Most wine drinkers have their favorite varietals, one of ours is Pinot Noir, the great red grape from the Burgundy region of France. We celebrate it on August 18th, National Pinot Noir Day.
The name derives from the French words for pine (pin) and black (noir), inspired by the tightly clustered, pinecone–shaped bunches of Pinot Noir grapes, and their purple-black color.
Pinot Noir grapes are grown around the world, mostly in cooler climates. In France it’s known as Red Burgundy; elsewhere, the wine is named for the grape.
Beyond red wine, Pinot Noir grapes are also used in regular and Blanc de Noir Champagne, in sparkling white wines such as the Italian Franciacorta, and in English sparkling wines.
Why is a red wine grape used in white wines?
The flesh of most wine grapes is white (the exception is teinturier grapes*, whose flesh and juice are both red in color
It’s only the skins that have different colors. So the juice pressed out of red grapes is the same color as juice pressed from white grapes. The difference is skin contact.
To make red and rosé wines, the pressed juice rests in a vat with the pressed skins, allowing the anthocyanins—antioxidant pigments present in the skins—to transfer their color to the juice.
Beyond Burgundy, France, Pinot Noir has been transplanted and thrived in:
In the Champagne region of France, Pinot Noir is the most planted varietal (the others are Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier.
Pinot Noir is a difficult grape to grow, susceptible to rot because of those tightly-packed grape clusters. Beyond rot, the thin skins of the varietal make it susceptible to other infections and diseases.
After a successful harvest in the vineyard, there’s a further challenge in the winery.
The low levels of phenolic compounds in the grape produce mostly lightly-colored, medium-bodied and low-tannin wines that can often go through phases of uneven and unpredictable aging [source].
So why do winemakers grow this difficult grape? Because when the factors work, the wines are splendid.
WHERE TO START WITH PINOT NOIR
If you’re not an experienced Pinot Noir taster, it’s easy to start. Pinot Noir is approachable when young: dry with delicious fruit flavors (typically cherry and raspberry), and soft tannins.
It pairs with just about anything you’d want to eat with red wine, from classic pairings—chicken, duck, turkey, mushrooms, pork—to burgers, lamb, and beef.
Ask your wine store clerk for recommendations, and consider a gathering where a group can taste several different regions, or several wines from the same region, to compare.
*The flesh is red due to anthocyanin pigments accumulating not just in the skin, but within the pulp of the grape berry itself. Here’s more about it and a list of wines made with teinturier grapes.
†An American Viticultural Area, or AVA, is a type of appellation of origin used on wine labels. An AVA is a delimited grape-growing region with specific geographic or climatic features that distinguish it from the surrounding regions and affect how grapes are grown. Here’s more about it.