Parsing Pinot Noir

Of all wine grapes. probably none show the details of place and production as much as Pinot Noir. The where, the who and the how, and the when are all (potentially) more evident in Pinot Noir than in wine from any other grape variety. That qualifying “potentially” is there because, in the wrong hands, the how can obliterate the place and even the when, but then to at least some extent, that is true of every variety.

Pinot Noir is the red wine grape of Burgundy. It has thin black skins and white juice. Beyond that, it gets murky. It is not definitively known where the grape originated, which varieties are its parents, or even if it was a “direct domestication” of a wild grape (maybe the strongest possibility). It seems that Pinot Noir (so called because the grapes are black – noir – and the clusters are tight and shaped a bit like a pine – pinot – cone) has been growing in the neighborhood of Burgundy since at least before 100 AD. The variety is extremely mutable so there are lots of genetic variations (a number of which have been isolated as clones) as well as color variations (Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris) and other genetic anomalies such as Pinot Meunier (which seems to be an ancient chimera (look it up) of two genetic strains of Pinot Noir). But, as often happens, I digress …

Even though, in a 2010 grape vine census, Pinot Noir was only the tenth most planted wine variety (sixth among red varieties), it is arguably much more important both economically and qualitatively than that quantitative ranking.

Due to tight clusters and thin skins, Pinot Noir can have problems with rot and other vine hazards. Those thin skins also can lead to lighter-colored and more delicately-flavored wines. The hallmark of Pinot Noir in Burgundy and many of the world’s other producing areas is red fruit, delicacy, and elegance. That appeal makes the wines worth the the effort of growing the difficult grapes in often marginal climates.

The best Pinot Noir wines are known for their combination of fruit and earth in which site specificity may be revealed – so Pinot Noir wines can be the ultimate combination of what and where. One part of the reason for this is that the variety tends to strongly reflect place. Another part is that, due to the happenstance of history and tradition in Burgundy, the best Pinot Noir has long been grown in smaller plots with fairly specific characteristics. While this specific site character was already well known when the best Pinot Noir Vineyards were owned by various Catholic Church organizations and aristocrats (the Ducs of Burgundy, etc.), it is even more evident now that those vineyards (places) have been divided into smaller and more specific plots. Perhaps partly because of this tradition in Europe, Pinot Noir in the new world tends to come from smaller sites (often designated with vineyards names in much the same way Burgundy wines are labeled with vineyards names) with specifically identifiable terroir. As much as its fruit character, this ability to showcase terroir is a big part of Pinot Noir’s great appeal.


We often talk about wine being a product of “producer and place.” Producer is important because of two factors: resources and decisions. A producer with enough resources is going to have access to better vineyards, better equipment, and better skills, as well as be better able to react to (which may mean throwing money at) problems. A producer also makes decisions about where and how, deciding which vineyards to use and which techniques and traditions to apply to the product of the site or sites.


The first decision is “where.” Where will the vineyard be planted? Which vines will be planted? On what rootstocks? How will the rows be oriented? How will the site be farmed? All of those are influenced by the where. In much of Europe, where may actually dictate the answers to these questions. If you want to plant red grapes in the identified great terroirs of Burgundy, you pretty well have to plant Pinot Noir. If you want to plant red grapes in Cote Roie, you pretty well have to plant Syrah. But there are a lot of different clones and massal selections that you can choose from so which is right? Most producers rely on tradition. The best use the same genetic material (often a massal selection taken from cuttings from the previous vines from the their vineyard or neighboring vineyards) and often the same rootstocks they have “always used.” A grower working at a more commercial level might use mono-clonal blocks planted to some of the numbered clones isolated and propagated by the University of Dijon but, at least in Burgundy, those clones are not seen as such at the top sites.

But how does the producer choose the where? Originally, the sites were chosen because they grower recognized physical characteristics (slope, exposure, soil type, etc.) which we now lump together as terroir that had produced good wine in other maybe neighboring areas. Now (at least in the Cote d’Or of Burgundy) site is determined more by what he inherited or what his spouse inherited. In the new world, site is often less restricted and new sites are still popping up that are proving to be good spots for Pinot Noir. And so those grape growers are making those decisions about genetic material and so on.

Sometimes, both in Burgundy and in the new world, the grower is the producer or winemaker, and sometimes not. In Burgundy, a wine producer who grows his own grapes is called a domaine and producer who buys grapes from another grower is called a negoçiant. Some negoçiants own vineyards as well as buying grapes from other growers. And some domaines both make their own wines and sell some grapes or even wine to negociants. And the same is true in the US and other areas.

Whether the influences were economics, heredity, or happenstance, the where decision for Pinot Noir determines the site influence on the wine. And the consequences to that “where” (genetic material, farming practice, etc.) have a lot to do with the “what” or fruit influences on the wine.


Now we get down to it – the “how” of it – all the decisions that go into the making of a specific Pinot Noir wine. Lets say you have a vineyard in Burgundy (because that is the home – both real and spiritual – of Pinot Noir). Let’s say your long lost uncle François left you a few rows in Morey St. Denis in a nice premier cru site along with some vines in Gevrey Chambertin (at the village level) and a some more on the wrong side of the road that can only be called Bourgogne Rouge (not entitled to the name of a village but still making some pretty good juice).

