Pinot Noir Alternatives to Know | Wine Enthusiast
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Grapes That Wish They Were Pinot Noir

Are you a self-appointed Pinot purist? There’s a cure for that. And it comes in the form of alternative grapes that share similar qualities to your beloved noble red. Whether it’s the thin-skinned, moderate tannic structure, elevated acidity, fresh red fruitiness or the ability and willingness to showcase terroir and age-worthiness—or all of the above—there are non-Pinots that can hit the Pinot position on your palate. In fact, tasted blind, these could even be (and often are) mistaken for Pinot Noir itself. 

Illustration by Lukas Bischoff


Pinot-like Characteristics: Fine-grained tannic texture, bright red-fruits, earthy tones and a lively acidity 

Unlike Pinot Noir, Carignan thrives under the heat o’ the sun. This late budding, late ripening variety finds its home in regions like Languedoc-Roussillon, Rioja (where it’s called Mazuela) and Priorat (Mazuelo). The grape is naturally high in acid and tannins, which in the past made it a tough solo-sipper but a perfect blending component.  

But high-quality, single-varietal expressions are possible and often produced when yields are significantly reduced—something that happens naturally as the vine ages. Look for old-vine expressions from places like California’s Mendocino and Lodi AVAs and Chile’s Maule D.O., where the typically rustic red yields a more friendly, fine-grained tannic texture, bright red-fruits, earthy tones and a lively acidity. 


Pinot-like Characteristics: Soft tannins, juicy fruitiness 

Native to the south of France, Cinsault is a heat-loving, drought-tolerant variety. Typically high-yielding with big bunches and large berries, these wines are at their best when those yields are limited: soft tannins and a modest—but juicy—acidity with red fruits and floral aromatics. Like Carignan, Cinsault is a traditional blending component and, similarly, some of the finest single-varietal examples are those from old vines, where not just yields but berry size is naturally limited, thus providing increased aroma and flavor concentration. Find single-varietal expressions produced from the old vines of Lodi, California; Itata, Chile; and several South African regions including Paarl, Breedekloof and Malmesbury. 

Illustration by Lukas Bischoff


Pinot-like Characteristics: High acid, delicate tannins, fresh red fruit and florals 

This delicately thin-skinned Sicilian red, with its vibrantly fresh fruits, floral notes and elegant acidity, is almost an all-too-perfect replacement for a light-bodied, commercial expression of Pinot Noir. You’ll typically find this wine blended, most commonly with its fellow Sicilians Nero d’Avola and Nerello Mascalese (see below), but single-varietal expressions can be found by notable producers such as Planeta, Cos and Gurrieri. With its lightness and brightness, Frappato can also span into the chillable red category, making it enjoyable all year round. 

Gamay Noir 

Pinot-like Characteristics: Expresses a sense of place 

Gamay Noir also calls Burgundy its motherland. Interestingly the first written mention of the grape, by Duc Philippe le Hardi in 1395, called for a ban on this “very bad and disloyal variety.” Though there are still significant plantings within the region, its reputation for quality is far below that of its parent Gamay. But it has become a star player in the Rhône department, particularly in Beaujolais. 

Gamay is a natural cross of Pinot Noir and the white grape Gouais Blanc—so it should come as no surprise that it shares many qualities with the former: It is a thin-skinned, early budding, early-ripening variety. And, like Gamay, it is a product of its environment. Look for a Beaujolais or Beaujolais Village bottle for a simple, cheerful, red-fruit-meets-candy expression with light tannins and typically little to no oak. For more depth and complexity, source from one of the 10 crus, where good sun exposure and warm, well-drained granitic soils yield more flavor concentration and firmer tannins—all balanced by the grape’s innate high acidity. Winemakers at this level will typically include some oak-aging and the best can indeed age like a fine Burgundy. 

Illustration by Lukas Bischoff


Pinot-like Characteristics: Red fruits and delicate tannins 

Grenache, or Garnacha in Spain, is found as a single-varietal and as part of blends all around the world. It thrives in warm to hot regions—which is a bit of a trick when it comes to viticulture, as the grapes can accumulate high levels of sugar (read: high potential alcohol) and drop significant acid quickly toward the end of the growing season. But picked at the peak of ripeness, the grape can display the same bright, red-fruited profile as Pinot Noir and, with its thin skin, provide a similar tannin profile. It will never have the same acidity level as Pinot, but some producers will utilize whole cluster fermentation, which will impart a generous juiciness and vibrancy to the fruits. Grenache also often has a unique white pepper-like quality that provides dual dried floral and spice notes—so like Pinot… with a kick. 


