Around The World In 80 Wine Varietals: Pinot Noir

In Around The World In 80 Wine Varietals, contributor Chantal Martineau unearths how a particular grape drinks differently around the globe.

Pinot noir is to red wine what Riesling is to white: the most terroir-driven of the varieties. Finnicky and difficult to grow, never mind making into wine, pinot noir is more often a labor of love than a cash cow grape. It's also one of the only red grapes that has international conferences, like the International Pinot Noir Celebration in Oregon and Pinot Noir NZ – not to mention an entire movie, Sideways, that celebrates it. Among both winemakers and drinkers, pinot noir has a cult following. People love to debate how it should be made – grapes de-stemmed or whole cluster? – and what it should look and taste like. With its red berry top notes and often earthy mid-palate, it's a love-it-or-hate-it grape. And those who love it, do so with a bizarre, obsessive passion.

Pinot noir is one of the most ancient varieties, dating as far back as 2,000 years, when first-century Romans were known to cultivate the grape for wine production. It grows best in cooler regions, like its spiritual home of Burgundy and Champagne, where it's one of the three major grapes that go into the famous bubbly. In the Middle Ages, Catholic monks in Burgundy favored the grape for use in holy sacraments. By the sixth century, the vineyards of Burgundy were divided among different regional parishes. But the French Revolution of 1789 saw an upheaval against the church and monarchy. The vineyards were seized and redistributed among families of the region. To this day, vineyards continue to be divvied up among heirs so that it's not uncommon for winemakers to now have tiny plots of just a couple of acres to work with.

Pinot noir is also found in Germany and Italy, and in the 19th century made its way to the Americas and the South Pacific. While many pinot noir vineyards in California were planted in regions now deemed too warm for the grape, it thrives in cooler parts of the state, like the Sonoma Coast, Russian River Valley and Monterey, and in Oregon's Willamette Valley, as well as in New Zealand and Chile. The variety does well in chalky clay soils, which can bring out the mineral notes many people love it for.

Here are pinot noirs from five different regions to try, and where to buy it online:


Domaine Stéphane Magnien Chambolle-Musigny Sentiers 2011: From the Côte de Nuits area in the northern part of Burgundy, this pinot noir (or, simply, "red Burgundy") is from a Premier Cru vineyard, meaning that the vineyard holds the second-highest classification in the region. The wine is rich and structured, yet still elegant and aromatic. K&L Wine Merchants, $75.


Montebruno Eola-Amity Hill Pinot Noir 2010: This biodynamic winemaker in the Willamette Valley makes wine in the "Burgundian" style, meaning that the emphasis is on minerality and acidity. Fermented using native yeasts, the wine boasts wild berry notes and a deep earthiness. Astor Wines, $25.

New Zealand

Felton Road Bannockburn Pinot Noir 2010: Another biodynamic producer, this time from the stunning Central Otago region of New Zealand, Felton Road makes a lovely pinot noir full of red berry fruit herbaceous flavors, with a good dose of spice on the mid-palate. Lean, yet pretty. Sherry-Lehman, $40.


Calera Central Coast Pinot Noir 2011: This Monterey winery buys grapes from other growers for its Central Coast pinot noir. Deep red and floral aromas burst forth from the glass, giving way to bright berry flavors and a savory edge. Vintage Wine Merchants, $22.


St. Michael Eppan Pinot Nero Riserva 2009: Alto Adige is Italy's northernmost wine region, an ideal place to grow pinot noir – or pinot nero, as they call it there. This great value wine from a more than 100-year-old cooperative is easy drinking and fruit-forward, with a soft hint of vanilla on the finish. Saratoga Wine Exchange, $23.

More Around The World In 80 Wine Varietals columns: