Discovering the beauty of Pinot Noir

By Nicki Bourlioufas

This article first appeared on on March 18, 2009

PINOT Noir is a lighter red wine perfect for drinking with food. If you haven’t tried it yet, it’s time to get some Pinot Noir into your mouth and discover this elegant wine.

Pinot Noir is a lighter red wine perfect for drinking with food. If you haven’t tried it yet, it’s time to get some Pinot Noir into your mouth and discover this elegant wine.

Pinot Noir is the red wine that makes the great Burgundies of France. The grape is also one of the three grapes used to make Champagne in France but it also makes great lighter red wine.

Pinot Noir lacks the astringency or bitterness of heavier reds like Shiraz or Cabernet Sauvignon but it is full of fruit flavors, offering as much complexity as fuller-bodied reds.

In Australia, Pinot Noir is gaining in popularity as consumers refine their wine tastes and expand into new flavours away from the big red Australians Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon.

“There is a greater understanding of more elegant styles of red and a shift away from ‘blockbuster’ styles,” says Mat Janes, Public Relations Executive with Chandon in the Yarra Valley, which produces the Green Point Reserve Yarra Valley Pinot Noir.

“Pinot Noir can be served cool, it is medium weight and lower in alcohol than most reds making it an ideal variety for a range of consumers and situations,” he says.

Pinot Noir is light red or crimson in colour and young Pinots can seem sweet and can taste of raspberries, strawberries, cherries or plum. As it ages, Pinot Noir gains smoky, earthy or tobacco characters.

“I find Pinot Noir to be the most complex of reds offering intense aromas – ripe-grape or black cherry, frequently accented by a pronounced spiciness that suggests cinnamon, sassafras, or mint,” says Paul Lapsley, Group Chief Winemaker, Constellation Wines Australia, formerly known as the Hardy Wine Company.

“It’s full-bodied and rich but not heavy or high in alcohol, not acidic or tannic. With substantial flavour despite its delicacy, the most appealing quality of Pinot Noir can be its soft, velvety texture,” says Lapsley.

Because the Pinot grape has thin skin, the wine doesn’t have the same level of tannins as fuller-bodied reds like Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. That means it isn’t as astringent so it won’t pucker the mouth so much.

A wine or food

Pinot Noir suits the way Australians eat, in a light, fresh and healthy way, winemakers say.

“The way we eat these days is vastly different, we are looking to lighter, healthier options with plenty of flavour and generally speaking Pinot is a great all–rounder wine to match more complex flavours,” says Nathan Hyde, marketing manager with Kreglinger Estates, which produces Ninth Island Pinot Noir from Tasmania.

“The recent popularity of Pinot has taken some time to establish with the wine drinking population generally, but I would associate the recent surge to the fact that Pinot is a very complex and a lighter style to that of traditional Shiraz or Cabernet Sauvignon, and therefore suits our faster, healthier way of life and our eating patterns,” says Hyde.

Pinot Noir is served slightly chilled and are ideal with food – an ideal wine for the Australian climate.

“Pinot can perhaps be easier to match with certain foods, and certainly goes down easier on a hot day in South Australia (than Shiraz or Cabernet Sauvignon),” says Glenn Barry, winemaker for Starvedog Lane, part of Constellation Wines Australia.

The quality of local wines has also improved while prices for Pinot have been kept down by the growing number of labels.

“There has always been a smallish group of connoisseurs or cognoscenti who are Burgundy enthusiasts who are now also drinking Australian Pinot Noir because the quality over the last few years has increased dramatically,” says Margot De Bortoli of De Bortoli Wines, which produces an extensive range of Pinot Noir from the Yarra Valley.

“What has also happened is as plantings have increased there are more entry point Pinot Noirs of good quality that can be purchased under $20 so Pinot is achieving wider appeal,” says De Bortoli.

This view is echoed by other commentators.

“I think Australia has a long way to go to make truly outstanding wines but they are getting better all the time and I think this is also encouraging more consumers to try them out,” says Matt Redin, marketing Manager for Angove’s, which distributes Mt Riley Pinot Noir from Marlborough New Zealand.

“They certainly fit our lifestyle, cuisine and climate better than many of the super high tannin and alcohol reds that dominate the scene here. There is also a large range of Pinots now around the $20 mark where as previously they were all priced over $35 and really not worth the money,” he says.

Pinot Noir is grown all around Australia, but does best in cooler climates, such as the Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula and Geelong in Victoria, and the Adelaide Hills and Tasmania. New Zealand Pinots are also very good and consistent in their quality.

Patrick Materman, Montana chief winemaker, says Pinot Noir is an elegant variety, yet its finesse belies its incredible complexity. ”Good examples are multi-dimensional, showing layers of aromas and flavours. As well as its fruit characters, the fine structure of Pinot Noir lends itself well to a diverse range of food and wine matching possibilities,” says Materman.

“No other grape variety expresses the land in which it’s grown, the terroir, more than Pinot Noir. The accent is definitely on what happens in the vineyard, rather than the winery and regional taste variation adds to the diversity of the flavours and individual wines.”

“For example Marlborough Pinot Noir is finely structured and shows palate sweetness with a wonderful red fruit brightness, whilst Waipara Pinot Noir tends to show a darker spectrum with black cherry and savoury notes, and a bolder structure. There is good reason why Pinot Noir is New Zealand’s number one red and second most important variety overall”.

A difficult grape

Good Pinot Noir is great. But Pinot Noir is also known as “the heartbreak grape” because it is hard to grow and its quality varies widely between vintages.

One year, it can be great, the next year, not so good. Some of the difficulties with the grape are that it is very disease prone. Pinot Noir ripens early so frosts in spring can destroy the fruit. The grape needs to be handled with great sensitivity and attention to detail.

While Pinot Noir is a difficult grape, the trick is to buy a brand where quality is maintained each year though good growing and smart winemaking. If you’ve seen the movie Sideways, you’ll know just how fanatical some people can be about finding a good Pinot, going from winery to winery to find the perfect flavours.

Try a few different Pinot Noir labels to see which ones you like. Some wines around $15 a bottle might appeal to your palate as much as ones $30 a bottle. In Australia, good winemaking comes at all price points. But as the price rises, so too does the complexity of the wine.

“One thing about Pinot Noir is that it cannot be grown cheaply or in really large volumes in the warmer regions that produce such great value, affordable reds,” says Simon Napthine, General Manager of Tarrawarra Estate in Victoria’s Yarra Valley, which has built its reputation in Pinot Noir production.

“As it needs to be relatively low yielding, cooler summers and Autumns and a lot of hand care of the fruit and the vines – all leading to higher costs and more expensive wine. It seems that the magic $20 mark is just about the lowest you can go before you find good quality Pinot Noir. It means you have to pay for pleasure but, in my opinion it’s worth it,” says Napthine.

If you can, it’s also a good idea to attend Pinot Noir wine tastings to experience different labels. Pinots from different regions will have different characteristics and each bottle has its own mysteries.


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