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Finicky, prickly and sublime: That’s Pinot Noir
By John H. Isacs

IF life is a quest, then for many wine aficionados Pinot Noir is the holy grail. Perhaps no other variety is as revered and admired.
But it is also a troublesome and quarrelsome little grape. Winemakers often refer to this thin-skinned red variety as the “heartbreak grape.”


Pinot Noir is notoriously sensitive to excessive heat, wind, frost,planting density, pruning procedures, fermentation methods, yeast types and just about every aspect of winemaking. The variety is also quite susceptible to pests and diseases and prone to vintage as well as bottle variations. It’s often said that one must be somewhat of a masochist to make Pinot Noir wines.

So why would anyone in their right mind make Pinot Noir wines? Because when done properly, this finicky grape makes many of the world’s most sublimely beautiful red, rose and sparkling wines.

These qualities amply qualify it as a sensational summer variety. This column is the last of my sensational summer varieties series that including Pinot Noir has introduced eight great summer grapes.

It’s quite appropriate that Pinot Noir should be the last variety in the series as it’s also a great grape for the transition to autumn.

Pinot Noir is an ancient grape that is believed to be genetically only one or two generations removed from the wild. The first historical mention of the grape dates to the 1st century AD in Burgundy.

By Medieval times the variety was already widely cultivated by Catholic monks and together with the still wines of Champagne, Pinot Noir reds from Burgundy were the favored drink of French nobility.

Centuries later, as Bordeaux grew in commercial might and recognition internationally, red Burgundies remained the preferred wine of the French elite.


Today Pinot Noir is cultivated in many regions around the globe but the best expressions of this grape are made in cool regions along a thin latitudinal bank at the extremes of northern and southern hemisphere wine-growing areas. Pinot Noir wines are exceedingly terroir-expressive, meaning they accurately typify the region and even individual vineyard where they are grown.

The ancestral home of Pinot Noir, Burgundy unquestionably makes the world’s greatest Pinots, but the range of styles and classifications can be confusing.

In the simplest terms, there are four levels of wines starting with AC wines that can be made from grapes anywhere in Burgundy. Next are village-level wines that have fruit sourced only from that particular village. Premier Cru and Grand Cru wines come from the highest-rated hillside vineyards. Each village and even individual vineyards within the village have their own characteristics.

Burgundy Pinots tend to offer lots of fresh red and black fruit flavors and have good acidity, while more mature Pinots develop earthy and savory qualities as well as greater complexity.

Drink AC and village-level Burgundies young and fresh, while Premier and Grand Cru wines benefit from several years of cellaring. On the hottest days of summer, the lighter younger wines are best while the more serious Premier and Grand Cru wines are ideal as the cooler temperatures of autumn approach.

Whatever style of Burgundy Pinot Noir you choose, picking the right producer is essential. Some of the best big producers whose wines are quite easy to find all over China are Louis Jadot, Joseph Drouhin and Louis Latour. Two excellent smaller producers that have wines available in Shanghai are Domain de Montille and Domaine Rougeot.

My favorite New World Pinots come from the New Zealand wine regions of Martinborough on North Island and Marlborough and Central Otago on South Island. These Pinots tend to be more fruit-driven, weighty and heady than Burgundy Pinots, with abundant black cherry, boysenberry and blackberry flavors.

Top Kiwi Pinot Noir producers include Mud House, Villa Maria, Kim Crawford and Misha’s Vineyard. The US state of Oregon also makes a number of noteworthy Pinot Noir wines in the more weighty New World style, while some interesting cool climate Pinots from Chile are starting to make a name for themselves.

Pinot Noir is an important contributor to the world’s two best sparkling wines, the celebrated wines of Champagne and the less well-known but equally good Francia corta sparklers. As one of the three authorized varieties in Champagne, along with Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay, Pinot Noir is often blended with these grapes and sometimes used exclusively in wines referred to as Blanc de Noir.

Some Blanc de Noir wines also have some Pinot Menuier but the best are usually 100 percent Pinot Noir. Recommended Champagne houses that are known for their Pinot-centric wines include Veuve Cliquot, Philipponnat and the boutique producer Canard-Duchene.

The Franciacorta wine region in the Lombardy region makes Italy’s finest sparklers. Chardonnay is the most planted variety but Pinot Noir plays an important supporting role. The two best producers who have wines available in Shanghai are Bellavista and Ca’ del Bosco. Both make superb Champagne-method sparklers that are ideal for summer drinking.

Pinot Noir is one of the wine world’s most food-happy grapes. Lighter Pinots are ideal with mild cheeses, meats and — because they are low in tannins and iron and have good acidity — even pair well with fish. This versatility makes them quite suitable for Chinese meals that combine meat and seafood.

Mature wines with more earthy qualities are best with stewed or braised meats or flavorful cheeses. Thought I admit that it’s a bit heavy for summer, my all-time-favorite pairing is a Premier or even Grand Cru Burgundy Pinot Noir wine with Beef Bourguignon.

This classic Burgundy dish comprises braised beef in a red wine sauce with bacon cubes, pearl onion and mushrooms, with half a bottle used for the sauce and half in your glass. These is wining and dining at the highest level any time of year.

A more casual but sumptuous summer pairing is a lovely Champagne or Franciacorta sparkler with grilled chicken sandwiches. The tiny bubbles and magic flavors of these sparkling wines turn a rather ordinary sandwich into something special.

Pinot Noir at a glance
Color: Garnet-ruby red
Aromas & flavors: Strawberry, cherry, raspberry, leather, spice, tobacco
Mouth feel: Light to medium body, acidic
Key descriptor: Complex


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