Wine Profile: Pinot Noir

Wine Profile: Pinot Noir
Wine Profile : Pinot Noir

Prophet's Rock in New Zealand produces plenty of fine pinot noir

Wine Profile series examines a particular wine varietal and tells you everything you need to know about it. Well, maybe not everything. We skim over the especially boring details (soil type) and spare you the pompous adjectives (“brawny”) to focus on what matters to men: where to find it, what food to pair it with, and how much it is. And to get you started on exploring the varietal for yourself, we point you to some specific, good value bottle recommendations.

Pinot noir is a difficult wine: Difficult for the grower to cultivate and difficult for the drinker to distinguish and become familiar with. Yet the same complexities that make pinot noir so difficult also make it a very versatile wine that can be paired with all manner of food. So once you get your head around pinot noir, you’ll likely be drinking a lot of it.

Two experts helped learn about pinot noir: Paul Speck, President of Henry of Pelham Estate Winery (a winery in Niagara, Canada) and Mike Mulvey, Managing Director of Prophet’s Rock Vineyard (a winery in Cromwell, New Zealand).

About pinot noir

Let’s get the bad news out of the way first: Pinot noir is one of the most expensive wine varietals. It’s expensive because it’s tough to make, resulting in a lot of bad batches that are unusable. Paul Speck told us that the reason it’s so tough to make is “because the skins on the grapes are very thin. So when they get ripe, if conditions aren’t exactly right -- if you get too much humidity or too much moisture -- the grapes can break down in the vineyards and you can lose them. Or you might pick them too early and you won’t have the full richness or ripeness that you’re looking for.”

Wine producers are getting better, however, at making pinot noir. Plus, more producers across the world are making it. So it’s getting cheaper. And you do get what you pay for. Mike Mulvey declared it “the most seductive and enchanting of the grape varieties.” Madeline Triffon, the ninth American to earn the title of Master Sommelier, calls pinot noir “sex in a glass.” That’s a good analogy to raise to a date after you share a bottle of it.

Where to find pinot noir

According to Paul, “every winemaker in the world wants to make the great pinot noir.” Not every winemaker, however, is in a geographical position to do so. The best pinot noir-growing regions in the world are located on or near the 45th parallels. Mike explained why:

“I think there are two things happening on the 45th parallels: At the end of the growing season, when you’re coming into the autumn, the weather is warm during the day and cool at night. That’s something that pinot noir loves -- this climate retains the acidity of the pinot noir. The other thing that happens on the 45th parallels has to do with the rotation of the earth at the end of the day. Rather than just setting directly, the sun just seems to slide across the horizon. You get a very long twilight, and the pinot noir loves heat in the late part of the afternoon. The hottest part of our day is between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m., and it’s followed by a very long, clear twilight. At the end of the summer we have twilight until 11 at night! So these two things seem to be very crucial to pinot noir.”

The proof is in the pudding: The world’s great pinot noir regions -- the South Island of New Zealand, the Niagara region of Canada, and Oregon state -- are all located smack in the middle of the 45th. As is France’s Burgundy, the most celebrated and priciest pinot noir-producing territory. We’ll talk more about Burgundy later.

What foods to pair pinot noir with, and how much you'll pay for it...

How to pair pinot noir

To know which foods to pair any varietal with, you need to know its flavor characteristics. Pinot noir offers plenty. Mike explained:

“Pinot noir is so seductive because it has so many layers of flavor. A good pinot noir should have layers of flavor from the front palette to the mid palette and right the way through. With a lot of the other varietals, one of the palettes dominates; you might get a big hit on the front palette, but then it disappears. With pinot noir you get a lot of layers right through the flavor profile.”

More flavors would seem to suggest that pairing pinot noir would prove a challenge. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. The variety of tastes found in a good pinot noir is exactly what permits this varietal to be paired with a variety of foods, making pinot noir one of the wine world’s most versatile offerings. Both Paul and Mike provided extensive lists of pairing suggestions, which we narrowed down to the following five:
  • Turkey, pork, and other heavy meats
  • Poultry
  • Fish
  • Fruit
  • Cheese (particularly strong cheeses)
Know that the pairing possibilities are far from limited to these five, but this quick list will serve you in your initial tasting sessions until you get more familiar with pinot noir.

Pinot noir prices

Again, pinot noir is expensive because it’s tough to make. And pinot noir from the Burgundy region of France is even more expensive because Burgundy is a small region with less capacity to make wine, making its output all the more exclusive.

Burgundy is celebrated as the world’s great pinot noir-producing region because historically, it has been. This is changing as “new world” regions like New Zealand and the western United States perfect their production techniques. Today you can find a wide selection of great quality pinot noirs from New Zealand, California, Oregon, and Niagara for less than $20 per bottle. Mike provided another reason for beginners to seek out new-world pinot noirs: “They’re more fruit-forward, so they’re a great introduction to pinot noirs. With some of the old-world pinot noirs, like those from Burgundy, you really need an understanding of wine to appreciate.”

If you’re determined to try a pinot noir from Burgundy, you needn’t pay an arm and a leg to do so. One of the “village wines,” culled from grapes on the region’s lower slopes, can be purchased for around $40. Buying one of the premiers crus or the grands crus (from the region’s upper slopes) will cost you significantly more -- up to $400 a bottle!

Pinot noir recommendations

Henry of Pelham Pinot Noir 2006
$17.25 at
Paul described his winery’s pinot noir as the product of prolonged study. “We’ve been growing pinot noir for almost 20 years. We’ve been working it into the vineyards, and in the past 10 years have really developed a major pinot noir program.”

Prophet’s Rock Pinot Noir 2005
$39.99 at
Mike described the Prophet’s Rock pinot noir as “a true reflection of our vineyard and an absolutely natural product, coming straight from the vineyard with very little intervention.”

Faiveley Bourgogne Pinot Noir 2005
$19.99 at
Here’s a rare find: a $20 Burgundy pinot noir. The Wine News gave this bottle a rating of 89 (on a scale of 100).

Wine Profile: Pinot Noir


Post a Comment

Hi, please feel free to share your comment here.
For example: Which pictures is the best?