This is part of a series called Wine Words, a glossary in the works that breaks down the barrier between those in the wine know and those who have no idea what the hell everyone's talking about. A new word posts once a week, covering everything from a grape name or region, to a winemaking or tasting term.
Pinot Noir (n.) Grape variety
Pinot noir is one of the sexiest grapes in the wine world. It's the fastest growing variety in California and the poster child for Oregon wine. It's grown all over the planet, from Australia and New Zealand to South America, South Africa and Europe. It's the main red in Germany, an occasional player in Northern Italy, a partner in many Champagnes and sparkling wines, and the everything in Burgundy. It makes wines capable of superb expression of place, wines with light tannin and color and complex aromas, and wines with rich, lush fruit that envelop the palate, like George Costanza's velvet jogging suit. It makes elegant pink wine, like the Pfendler Rosé and the Robert Sinskey Vin gris and the Philippe Gilbert Menetou-Salon. It's the envy of monied collectors; the DRC, the Armand Rousseau, the Dugat-Py, the La Tâche, the Richebourg, all of which go for no less than a cool $1,000 per bottle depending on the producer and vintage. It's a mutation of pinot, one of the oldest named grapes in the vinifera lineage, and it is thought to be approximately 2,000 years old. Maybe pinot noir was the wine Jesus made when he turned water into a palatable elixir.
The grape is thought to have been named for its conical shape, like a pine cone, from the French le pin, which later became pineau, and today is pinot [pee-NOH]. The 't' is silent. Just making sure I cover the bases. Only once have I heard it pronounced pee-NOT, but it was often and consistent and grating, as in, "I'll have the pee-not grigrio." Grigio was said correctly. Which brings up the question, are noir and grigio related?
Yes. Pinot blanc and pinot gris (aka grigio), pinot noir and pinot meunier are color mutations of pinot. They're different grapes, but the DNA is too close to differentiate parentage. Pinot, however, has likely sired many offspring, most commonly with the gouais blanc grape. Together they made gamay noir & blanc, romorantin (a rare, old white Burgundian variety), aligoté and our beloved chardonnay. Plus a slew of other never heard varieties. Not surprisingly, these all grow within the same geographic region. They're all accidental field crossings. Pinot is also a proud grandparent to teroldego and lagrein in Italy's Trentino-Alto-Adige, and great-grandparent to syrah. Like any great genealogy, there's incest in the mix, too. Pinot is either a parent or progeny of savagnin (Jura), and together they made sauvignon blanc, sylvaner and the royal chenin blanc, among others. All in the pinot family.
If you're not completely lost in pinot noir's ancestry, the take away is this: it's a very special and noble grape with a lot of history. Increasingly we hear winemakers talk about what clone of pinot noir they're growing. The clones vary slightly in berry size and yields and like all things of tiny differences, invoke a range of opinions and preferences by winegrowers. Several clones are numbered, like the 115, 667 and 777 (aka Dijon clones). Others are named for the dude who propagated the clone, like the Wente, popular in the US. This goes much deeper, but I share this information to give an idea of the complexity involved, which very few grapes can claim.
Pinot noir has thin skin, small berries and tight bunches, leaving it especially susceptible to varying weather conditions that can lead to fungal issues and viruses, plus it's early budding and early ripening, which makes it vulnerable to spring frosts and sunburn near harvest. It prefers cool weather climates and stony soils and typically produces wines with cherry, black cherry and raspberry aromas and secondary notes of earth and compost. It is one of the great aging wines, capable of lasting decades, though it can be stubborn in its development. It's the most common suggestion for pairing red wine with fish and since the movie "Sideways" hit theaters in 2004, it's markedly changed the red wine drinking game.
For more pinot noir thoughts, check out these beauties recently on Pig&Vine.