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Pinot noir grapes are grown around the world, mostly in the cooler regions, but the grape is chiefly associated with the Burgundy region of France. Other regions that have gained a reputation for Pinot noir include the Willamette Valley of Oregon, the Carneros, Central Coast and Russian River AVAs (American Viticultural Area) of California, the Walker Bay wine region of South Africa, Tasmania and Yarra Valley in Australia and the Central Otago etc.
It is widely considered to produce some of the finest wines in the world, but is a difficult variety to cultivate and transform into wine. The grape’s tendency to produce tightly packed clusters makes it susceptible to several viticultural hazards involving rot that require diligent canopy management. The thin-skins and low levels of phenolic compounds lends Pinot to producing mostly lightly colored, medium bodied low tannin wines..
Pinot noir’s home is France’s Burgundy region, particularly in Côte-d’Or. It is also planted in Austria, Argentina, Australia, Canada, Chile, north parts of Croatia, the Republic of Georgia, Germany, Italy, Hungary, Kosovo, the Republic of Macedonia, Moldova, Greece, Romania, New Zealand, South Africa, Serbia, Slovenia, Switzerland, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, United States, Uruguay, Ukraine and Slovakia.
The United States has increasingly become a major Pinot noir producer, with some of the best regarded coming from the Willamette Valley in Oregon and California’s Sonoma County with its Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast appellations. Lesser known appellations can be found in Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley as well as the Central Coast’s Santa Lucia Highlands appellation and the Sta.
The leaves of Pinot noir are smaller than those of Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah and the vine is typically less vigorous than either of these varieties. The grape cluster is small and conico-cylindrical, vaguely shaped like a pine cone. Some viticultural historians believe this shape-similarity may have given rise to the name. In the vineyard Pinot noir is sensitive to wind and frost, cropping levels, soil types and pruning techniques.
In the winery it is sensitive to fermentation methods, yeast strains and is highly reflective of its terroir with different regions producing sometimes very different wines. Its thin skin makes it susceptible to bunch rot and similar fungal diseases of the bunch. The vines themselves are susceptible to powdery mildew, and in Burgundy (and elsewhere) infection by leaf roll and fanleaf viruses causes significant vine health problems. These complications have given the grape a reputation for being difficult to grow: Jancis Robinson calls Pinot a “minx of a vine” and André Tchelistcheff declared that “God made Cabernet Sauvignon whereas the devil made Pinot noir.” It is much less tolerant of hard, windy, hot and dry, harsh vineyard conditions than the likes of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, or Grenache.
However, Pinot noir wines are among the most popular in the world. Joel Fleischman of Vanity Fair describes pinot noir as “the most romantic of wines, with so voluptuous a perfume, so sweet an edge, and so powerful a punch that, like falling in love, they make the blood run hot and the soul wax embarrassingly poetic.” Master Sommelier Madeline Triffon calls Pinot “sex in a glass”.
The tremendously broad range of bouquets, aromas, and flavours of Pinot noir sometimes confuses tasters. The wine tends to be of light to medium body with an aroma reminiscent of black and / or red cherry, raspberry and to a lesser extent currant and many other fine small red and black berry fruits.
Traditional red Burgundy is famous for its savory fleshiness and ‘farmyard’ aromas (these latter sometimes associated with thiol and other reductive characters), but changing fashions, modern winemaking techniques, and new easier-to-grow clones have favored a lighter, more fruit-prominent, cleaner style.
The wine’s color when young is often compared to that of garnet, frequently being much lighter than that of other red wines. This is entirely natural and not a winemaking fault as Pinot noir has a lower skin anthocyanin (coloring matter) content than most other classical red / black varieties.
However, an emerging, increasingly evident, style from California and New Zealand highlights a more powerful, fruit forward and darker wine that can tend toward Syrah (or even new world Malbec) in depth, extract, and alcoholic content. Pinot noir is also used in the production of Champagne
Pinot noir used in Chardonnay is planted in most of the world’s wine growing regions for use in both still and sparkling wines. Pinot noir grown for dry table wines is generally low-yielding and of lesser vigour than many other varieties.
