Your guide to superb Pinot Noir
Pinot Noir is the grape variety that has made the world renown of two French regions: Burgundy and Champagne. Today there are many cool places around the world that try to emulate these great wine regions. But it’s not easy.
Pinot Noir is a very demanding and capricious variety. Both the Vineyard Manager and the Winemaker have a unique set of challenges with this grape, unlike the easy-going and more prolific Cabernet, Chardonnay and Syrah grapes.
Pinot Noir in Burgundy is so misunderstood. It is also difficult to understand due to the way the vineyards were inherited, resulting in a reduction in size with each new generation dating back to the 14th century. This legend involves the Dukes of Burgundy, the Cistercian monks and King Philip the Bold. A story better left for another time.
Another confusion, Pinot Noir tends to mutate (think Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Meunier) and degenerate into thousands of clones. About 60 of these clones are commercially viable.
The first official French Pinot Noir clones were recognized in 1971 and numbered 111-115. In 1980, the 665-668 series, which contains the much-loved clone 667, was released. The famous 777, 778, 779 and 780 were released in 1981.
Pommard and Dijon are two of the most famous clones of the vineyards of these respective municipalities in the Burgundy region. There are nearly 30 recognized Pinot Noir clones in Dijon; largely cultivated in this region are about 15 of these clones.
Dijon as well as the Pommard clones have mutated several times. Several clones are named after the return address (667, on the shipping container that contained the original imported cuttings!)
In the Côte de Nuits, a sub-region of Burgundy, Morey-Saint-Denis is a town and an appellation. (Appellations, communes, regions – so convoluted!) Most of the original grafts (113, 114, 115) came from Domaine Ponsot in Morey-Saint-Denis.
Due to its excellent ability to mature in a cool climate and its resistance to disease, the Wadenswil clone was selected by the Swiss research center in Wadenswil. It was one of the first clones planted in the Willamette Valley.
Overall, the Pinot Noir is medium bodied with crisp acidity, just enough tannins for structure and underlined with cherry, tea, cola, herbs and earthy qualities. And an ethereal and fragrant aroma. On the lighter side of the color spectrum for red wines, Pinot Noir has thin skin and therefore low levels of phenolics and anthocyanins, which tend to produce lighter colored wines.
Where to look for the superb Pinot Noir?
It is the most planted grape variety in Champagne. Located in the most northerly region of France, the Champagne location is cool enough for Pinot Noir and prevents this early maturing varietal from ripening too early. The chalky and limestone soils also play a big role in the acidity of Pinot Noir and bring structure, richness and body to the blends.
Pinot Noir is also the predominant grape variety cultivated in Burgundy. It is also the only red variety cultivated there.
Burgundy has an ideal climate for Pinot Noir – a long, cool growing season, sunny, south-facing slopes, and varied combinations of limestone and clay in the soil. These are some of the reasons why a Burgundy can have so many different flavors and structures from the same grape. For example, Gevrey-Chambertin, known for its structure and intensity, may be so different from Chambolle-Musigny, just 10 minutes south, known for its elegance and aromas.
Carneros, Monterey, Russian River, Santa Barbara, Santa Lucia, Santa Maria, Santa Rita Hills and Sonoma Coast: all ideal AVAs for cool climate pinot noir. Most of these AVAs are cooled by ocean breezes through holes in the mountains or located on the west side of the mountains. Pinot Noir has played a bigger role in California over the past 30 years. The regions listed above have succeeded in producing balanced, understated and layered Pinot Noir wines, grown in varied soils. I say this with a lot of experience in this area.
In Carneros, sparkling wine producers from the Old World settled in the neighborhood with Gloria Ferrer and Codorniu from Spain and Domaine Carneros, created by Champagne Taittinger in 1987. This gave credit to the generosity of Pinot Noir in Los Carneros.
The Willamette Valley is the heart of Oregon pinot production. Each of Willamette’s six sub-regions has a different microclimate and soil, earning it sub-appellation status. These sub-appellations are Chehalem Mountains, Dundee Hills, Eola Amity Hills, McMinnville, Ribbon Ridge and Yamhill-Carlton.
Oregon’s northern latitude means grapes can have an extended growing season, more hours of sunlight for long, even ripening, and cool nights to preserve acidity. Oregon adopted Pinot Noir as its iconic grape in the 1960s, when California growers traveled north in search of a cooler climate.
Richard Sommers of HillCrest Vineyard is recognized as the father of Oregon Pinot Noir. In 1959, after graduating from UC Davis, Sommers moved north to plant Pinot Noir. He brought cuttings and made his first commercial plantation in Roseburg, Oregon. These Pinot Noir cuttings came from the Stanley Ranch of Louis Martinis in the Carneros region.
In 1979, another Californian transplanted to Oregon, David Lett, presented his wines to a competition in Paris, and lo and behold, they placed third. In a 1980 rematch hosted by Robert Drouhin of the Burgundian company Domaine Drouhin, Eyrie came in second.
This is perhaps what prompted Robert Drouhin to found Domaine Drouhin Oregon in 1987, affectionately known as DDO.
Either way, the Oregon wine community has come together to support ¡Salud! Service program. This is a Tuality Healthcare Foundation project established in 1991 by a group of Oregon winery owners and doctors to overcome barriers faced by winemakers who cannot meet their basic needs in health care.
Without insurance, these men and women and their families often do not seek professional health care until their problems become acute. The mission of ¡Salud! is to fill this gap with mobile wellness clinics, patient navigation and resources that enable healthy living for wine workers and their families. Since 1991, Salud! The services were fully funded by proceeds from the annual ¡Salud! The Oregon Pinot Noir auction and other private donations.
This year’s Salud! The Oregon Pinot Noir auction runs November 8-14. This is a virtual auction on lots from Oregon’s best wineries, and sometimes blends from 30 different wineries. There are also exclusive engagements with winemakers, private lunches and dinners, and fabulous accommodations. To learn more, visit https://tualityhealth.ejoinme.org/RSVP
Mary Earl has been educating Kitsap wine lovers for over 20 years, a longtime member of the West Sound Brew Club, and can accompany a beer or wine dinner in a flash. She volunteers with the Clear Creek Trail, is a member of the Central Kitsap Community Council and a long-time supporter of Silverdale.