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As one of the lightest reds on the wine colour spectrum, pinot noir offers an accessibility that heavier reds lack. But don’t mistake accessibility for simplicity; pinot noir is a complex beast that will intrigue even the most seasoned palates.
It’s not outlandish to say that no red wine brings quite the same level of complexity to the table as pinot noir. These intricate characteristics are thanks in no small part to the difficulty of growing the grape and transforming it into wine.
The name ‘pinot noir’ translates to “pine black” in French, a reference to the grape’s colour and its tendency to grow in tightly bound bunches that take on the shape of a pinecone. This unique growing habit contributes to the difficulty of cultivating the variety, as it makes it far more susceptible to pests and diseases, necessitating strict management of the vines. Subsequently the yields of pinot noir sit well below those of almost any other grape.
But the reward is well worth the effort, as this popular red wine offers up a taste that is as diverse as it is intricate; traits that were first recognised millennia ago.
From wild beginnings
Despite the best efforts of DNA scientists to identify a source, the origins of pinot noir are to this day unclear. It does appear, however, to be just one or two generations removed from a wild variety of western European grape; a fact that helps to explain the difficulty of cultivation. Columella, a first-century AD scribe who went on to become the most noteworthy agricultural writer in the history of the Roman Empire, described a grape grown in Burgundy that appears to match the traits of pinot; but this early evidence of its existence is nothing more than circumstantial.
Burgundy is the variety’s spiritual home and served to make pinot noir world famous, although the argument could be made that it was the grape that made the region world famous. As one of the oldest grapes in the world, Burgundy pinot noir is cultivated on some of the world’s oldest vines, giving the region’s wines a particularly complex and elegant taste. Burgundy pinot noirs are also known to age particularly well, reaching their peak 15 to 20 years after the vintage.
Pinot sails south
James Busby, the father of the Australian viticulture industry, brought pinot noir with him in the first importation of vines to Australia in the 1830s. The plant, labelled as ‘MV6’ (Mother Vine 6), was the parent to almost every pinot noir vine grown in Australia up until the 1990s. At that point newer “Dijon” pinot vines were imported, eventually making up the balance of Australia’s pinot noir production.
The cooler areas of Australia, such as the Mornington Peninsula, the Adelaide Hills, the Yarra Valley, Gippsland, the Bellarine Peninsula and much of Tasmania, were found to offer pinot noir the ideal climate. As such Australian pinot noirs have grown steadily in stature over the past few years, and now compete with the very best new-world wines from the likes of the US, Argentina, Chile and New Zealand.
''Burgundy is the variety’s spiritual home and served to make pinot noir world famous, although the argument could be made that it was the grape that made the region world famous.''
Particulars of the palate
Generally viewed as the lightest and most playful red, pinot noir is nonetheless complex and intriguing. Compared to the traditionally heavy reds that Australia is known for (such as shiraz and cabernet sauvignon), pinot noir offers the carrot, not the stick. It’s more likely to caress the palate than overwhelm it.
An early ripening red grape with a thin skin, when placed next to a heartier red the pinot will look pale and almost lifeless. But don’t let the look fool you – what pinot lacks in pure oomph, it more than makes up for in complexity, structure and length.
The silky profile of a pinot will offer notes of red fruits – cranberry, raspberry and cherry. Layered on top will be hints of cloves, vanilla, tobacco, caramel, cola and liquorice. The aging process, taking anywhere from two to 20 years, will instil the earthy taste and texture of Australian oak in the wine.
Pinot noir offers the ultimate flexibility when being paired with food, happily washing down a wide variety of meat from the lightest salmon to the darkest duck and red meats such as lamb or barbecued pork. Likewise, your selection of cheese and chocolates matters little. If you’ve ordered a grazing platter or plan to share meals amongst friends, pinot noir makes for the ideal drop.
The best of the bunch
But if you want to try a Burgundy pinot, headline acts include Nuits-St-Georges, Gevrey-Chambertin, Vougeot, and Vosne-Romanee, although these can be pricey. Pinots produced by the likes of Brokenwood, Eden Road, Giant Steps now hold their own on the world stage, and cost but a fraction of a Burgundy bottle.
Pinot Noir titbits
- Notoriously hard to cultivate, the yields of pinot noir are far below those of most other grapes. As an example, leading French producers of cabernet sauvignon can expect a harvest of 3.5 tons per acre, while leading pinot noir producers will only harvest 1 ton.
- The US has almost overtaken France in terms of pure pinot noir production, devoting 73,600 acres to the variety compared with France’s 75,760.
- Pinot noir and chardonnay have long been known to grow well in the same climates, but only recently has it been discovered why – as it turns out, chardonnay is actually a descendent of the ancient pinot.
- Cracking the pinot code: While James Busby imported pinot noir to Australia in the 1930s, it took almost a century for someone to grow a commercially profitable vine, when Maurice O’Shea did so in the Hunter Valley in the 1920s.
- Beating the best: Australian pinot noir came of age at the 1976 Gault Millau Wine Olympics when Tyrrell’s Vat 6 won first place over some of France’s very finest wines.