Pinot noir is one of the wine world’s most revered grapes. Notoriously fickle to grow and make, it produces what many see as the pinnacle of red wine, where in Burgundy it turns out fragrant, ethereal wines that can age for decades. But pinot noir has also found many happy homes around the world, and none more so than in Australia across our cooler viticultural regions.
Also known as
Pinot noir has many local synonyms, but the three that are likely to be seen on a bottle – keeping in mind that the grape will only appear on the simplest of wines from Burgundy – are blauburgunder, spätburgunder and pinot nero. The first two names are clearly Germanic, with the first likely found on Austrian and Swiss bottles and the second on German ones, while pinot nero is the Italian version.
What pinot noir tastes like
Although a cool climate grape, pinot noir can be quite rich and structured in warmer and drier zones, though these expressions are falling from favour. At the cooler end, pinot will often be full of bright red fruits, like redcurrant, cherry, pomegranate, strawberry and the like, with some herbal scents at times. When riper, those fruits become fuller, with darker berries appearing, too, while techniques like whole-bunch fermentation can add smoky, stalky and spicy elements, with notes of dried orange peel and Campari also not uncommon. Pinot noir also will express its location well, with earthy, mineral notes sometimes a feature, and as it ages characters that recall forest floor and autumn leaves can appear. Pinot can be supple with gentle tannins, but it can also have quite grippy structure, depending on location and winemaking.
In the vineyard
Pinot noir is commonly called a fickle grape, one that requires particular attention in the vineyard and low yields to sing, and that the best wines come from grapes grown at the coolest edge of climatic viability. It is also a grape that often is very variable depending on the clones grown and their suitability to the site. Because it mutates readily, there are many, many clones of pinot noir, and producers typically plant a mix to see which perform best and also to add complexity when they’re blended.
Pinot noir is either picked ultra-early, while the favour is just developing, to make sparkling wine, or a little later to make table wine. For still red wine, the grapes can be totally de-stemmed or left as whole bunches, or a mix, with any percentage of either equally possible. It’s quite common to see pinot noir raised in smaller oak barrels, and quite often with a bit of new oak, but equally it can be aged in larger neutral barrels. For sparkling wine, both barrel and tank maturation of the base wine can be employed.
Where is pinot noir grown?
Pinot noir’s home is France’s Burgundy, where it is thought to have evolved, but it is also Champagne’s most widely planted variety, as well as being widely distributed across the wine world. In Burgundy, it is responsible for the great and often wildly expensive red wines that have given the region such fame – most conspicuously in the Grand Cru wines of the Côte de Nuits. In Champagne, it shares marquee billing with chardonnay, with the pair typically blended with pinot meunier to make white sparkling wine, though it naturally contributes to rosé wines, and is bottled solo as white, which will be labelled blanc de noirs – it is also made into table wine in Champagne, though the cold climate makes that a less reliable prospect. In Sancerre, pinot noir is made into rosé, as it also is in Marsannay, in Burgundy’s north, where there is much historical precedent for it, if the practice has waned somewhat. Pinot noir is the sole red grape in Alsace, where the climate is a challenge to ripeness, and it also crops up in the Jura near Switzerland.
Pinot noir around the world
In the Old World, Germany mounts a case as the next best exponent in Europe, principally in Baden, in the south-west, while in Italy it is grown well in Alto Adige in the north, but perhaps most famously is used for their Champagne-like wines from Franciacorta, in Lombardy. It is also grown in Austria and Switzerland to reasonable effect, and has an increasing presence in the United Kingdom, mainly as a component for their burgeoning sparkling wine production – somewhat facilitated by a warming climate. Making pinot noir to match or even rival the wines of Burgundy has long been a desire for many New World makers, and it has seen the grape spread in significant ways to cool climate zones in the USA, New Zealand, Canada, South America, South Africa and Australia.
Pinot noir in Australia
Australia vies with the US and New Zealand for the crown in the New World, though the competition is somewhat irrelevant, with each country proving that pinot noir can find quite distinct and equally valid voices in different regions. Indeed, while Burgundy was imitated for some time, with varying degrees of success, the acceptance of New World expressions – such as are seen in New Zealand’s Central Otago, Oregon’s Willamette Valley or Australia’s Yarra Valley – has seen the new world break those shackles. Pinot noir is grown widely in cool climate zones in Australia with many regions making both still and sparkling wines of significant merit. The grape first came to our shores in the Busby collection in the 1830s, with it curiously finding the most favour in the warmth of New South Wales’ Hunter Valley, and though it declined there, vine material sourced from a vineyard planted by the great Maurice O’Shea has become this country’s most planted clone: MV6. Some of the principal regions for pinot noir are the Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula, Geelong, Adelaide Hills, Tasmania and Macedon.
Photo of pinot noir grapes seen here, courtesy of Shaw + Smith Lenswood.
Some of the best Australian pinot noir
Some of the icons
Hoddles Creek Estate
Some of the new wave
Dilworth & Allain
Small Island Wines
Two Tonne Tasmania
Vignerons Schmölzer & Brown