Pinot Noir has experienced a surge in popularity during the last 10-15 years among wine drinkers in the United States. Volume of production has gone up, as well as the price of this varietal. Speaking as a wine drinker in the U.S., I am delighted that a surge in popularity was behind a sort of U.S. renaissance of this grape. When more people want it, more winemakers make it. The thing about Pinot Noir that makes it so special is its well-known sensitivity to soil types, pruning techniques, and winemaking techniques. It is also well known for its intolerance to harsh vineyard conditions and climate. These complications can make Pinot Noir notoriously difficult to grow. This is important because no winemaker can really “phone it in” when it comes to producing Pinot Noir. So when there is a surge in popularity of this type of wine, we reap the benefits. A greater volume of good quality Pinot Noir. Still, the question remains: What is it that makes this grape so notoriously difficult to grow?
Learn more firsthand from two fantastic Pinot Noir producers—Whetstone Wine Cellars and Carpenter Wine—at our Virtual Tasting Experience on Thursday, April 30th at 6pm PST. Join here and pre-order our featured wines to sip along with us!
A good way to find the answers to this question is to look at where Pinot Noir is grown. Chiefly, this wine is associated with Burgundy, France. Burgundy rests far inland from any ocean, on slopes cut out by the Saône river. The temperature of this region is cool to moderate, averaging about 60-68℉ during the growing season. Because it’s located inland, Burgundy endures significant temperature fluctuations from summer to winter and from day to night. If you’re wondering why someone would choose this sort of climate to grow a sensitive grape you aren’t the only one. But also, the vineyard growers of Burgundy aren’t the only ones to grow Pinot Noir in this sort of climate.
Other famous regions of Pinot Noir cultivation generally fit the same climatic mold. Northern Oregon is home to Willamette Valley. This valley is famous for producing world class Pinot Noir and registers an average growing season temperature of 61-67℉. Spring frost, fall rain, and early winters also affect Willamette Valley; similar to Burgundy. The areas of California that grow Pinot Noir are tucked away in valleys which draw in cold air from the Pacific ocean. It can be 85℉ in parts of Sonoma county but as you head into Russian River Valley or the Sonoma Coast, the temperature will steadily drop as you approach the ocean. All the way down the western coast you will see the same consistencies. Moderate to cool climates or warm climates with small pockets of ocean exposure to cool down the area.
So Why Grow There?
So…again: why would producers grow sensitive Pinot Noir in areas where there are bound to be climatic challenges? Well, for the same reason that there are these challenges: Pinot Noir is like Goldilocks. Too hot? It scalds. Too cold? It doesn’t ripen. Too humid? Trapped moisture turns to mold or mildew. But when Mother Nature is on your side, Pinot Noir absorbs every factor of the vineyard and climate and expresses it directly into the wine. Even though the regions that I mentioned above have broad similarities, they also have variance in soil, moisture level, sunlight exposure, and altitude. Pinot Noir is subtle and nuanced, so these variances will be clearly expressed in the wine in ways that are indicative of the place where it was grown. By contrast, a grape like Cabernet Sauvignon has such strong varietal characteristic that in the absence of careful farming and winemaking, a Cab tastes, well, like a Cab.
The impact of these influences on Pinot Noir can be understood with a little side-by-side comparison. For example: Russian River Valley has a warmer climate than the Sonoma Coast due to the ocean’s influence at the coast. Pinot Noirs from Russian River Valley express riper red fruit flavors and supple tannins leading to a smooth mouthfeel. Pinot Noirs from the Sonoma Coast express more floral and perfumed aromas with high and vibrant acidity and tart red and black fruit flavors. These two areas are about 10 miles apart yet produce very different expressions of Pinot Noir. This is why if you have a strong perception about Pinot Noir — especially that they’re all light or they’re not a real red wine drinker’s wine — it’s likely time to try it again. The diversity is remarkable and a reason many great producers aim to include high quality Pinot Noir in their portfolios.
If you think all Pinot Noirs are light or they’re not a real red wine drinker’s wine, it’s likely time to try it again.
The World of Clonal Selection
This brings us to another fascinating aspect of Pinot Noir production: clonal selection. This topic can be expounded upon extensively, but for the sake of a streamlined understanding of the topic we’ll make it brief. It is almost impossible to discuss Pinot Noir without discussing clonal selection. It’s sensitivity as a grape comes into play well before the vineyard. It is highly prone to genetic mutations, containing transposable elements in its genome. That is, a DNA sequence that can change its position within the genome therefore causing a mutation. Thanks to the long history of cultivation of Pinot Noir, there are hundreds of different clones worldwide. This understanding of basic genetics will point to this fun fact about Pinot Noir: different clones produce different expressions of the wine. Furthermore, different clones perform differently in the vineyard and may be more suitable for specific climate and soil types. What this really means to a winemaker in the end is that different clones can produce different flavors, mouthfeels, aromas and greatly affect the end product that is bottled.
Clones are usually named for where they come from (Pommard, Dijon, etc) and have a number attached to them as well (Ex: Dijon 113). Different Pinot Noir clones are physiologically different, producing clusters with different berry sizes, berry numbers, and degree of compactness. Choosing a clone that can produce fruit suitable to your climate is a primary part of clonal selection. These physiological differences affect the way Pinot Noir expresses itself in different terroir and impacts flavors and aromas of the resulting wines. The possibilities are endless when you take into account Pinot Noir clonal selection and growing location. Pommard clone 5, for example, is known for producing meaty wines with some gamey aromas and flavors when grown in a cool climate, but may express itself with dark fruit and rich mouthfeel when grown in the Santa Rita Hills of Southern California where it is warmer. Other clones like Dijon clone 113 are said to produce perfumed aromatics with less rich structure than that of the Pommard clone 5. Often, vineyard producers will blend certain clones to highlight the best aspects of each.
Blending It All Together
Pinot Noir has a potential for diverse expressions that is arguably beyond match. Winemaking is an art and as the vibrancy and expressiveness of oil paints are to painters, so is Pinot Noir to a winemaker. The resulting variety of Pinot Noir wines can be likened to discovering an author, falling in love with their work, and realizing there are a hundred books by this author for you to explore.
So for you, fellow wine drinker, I would find a Pinot Noir that you like and then find others from the same area. I would wager there are plenty more you’ll like and you can open up a world of exploration into the art of winemaking through Pinot Noir. So go grab a bottle! Or better yet, grab the bottles for our Pinot Party Virtual Tasting Experience on April 30th, join us, and join the ranks of wine enthusiasts falling in love with Pinot Noir.