Pinot noir is almost certainly a very ancient variety that may be only one or two generations removed from wild, Vitis sylvestris, vines. Its origins are nevertheless unclear: In De re rustica, Columella describes a grape variety similar to pinot noir in Burgundy during the 1st century CE, however, vines have grown wild as far north as Belgium in the days before phylloxera, and it is possible that Pinot represents a direct domestication of Vitis sylvestris. Ferdinand Regner has argued that pinot noir is a cross between Pinot Meunier (Schwarzriesling) and Traminer.
But this claim has since been refuted. In fact Pinot Meunier has been shown to be a chimerical mutation (in the epidermal cells) which makes the shoot tips and leaves prominently hairy-white and the vine a little smaller and early ripening.
Thus Pinot Meunier is a chimera with two tissue layers of different genetic makeup, both of which contain a mutation making them non-identical to, and mutations of, Pinot noir (as well as of any of the other color forms of Pinot).
As such, Pinot Meunier cannot be a parent of Pinot noir, and, indeed, it seems likely that chimerical mutations which can generate Pinot gris from other Pinots (principally blanc or noir) may in turn be the genetic pathway for the emergence of Pinot Meunier. Pinot gris is a Pinot color sport (and can arise by mutation of Pinot noir or Pinot blanc), presumably representing a somatic mutation in either the VvMYBA1 or VvMYBA2 genes that control grape berry color. Pinot blanc is a further mutation and can either naturally arise from or give rise to Pinot gris or Pinot noir; the mutation – reversion path is multi-directional therefore. The general DNA profiles of both Pinot gris and blanc are identical to Pinot noir; and other Pinots, Pinot moure and Pinot teinturier, are also genetically similarly close. It should be noted therefore that almost any given Pinot can occur as a complete mutation or as a chimera of almost any other Pinot As such.
Suggestions that Pinot noir is the fundamental and original form of the Pinots are both misleading and highly tendentious. Indeed, if anything, Pinot blanc may be the original human-selected form of Pinot, although given the genetic variability of this longstanding genetic line, thinking of Pinot as a familial cluster of grapes sharing a fundamental and common genetic core is almost certainly nearest the truth. It is this ‘core’ around which the sub-varietally identifying color variations (blanc, rouge, noir, gris, rose, violet, tenteurier, moure, etc.) occur, along with the more striking chimeric morphological mutation that is Pinot Meunier, and the interesting further mutations of this variety as Pinot Meunier gris and as the non-hairy mutation which the Germans classify as ‘Samtrot’.
A white berried sport of Pinot noir was propagated in 1936 by Henri Gouges of Burgundy, and there is now 2.5ha planted of this grape which Clive Coates calls Pinot Gouges, and others call Pinot Musigny. There is however no published evidence, nor any obvious reason, to believe that this is other than a (possibly quite fine) form of Pinot blanc, having simply arisen as a selected natural mutation of the original Pinot noir in the Gouges’ vineyard.
In the UK, the name ‘Wrotham Pinot’ is a permitted synonym for Meunier and stems from a vine that one of the pioneers of UK viticulture, Edward Hyams, discovered in Wrotham.
It was in all probability the variety known as ‘Miller’s Burgundy’ which had been widely grown on walls and in gardens in Great Britain for many years. Archibald Barron writing in his book the standard Victorian work on grape growing in the UK, states that the variety was: found by Sir Joseph Banks in the remains of an ancient vineyard in Gloucestershire – a county well known for its medieval vineyards.
Hyams took the vine to Raymond Barrington Brock, who ran what was to become the Oxted Viticultural Research Station, and he trialled it alongside the many other varieties he grew. Brock said that when compared to supplies of Meunier from France, Wrotham Pinot: had a higher natural sugar content and ripened two weeks earlier. Hyams, ever the journalist in search of a good story, claimed that this vine had been left behind by the Romans although provided no evidence for this. Brock sold cuttings and the variety became quite popular in early vineyards, although it is unlikely that any vines from the cuttings supplied by Brock survive in any of today’s UK vineyards.