Pinot Noir has been a bit of a sensation ever since the movie “Sideways” came out in 2004. Indeed, the sleeper indie hit let the rest of the country in on a secret that Pinot lovers have known for years. The grape, while extremely difficult to grow, produces flavors that are — in the words of Miles, the movie’s Pinot-loving main character — “the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and… ancient on the planet.”
Miles’s sentimental tribute to the wine made Americans appreciate both what a labor of love Pinot Noir is and how rare it is to find a really great bottle. What it didn’t teach us, however, is that the grape’s thin-skin and extreme sensitivity to terroir also mean that not all Pinot Noirs taste the same. In fact, Pinot Noirs that are grown in different regions actually taste quite different. The most well-known distinction is between Burgundy and California Pinots, but these days the comparisons go well beyond, with quality Pinots coming out of places like Oregon and New Zealand on a regular basis.
Of course, every Pinot lover has their favorite varietal, but if you’re new to the game it can be hard to figure out which one is right for you. It’s very much a matter of personal preference, after all. To help navigate, we put together a little cheat sheet that will let you in on the big differences between the major regions.
In the kingdom of Pinot Noir, Burgundy is the undisputed queen. It’s the oldest Pinot region in the world, and anyone who knows anything about wine will tell you that its terroir is also unmatched for growing the finicky grape. Indeed, Burgundy has both cooler temperatures, which are necessary for Pinot grapes to flourish, and varied soils, which give varietals from this region a complexity that others lack (as well as a much heftier price tag). The complexity and sophistication of Burgundy Pinots don’t mean they’re the right varietal for everyone though. No, they’re best suited to those who tend toward tart, acidic flavors (think sour cherry), and/or who want a wine with minerality, which is a fancy way of referring to the expression of soils in the varietal.
Over the last few decades, California Pinots have been Burgundy’s greatest competitor, and if you prefer fruity wine to acidic, they are probably more your speed. The fruity flavor is the result of the warmer California climate, which allows the grapes to grow longer, giving them more sugar when they are harvested. California Pinot Noirs are also much bolder, richer, and higher in alcohol than Burgundy varietals. Many have compared the flavors to black cherry or raspberry.
Oregon Pinots have become so big in recent years that they’re giving California Pinots a run for their money. In fact, some would argue that the biggest Pinot debate right now is not between California and Burgundy, but California and Oregon. Oregon Pinots are interesting because while they’re New World wines, they actually taste more similar to Pinots that come out of the French region (read: the acidity is what will jump out at you). This is largely because of the cooler temperatures there. You’ll also notice that a Pinot Noir from Oregon is much lighter in color and body than a California Pinot. In fact, the word “elegant” comes to mind. It’s the perfect wine to drink on a summer evening when you don’t want anything too heavy but are totally feeling like red.
If you’re looking for an up-and-coming Pinot Noir, or just want to experiment a little, then New Zealand is probably the varietal for you. New Zealand Pinots have only really been on the scene for the last 15 to 20 years, and while wine experts have lauded them for coming so far in such a short period of time, they have also commented that Pinots from the region are still trying to figure out what they are. Indeed, Pinots from different parts of New Zealand tend to express themselves quite differently, with some emerging light and elegant, and others much darker, denser, and bolder. One common thread that seems to run through all of them, however, is a spicy overtone to the fruity flavor. Perfect for when you need a little kick yourself.
It may come as a surprise to see Germany on a list of major Pinot Noir-producing regions, but it is actually the third-ranking country in the world in Pinot production, behind only France and the United States. Known as Spätburgunder, German Pinots have an Old World taste — acidic and earthy — but at a more reasonable price than Burgundy Pinots. Because they’re so popular in Germany, these varietals are not often exported to the United States. With that said, if you think German Pinots are the best match for your tastes, it’s worth hunting down one of the handful of bottles that have made it over the Atlantic.
Photo by Kelsey Knight