profit for the monastery. As their wine gained popularity, French royalty took notice. Duke Philip “the Bold” of Burgundy took a liking to Pinot Noir, and thus banned its main competitor, Gamay, from being grown in the region. Yes, a French Duke banned a wine. We told you there were scandals in Pinot Noir’s history! So, we have Duke Philip to thank for putting the Burgundy region on the map, for allowing Pinot Noir to flourish for centuries to come, and for causing an intriguing downfall of Gamay (don’t worry too much about Gamay though, it’ll survive).
Moving away from the Middle Ages, we get to Pinot Noir in its modern sense. Pinot Noir is a popular red wine choice the world over, most likely owing to its versatility and generally high acidity. It is grown primarily in France, the United States, and Germany, but plenty of other countries produce incredible Pinot Noirs as well. The French and the American versions of Pinot Noir vary dramatically, and it often helps to know the main differences when you’re walking down the wine aisle, trying to make a decision. The French varieties tend towards earthiness, a more tannic quality, and floral flavors. The United States’s Pinot Noirs are often more fruit-forward, tempered by sweeter baking spice flavors. Of course, these generalizations all depend on the region, the vintage, the winemaking techniques, and the fermentation and aging processes. For reference, our 2019 Just Enough Pinot Noir features the light flavors of raspberry and cherry, with some nice vanilla kicking in at the end to round it out.
As we mentioned previously, Pinot Noir performs fabulously on its own, but it’s also an amazing wine to pair with any number of great meals, side dishes, and even desserts. Easy, everyday sort of meals such as a bacon and mushroom pizza, pork sliders with caramelized onions, or grilled salmon with honey-glazed roasted carrots would all pair beautifully with the soft, luxurious flavors of Pinot Noir. Other options include a beef bourguignon (a classically French pairing), mushroom risotto, or even a roasted goose or duck meal that can bring out even more flavor, versatility, and complexity in Pinot Noir. For the sweeter side of things, try out your glass of Pinot Noir with a melty, buttery chocolate chip cookie with some sea salt sprinkled on top, or a gooey slice of chocolate cake. Bon appétit!
One final tidbit about Pinot Noir in America that you may have heard about--Sideways. This 2004 romantic comedy has frequently been charged with “killing Merlot.” While Merlot sales dropped severely, Pinot Noir sales seem to have taken off. Merlot has since made a comeback and is not at threat of extinction, but California’s thirst for Pinot Noir never diminished after this minor movie-induced scandal.
Perhaps it’s the pursuit of greatness or the challenges that face every winemaker attempting to produce next-level Pinot Noir, but this varietal seems to have an alluring power over us mortals. As inviting on its own as it is with a full meal, as rich in color as it is in flavor, Pinot Noir is a crowd-pleasing grape shrouded in a bit of foggy mystery.