Like the Templar Knights before them, many of the world’s best winemakers have devoted their lives on a quest to make the perfect Pinot, and the world’s most determined collectors to drink it. It is a relentless pursuit for its protagonists and aficionados. However, with great sacrifice comes great reward.
The finest Pinots transubstantiate their sites in the most charming and alluring way. And, exceptional Pinot Noir is being made in more places in the world than ever before as winemakers beyond Burgundy, from California and Oregon to Australia and New Zealand are now understanding how to make expressive and unique Pinot in their cool climes.
And as there is variation from site to site, producer to producer, it is perfectly possible to identify the village the wine came from when tasting Burgundy blind.
Burgundy, and more specifically the Cote d’Or, is the home of Pinot Noir, both physically and spiritually. This pebbly limestone escarpment running from Dijon down to Chagny with its cool, intrepid continental climate produces Pinot Noir of the greatest elegance, finesse and harmony. The best are truly faithful to their terroir; it is possible to taste marked differences from sites only metres apart. Each of the classic villages produces distinctly different styles. And as there is variation from site to site, producer to producer, it is perfectly possible to identify the village the wine came from when tasting Burgundy blind.
The finest wines of the Cote d’Or are from the Cote de Nuits to the north, where Pinot Noir typically has more finesse, elegance, perfume, concentration and lives longer. The northern part of the Cote de Nuits features the villages that produce its most muscular wines. Gevrey-Chambertin’s vineyards feature higher proportions of stone resulting in the brawniest wines. Try Armand Rousseau’s powerful, beguiling wines from Grands Cru: Le Chambertin, Chambertin-Clos de Beze and Mazis-Chambertin and the wines of Dugat-Py. Next, driving south is Morey-St-Denis, producing similarly muscular wines. Try Denis Mortet’s majestic Grand Cru Bonnes-Mare.
In the middle are those villages that provide the greatest elegance. Chambolle-Musigny, where shallow, hard Jurassic limestone soils result in wines of great elegance, finesse and perfume, is essentially the opposite end of the spectrum to nearby Gevery. Try Robert Groffier’s excellent Premiers Cru Les Amoureuses, Les Hauts Doix and Les Sentiers. Vosne-Romanee, also with a high proportion of limestone, presents wines of great finesse, too. Here though, there is a very special velvety texture to the wine, and an array of exotic spices to their fragrance. To experience the world’s greatest Pinot noir wines, try Domaine de la Romanee-Conti’s Romanee Conti, La Tache and Richebourg Grand Cru.
Toward the bottom of the Cote de Nuits is the village of Nuit-St-Georges where the deep marly limestone soils lie stylistically in the middle between Gevrey and Chambolle. Its wines typically display black cherry and chocolate flavours. Try l’Arlot’s exceptional wines from their Monopole Premier Cru Clos des Forêts Saint Georges and Henri Gouges’ fabulous Premiers Cru from Les Pruliers, Clos des Porrets, and Les Chenes Carteaux.
The cote to the south, more famous for whites, is Cote de Beaune, which produces meatier, fuller bodied, more robust Pinots with chunkier tannins. The village of Aloxe-Corton surrounding the hill of Corton produces seriously structured Pinots. Pommard delivers powerful, dark, tannic; rich and sturdy wines. Volnay produces more elegant, charming wines with velvety finesse. The Beaune villages produce lighter, more supple wines. Try Blain-Gagnard’s Volnay Premier Cru Champans and Simon-Bize’s fantastic value, very pure Burgundies from Aloxe-Corton Le Suchot and Savigny-les-Beaune Premiers Cru Aux Vergelesses, Aux Guettes, Les Talmettes.
Californian winemakers have strong opinions about how Pinot should be made. Styles can range from light, crunchy, fragrant, sappy wines from early harvested grapes, through earthy wines with chewy tannins made with stem inclusion.
Some 10,000 kilometres to the west, California produces very different styles of Pinot Noir to Burgundy. As one might expect, Californian winemakers have strong opinions about how Pinot should be made. Styles can range from light, crunchy, fragrant, sappy wines from early harvested grapes, through earthy wines with chewy tannins made with stem inclusion, to dark, heavily oaked, very ripe wines from later harvest fruit, pushing 15 per cent abv.
Proximity to the ocean determines the climate of each region and site, due to the cooling fogs that occur when the cold California current brings deep cold water to the surface, creating a heavy marine layer. Sta Rita Hills in Santa Barbara is strongly influenced by these fogs, therefore mornings are cool, resulting in fleshy wines with crisp acidity and black cherry, plum flavours. Carneros at the southern, most coastal edge of the Napa Valley provides juicy, fragrant wines with wild strawberry and herb flavours. Russian River can vary in its maritime effect but can often, particularly closer to Healdsburg, produce big, juicy, rich Pinots with blackberry and red berryfruit flavours. Explore the wines of Ted Lemon’s Littorai.
The Willamette Valley of Oregon, roughly 1,000 kilometres north, is much cooler and damper overall. The rolling hillside vineyards tend to produce charming supple, quite complex and earthy Pinot Noir that are softer, fruitier and earlier maturing than Burgundies of equivalent price. Try Ken Wright’s Shea Vineyard Pinot Noir from the Yamhill-Carlton District.
Marlborough, only 5,000 kilometres from Antarctica, is buffeted by South Pole winds yet blessed by unusually high sunshine hours and UV concentration. This provides bright, juicy Pinot Noir with strawberry, rhubarb and beetroot flavours.
Similarly cool and therefore well suited to Pinot Noir, is New Zealand, particularly the regions of the South Island and Wairarapa at the southern edge of the North Island. Marlborough, only 5,000 kilometres from Antarctica, is buffeted by South Pole winds yet blessed by unusually high sunshine hours and UV concentration. This provides bright, juicy Pinot Noir with strawberry, rhubarb and beetroot flavours, the best of which are grown in sheltered hillside pockets in the Southern Valleys. Try Corofin’s Settlement Vineyard and Cowley Vineyard Pinot Noirs. Central Otago further south is semi-continental with great extremes of climate and soil, producing extreme styles of dark, brooding Pinot Noirs with a mineral acid thread and chewy tannins. Try Burn Cottage’s excellent, small production wine.
Pinot Noir, just one little grape variety, yet with so much diversity. Every country, region, site, clone and winemaking style produces a completely different wine, rendering Pinot Noir perhaps the most exciting international red variety in the world. There are thousands of shades of Pinot Noir, and it’s thrilling to try them all.
Matt Deller is one of just 47 Masters of Wine in the US and an internationally respected wine judge, panelist and speaker