Pinot-like Characteristics: Fine tannins, generous acidity, minerality 

Mencia is quite a distinct variety with plantings predominantly found in Spain’s Bierzo region and in Portugal’s Dāo. Its profile is marked by a combination of red and black fruits, but with noticeable spice and strong floral aromas. It is also a grape—much like Pinot Noir—that is able to exude a sense of place, often through a gravelly, stoney minerality. Though the grape has fairly thick skin, many expressions offer fine tannins. That, along with a generous acidity, makes this a fun experiment for any Pinot-thusiast.  

Nerello Mascalese
Illustration by Lukas Bischoff

Nerello Mascalese 

Pinot-like Characteristics: Red fruits, florals, herbaceous-earthiness, modest alcohol 

This is the heart and soul of Sicily’s Etna DOC, where the high altitude (soaring up to 1,000 feet in elevation) provides the late-ripening variety with the extended growing season it requires. Though typically found in blends, legally, Etna Rossa must contain at least 80% Nerello Mascalese.  

Similar to Pinot Noir, Nerello can produce wines with pronounced aromas and flavors of red cherry, strawberry, roses and violets, plus an underlying herbaceous-earthy note. Its innate high acidity and modest alcohol make it structurally comparable, too. Though the grape is known for potentially high tannins, many producers will use limited skin contact to avoid over-extraction. 

For a more concentrated expression, look out for Etna Rossa DOC Riserva, a category that mandates a minimum of four years of aging, including at least one year in barrel.  


Pinot-like Characteristics: Soft tannic texture, generous acidity with delicate red fruits and a forest floor-mushroom quality 

Though native to France’s Jura region, it makes up but a small percentage of plantings, trailing even that of Pinot Noir. Perhaps because it proves to be even more finicky, requiring significant warmth, specific soils and ample sun exposure—yet is quite vigorous and thus needs attentive canopy management, which can be tricky on the sloped terroir of the Jura. 

Outside its native region, Trousseau has found a home in Northern California. There are both old vines scattered amongst the “mixed black” vineyards of Sonoma’s Russian River Valley as well as newer plantings in Lake County and Mendocino. Typical single-varietal bottlings will express a soft tannic texture, generous acidity and a medium body with a modest intensity of red fruits along with a forest floor-mushroom quality, similar to a Pinot Noir with age, complete with a faded ruby-garnet hue. 


Pinot-like Characteristics: Earth-meets-floral aromas and flavors with the finest examples showing capacity for long aging 

High in acid, tannins and alcohol—doesn’t sound much like Pinot Noir, does it? But with its pale ruby-garnet hue and pronounced aromas and flavors of violet, rose, red cherry and red plum, this wine often gets mistaken for Pinot Noir. For a less robust expression, you may want to steer away from the more rustic elegance of Barolo or Barbaresco. Turn to Langhe Nebbiolo DOC or Nebbiolo d’Alba DOC for wines made intentionally for early drinking. Less time on the skins means a lighter tannic touch, and aging in neutral vessels highlights the grape’s innate fruit and floral primary characteristic. Added bonus: These DOCs are a bit more wallet friendly.  

Illustration by Lukas Bischoff


Pinot-like Characteristics: Pale hue, light-bodied, low tannins 

Schiava actually refers to a group of four different varieties—Schiava Gentile, Schiava Grigia, Schiava Grossa and Schiava Lombarda. Plantings of all four are predominantly found in northeastern Italy, namely Trentino Alto-Adige, where varieties are blended together to produce bottled Schiava. The resulting wines are typically a pale-hued ruby color with aromas and flavors of violet, rose petal, strawberry and raspberry. Structurally, these are light-bodied, low-tannin wines, although in the Santa Magdalena DOC, Schiava can be blended with up to 15% of the deeper, darker Lagrein, resulting in a more full-bodied expression. 

A version of this article originally appeared in the April 2024 of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!

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