Basics: A Six-Bottle Master Class to Pinot Noir | Wine Enthusiast
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A Six-Bottle Master Class to Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir is one of the most popular red wines in the world. With origins in the French region of Burgundy, the grape has produced some of the world’s most expensive and sought-after wines. However, it has delicate, thin skin and a mercurial temperament that makes it difficult to grow.

Because it’s finicky, Pinot Noir often inspires a love-hate relationship with its growers. The challenges to achieve the desired balance of fruit, freshness and elegance are what make Pinot Noir expensive to produce.

The grape can show a range of flavors and textures depending on its origin and climate, as well as the age at which it’s enjoyed. The best way to understand Pinot Noir is through comparative tasting. To analyze wines side-by-side is a good way to recognize different characteristics.

One tip to consider when tasting: rather than searching for fruit flavors, focus on texture. Clues are hidden within the folds of a wine. Does the Pinot Noir’s acidity feel sharp or round? Do the tannins feel silky or grainy?

To understand how Pinot Noir tastes, set up a flight from three key categories: Old World versus New; cool climate versus warm; and young wine versus old.

Rolling hills of vineyards with a stone tower popping up out of trees
Chambolle-Musigny, Burgundy / Getty

Old World vs. New World

Though the distinction is disappearing, the fundamental line between Old World and New World wines still exist. When professionals taste any wine blind, they often start by asking if it’s from the Old World or the New World.

The Old World encompasses Europe, home to classic grape varieties and thousands of years of winemaking tradition and culture. Burgundy’s red wine reputation has been built on Pinot Noir. However, Alsace and the Loire, the other French regions that grow the grape, have fast improved their still, dry versions.

Neighboring Germany has become a force in the Pinot Noir category, in part because its vineyards have become warmer. Northern Italy, where Pinot Noir is called Pinot Nero, and Switzerland have experienced similar improvements in quality.

Old World vs. New World Pinot Noir Flight

Wine 1: A classic Old World example of Pinot Noir is Mercurey from Burgundy.

Wine 2: Pinot Noir from the Russian River Valley in Sonoma, California often exhibit classic New World appeal.

The New World entails pretty much everything outside of Europe. It’s a “New World” wine even if it’s made in South Africa, which has produced wine since the mid-17th century, or the Americas, where winemaking dates back more than 500 years. That’s because of these countries’ relatively shorter growing history, the importation of outside varieties, modern winemaking styles and climatic differences.

Classic New World regions for Pinot Noir are California, Oregon and New York in the United States, as well as Chile, New Zealand, South Africa and the Victoria and Tasmania regions of Australia.

Old World wines tend to be leaner, more savory and earthy. New World wines are softer, riper and fruit-forward. Old World wines tend to have lower alcohol and higher acidity. New World wines may be more polished and plump in style.

Purple grapes in a white basket
Pinot Noir Grapes / Getty

Cool climate vs. warm climate

Pinot Noir styles are also linked to climate. In the past, an Old World winemaker couldn’t make a rich, ripe Pinot Noir in many regions as they lacked the proper conditions: sunshine, warmth and a long, dry growing season. Traditionally, Old World wine regions had cooler, rainier climates and shorter growing seasons than New World regions. Now, producers on either side blur the lines. New World producers try to mimic Burgundy with earlier harvests, use of cooler sites and less new oak in the aging process.

Cool Climate vs. Warm Climate Pinot Noir Flight

Wine 1: Options from Italy’s Alto Adige are defined by bright acidity and are prime examples of cool-climate Pinot Nero.

Wine 2: The Willamette Valley in Oregon has warm, dry summers that lend to a richer, textured Pinot Noir.

What makes a cool-climate wine distinct from a warm-climate wine? It has higher acidity, more tart fruit and lower alcohol. In a warmer climate, wines lose acidity faster. They also develop riper, darker fruit flavors, like black cherry, instead of tart cranberry, along with higher alcohol and a fuller body. A cool climate can also be derived from elevation, not just latitude. That’s why regions that suffer from warming temperatures have started to plant further up mountains. Elevation is also why Italy, a warm-weather country, can produce fresh Pinot Nero from the Alpine mountain terrain of Alto Adige.

The climatic distinction is especially relevant to Pinot Noir, since its texture and flavor profile mirrors its environment.

Foggy river valley at dawn
Willamette River Valley / Getty

Young wine vs. older wine

Pinot Noir is a perfect grape to demonstrate how wines mature. The greatest Burgundies can evolve beneficially in the bottle for decades, though the average range for good to great wine is around 8–15 years.

To taste young and old Pinot Noirs highlights three critical factors: acidity, fruit notes and tannin. All are necessary for Pinot Noir to develop well in the bottle.
Cool-climate Pinot Noir retains more acidity, which helps a wine evolve because it adds structure and freshness, and also acts as a preservative. It must have enough fruit concentration to go along for the ride. The third component is tannin. While plenty of ripe, curvaceous wines taste pleasant in their youth, without tannin structure and acidity, the wine will turn dull and flat with extended time in the bottle.

There are three traits to assess in comparing young wine to older bottlings. First, consider color. A bright, saturated ruby hue indicates youth. Pale, faded brown and brick hues, often evident on the rim or edge of the wine, belie age.

Young Wine vs. Old Wine Pinot Noir Flight

Wine 1 and Wine 2: Ask your retailer to find two bottles of Pinot Noir, ideally from the same producer, however the same region will also work. The vintages should be at least 4–5 years apart.

On the nose, a young Pinot Noir will smell fresh. Aromas can range from cranberry, raspberry or cherry for the fruit tones, to cut flowers and just-cracked nutmeg for the earthy and spicy tones. Older wines lose their primary fruit aromas to tertiary notes of earth and spice. These can also include hints of mushroom, leather, dried flowers and tobacco.

The palate tells the rest of the story. Younger wines have grittier tannins and brighter acidity, though Pinot Noir tannins generally start out silky and lengthen from there. Older wines, when aged appropriately, gain harmony and complexity. Tertiary flavors layer across primary fruits, while tannins and acidity smooth out. This happens in stages, and consumers can enjoy Pinot Noir across all the spectrum.

Pinot Noir is a great medium to understand how maturation influences appearance, aroma and palate, especially when examined through the lens of the same producer. However, finding two wines of differing vintages from the same region is also a good option.

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