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Pinot Noir: A Wine of Many Flavors

Pinot Noir’s aromatic profile varies according to the terroir in which the grape is grown—we take a global tour, from the pale, earthy reds of France to California’s bold, juicy versions

Since the Roman era, the tunnels of Maison Joseph Drouhin’s barrel caves have guarded the wine world’s finest treasure: Pinot Noir. “The terroir doesn’t lie,” explains Frédéric Drouhin of these depths, which spiral for acres beneath the historical center of Beaune in France.

The Burgundy region in France, known for its outstanding Pinot Noir
The Burgundy region is home to 84 official wine appellations and a maze of premier and grand cru vineyards, climats, and lieu-dits—each with unique elements that give a wine its edge.

While the halls are now lit by modern lamps instead of torches, not much else has changed in the epicenter of Burgundy since it became ground zero for Pinot Noir centuries ago. Today, it still remains the grape’s ancestral home and inspiration to vintners worldwide. Unlike other varieties, whose aromatic and flavor profiles are the same whether they’re produced on California’s sunbathed coast, Andean hillsides, or the chilly stretches of the Loire Valley, Pinot Noir is a chameleon that deftly channels the site where its roots spider into the earth.

While the most valuable Pinot Noirs may still hail from Burgundy’s storied slopes, the world stage is filled with delicious competition

Its nature as a deft translator of terroir and a painstakingly difficult grape to grow have made it an obsession of drinkers and vintners alike, allowing it to thrive globally. Today, more iterations of Pinot Noir are available than ever, offering drinkers a delicious glimpse of the world’s terroirs.

The underground wine barrel caves of Maison Joseph Drouhin in Burgundy, France
Maison Joseph Drouhin's centuries-old barrel caves spiral beneath Beaune in France and guard the vineyard's prized stock of Pinot Noir.

“Pinot Noir translates the soil into your glass like none other,” explains Christie’s Head of Wine Edwin Vos. “It’s probably the most interesting grape variety out there because of its many different faces.”

In Burgundy alone, a region just 143 miles (230 km) long, there are 84 official appellations and within that, another maze of premier and grand cru vineyards, climats, and lieu-dits, all of which delineate a unique terroir, or growing site, that lends the wines a signature flavor profile.

Subtle Influences

Each plot, whether the size of a village or a football pitch, has unique elements that give each wine a distinct edge, and this extensive mapping is the backbone of Pinot Noir’s chameleon reputation. Appellations can be defined for many reasons, including the exact mix of clay and limestone in a given plot, or its perfect position midway up a gentle slope. In some locales, a vineyard’s grand cru status is the result of aspect and sun exposure or its proximity to chilly winds. Each subtle difference affects ripening, giving vintners a new array of chemical compounds that create multilayered, complex wines.

Pinot Noir vines
Vintners strive to protect the delicate pinecone-shaped bunches of Pinot Noir grapes, which are famously prone to damage from either heat or cold.

“Compared to other grape varieties, you have to limit the numbers of bunches you get with Pinot Noir, which makes it inherently expensive,” says Vos. As a result, vintners go to great lengths to control, and then protect, the thin-skinned bunches they choose to keep. Known for its low tannins and thin skins, its name comes from the French word for “pinecone,” in reference to its cone-shaped clusters. Reduced yields, however, often mean a single weather event can severely alter a vintage. In 2015 and 2016, for example, hail in Burgundy decimated yields. In the New World, heat and humidity-induced rot can be just as detrimental. But for vintners, the toil is worth it.

Pinot Noir translates the soil into your glass like none other. It’s probably the most interesting grape variety out there because of its many different faces—Edwin Vos

In Oregon’s Willamette Valley, Pinot Noirs of elegance and spicy complexity are offering Burgundy lovers an alternative, and inspiring Burgundy stalwarts like Drouhin to invest in the New World as well. Here, Pinot Noir translates volcanic and basalt-based soils (as opposed to France’s clay and limestone) into reds known for their tart red fruit qualities and savory, spicy aromas.

Oregon, a fairly new Pinot Noir-producing region
Domain Drouhin Oregon was established as a result of Burgundy wineries, such as Maison Joseph Drouhin, taking note of the success of Pinot Noirs created in the Willamette Valley.

Regional Success Story

Though Oregon has only been crafting wines for around 50 years, the state’s Pinot Noir industry is booming, and pioneering wineries like Eyrie and Penner-Ash, as well as upstarts like Gran Moraine, are thriving.

“It has to just have an amazing experience when it gets in your mouth,” explains Lynn Penner-Ash, winemaker and founder of Penner-Ash, of the best wines of the region. Here, the naturally thin-skinned Pinot Noir takes on a bright, lively character to match a wide array of foods.

The tasting room at Penner-Ash Wine Cellars, Oregon
The inspiring views from the tasting room at Penner-Ash Wine Cellars in Oregon, aims to match the bright, lively character of the winery's yield.

“Californian Pinot Noirs are more jammy and robust,” says Vos, in contrast to their austere French cousins and spicy Oregonian neighbors. Classic producers like Duckhorn, Kosta Browne, and Lynmar epitomize the elegant-yet-ripe style of California wines.

Pioneered in cool sub-regions of Napa Valley, like Carneros, Pinot Noir now thrives everywhere from Santa Barbara to Mendocino. The best examples come from sites like the Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast where chilly, coastal influences mitigate the state’s signature sunshine and heat to cultivate balanced Pinot Noir grapes.

Mclaren Vale Winery, Australia.
Modern Australian wineries, such as McLaren Vale in South Australia, are known for elegant Pinot Noirs that defy regional expectations. Image: Alamy

In the Southern Hemisphere, winemaking powerhouses like South Africa and Australia are getting in on the act. In the idyllic Hemel-en-Aarde valley in South Africa, Pinot Noirs like those from Storm Wines take on a unique expression—deeper in color yet maintaining lightness and elegance. In Australia, coastal enclaves like McLaren Vale are making outstanding Pinot Noirs that upend the Aussie wine reputation for extraction, and rely on elegance instead.

While the most valuable Pinot Noirs may still hail from Burgundy’s storied slopes, the world stage is filled with delicious competition from pale, earth-scented French reds to bold, juicy Californian versions—all of which transmit their terroir like no other grape variety. “You should try and taste as much as you can,” says Vos of Pinot Noir. “The best way to begin understanding Pinot Noir is to drink it, but beware—you may just have to wait in line.”  

On the Market

Historic Beauty in Ontario, Canada

This focal point of the estate is a beautifully restored 160-year-old barn, which has been transformed into a winery, tasting room, and retail store.

This cherished winery spans 49 acres (20 ha), with 23 acres (9.3 ha) of vineyards planted with Pinot Noir, Gamay, Chardonnay, Vidal, and Riesling. The estate also includes a 3,800 sq ft (353 sq m) custom-built home. The property is available turnkey, complete with staff and equipment.

Hillside Splendor in Tuscany, Italy

Hillside Splendor, a property in Tuscany, Italy
Situated on the hills surrounding Florence, this finely-restored estate is split across two hamlets, each with a villa and a number of independent apartments.

Set in the Florence countryside, this 849-acre (344 ha) property comes with 41 acres (16.5 ha) of vineyards, and a total of 34 bedrooms and 19 full baths split across two hamlets. The vineyard, producing the prestigious Chianti D.O.C.G., is the heart of the estate and Pinot Noir has been planted alongside Sangiovese and Malvasia grapes.

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