Pinot noir lovers tend to like the challenge of searching for the perfect wine. If you're looking for reliability or predictability, pinot noir does not meet this criterion.
Just when you think you've learned the ropes about this grape, another dud wine will lead to frustration. It is sensitive to adverse growing conditions and prone to diseases and rot. Vintage variations affect the ripeness and quality of the wine from one year to another. It needs extra care to ensure its quality does not deteriorate. Despite all these difficulties, it has a growing crowd of loyalists.
The pinot noir grape grows best in cooler climates. In France, it is cultivated in the northern regions of Alsace and the Loire Valley. The grape is the famed red variety in Burgundy. Its most renowned sites are from the Cote-d'Or (Slope of Gold) to southern communes such as Volnay and Pommard.
Pinot noir is a key component of champagne along with pinot meunier and chardonnay. It may also be used to make a blanc de noir style for sparkling wine. In Australia, pinot noir grows well in the southeast, including Geelong, Mornington Peninsula and Tasmania. In New Zealand, the reputation of pinot noir is growing. Martinborough produces a style more akin to Burgundy, while Central Otago produces powerful, fruit forward styles. The west coast states of the US - California, Washington and Oregon - produce a diverse array of styles reflecting the different climates and growing conditions.
Pinot noir is a thin-skinned variety, producing wines that are ruby red. Its colour is pale compared with varieties such as syrah. But that doesn't mean the wine will lack flavour. On the nose, pinot noir flavours range from floral to raspberry, strawberry and cherry. It may have a hint of savoury, earthy notes. On the palate, it has higher acidity; the tannins will be softer, giving a rounder and smoother wine. As the wine ages, the primary fruit flavour will start to fade, and more pronounced earthy, leathery, truffle-like aromatics will emerge.
Except in champagne and sparkling wines, it is used to produce dry red wines. Some winemakers will use new French oak during maturation to add some spice and structure to the wines, as pinot noir is delicate, but it is important that oak tones do not overwhelm all the fruit flavours.
Wine lovers may have some of their best and worst wine drinking experiences with pinot noir. At its worst, it can produce insipid wines void of flavour. At its best, a great pinot noir can be seductive, embracing and thought-provoking. It is a more expensive grape to cultivate owing to its fragility. It is difficult to find a cheap and cheerful pinot.
For the newcomer to this variety, it is probably best to find a benchmark classic to have a glimpse of the quality of the wines that pinot can produce. Then take your time to experiment and explore the different regions and styles.
Tohu Pinot Noir 2009, Marlborough (New Zealand), HK$190, winenthingshk.com
Freeman Pinot Noir 2006, Sonoma Coast, California, HK$397, goldengatewine.com
Domaine de Montille Pommard 1er Cru Les Grands Epenots 1995, HK$890, altayawines.com