How will you farm the vines? You could go with conventional agriculture, you could go “Sustainable,” or you could go Organic or even Biodynamic (sort of uber-organic with a little new age hoo-doo thrown in). That basic decision on farming practice has a big influence on the health of your vineyard (and maybe your health) and consequently on the yield levels as well as the ripeness and quality of the fruit. Lets say you go biodynamic. You will soon find yourself making preparations from things such as composted nettles and “converted” manure and applying these often dilute mixtures to your vineyards following an esoteric calendar. Nevertheless, you will be in your vineyard more than many of your neighbors and it is likely that you will come up with high quality grapes. As the vines grow, you will have to decide whether to reduce crop (to concentrate flavor into the remaining crop) and/or thin leaves (to allow more sun and air into the canopy).

As harvest approaches, you will have to decide when to pick. Perhaps you ceded some of those decisions to a consultant or an employee but then you hired that person so they are still ultimately your decisions.

Once the grapes are harvested, will you crush and de-stem, just de-stem, or leave the clusters whole. Or maybe you will do a mix of say 50% crushed and de-stemed, 20% whole berry, and 30% whole cluster. At the same time, are you dosing the wines with sulfur-dioxide to kill any native yeasts or are you hoping those native yeasts will thrive and combine with the resident yeast culure in your winery to add complexity?

Once your grapes are in the fermenter, will you do a cold soak (cold prefermentation maceration) or will you allow or encourage and immediate start to fermentation? A pre-fermentation cold soak will allow the water in the grape juice to begin extracting color from the grape skins for a few days before the alcohol produced during fermentation begins extracting tannins from the skins. A three-to-maybe-five-day cold soak can add substantial color and a bit of richness to a wine that might otherwise look a bit rosé. But a 10-day cold soak can extract so much color and more that a Pinot Noir from Morey St. Denis can easily be misidentified as a Syrah form Cote Rotie. Too much cold soak can obliterate site specificity and even obscure varietal character.

During that cold soak (let’s hope you went for 3 days) and the subsequent alcoholic fermentation, will you manage the cap with pigeage (punch downs) or pump-overs? The perception in the wine world is that Burgundy always uses punch-downs and Bordeaux always uses pump-overs. The reality is that many Burgundy producers (and other Pinot producers in other parts of the world) use both techniques on the same tanks. And some Burgundy producers (such as Vincent Girardin) have eschewed punch-downs entirely in favor of gentle pump-overs. Whichever technique or combination of techniques you use, it starts during the cold soak and continues on through the fermentation.

How long will you allow the wine to stay on the skins in the fermenters? How much pressure will you use in pressing off the skins after fermentation? How much of the press wine will you blend back in as the wine goes to barrels. Will the wine go into new or seasoned (used) barrels or (more commonly) a mix of both? In what forest(s) was the wood grown? How long was it air dried before being coppered into a barrel? Who coopered the barrels and how much were they toasted? How long will you leave the wine in barrels? After the cellars warm up a bit in the spring and malo-lactic completes, will you sulfur and rack the wines into clean barrels. Will you rack again (and again) or will you leave the wine alone to develop on its hopefully healthy lees? When it’s time to bottle, will you fine and/or filter and/or cold stabilize and/or de-gass? Will you bottle slowly using gentle gravity or at high speed using aggressive pumps? All of these and more affect the taste and character of the wine.

If, in reading about a certain wine, you find some (or better, most) of the producer’s answers to these questions (including where) you can begin to predict (depending on your experience and education) what the wine will taste like. And if you’re tasting a certain wine, you may be able to see or smell or taste or even feel a note from the place or the signature of a technique.


So let’s have a look at two wines, one from the Cote de Nuits in Burgundy and one from Carneros in Napa.

Let’s say our Burgundy is from a biodynamic grower/producer (a domaine) based in Vosne Romanee in the southern Cote de Nuits. And lets say, in addition to holdings in Vosne and Nuits, Our theoretical producer (lets call him “Domaine Mercedes Neuf”)has a single plot in the Clos Vougeot (the largest Grand Cru in the Cote d’Or) up fairly high but close to the south end (which means better exposure and drainage and more limestone rock and less soil (broken limestone with some darker dirt and very little organic material). The grapes were harvested with an eye on the fruit-acid balance after achieving brown seeds with a potential alcohol of 13.5%. In his old wet stone-and-wood, gravel-floored cold cellar in Vosne Romanee, the producer used a three-day cold soak with no whole clusters utilizing two punch-downs and one pump-over a day and allows a natural yeast fermentation. The wine is drained and pressed off just before it reaches dryness so the last bit of the fermentation is in the barrels which helps extract a bit more new oak character from the 100% new, four year air-dried (resources) Allier and Never light-to-medium-toast oak barrels from three different coopers. Malo-lactic starts in late March and finishes just over four weeks later. The wine is sulfured and then racked of the gross lees into cleaned barrels and is then left alone for another 10 months until it is fined in barrels, drained into a tank for assemblage, cold-stabilized (to remove tartrate crystals), lightly de-gassed, and passed by gravity flow through a loose filter in an effort to stop any potential Brettanomyces (a spoilage yeast) population in the tank from moving with the wine into the bottle (which could turn a beautiful fruit-and-perfume master-piece into an earthy, barnyard-y nightmare.

Let’s say our Carneros Pinot is a vineyard-designated wine made by a high quality negoçiant-style producer (let’s call him Dinero de Papa Winery) from purchased grapes grown by an organic farmer in the hills above the highway (higher and a bit warmer with a bit less wind with alluvial deposits over old marine sediments with a bit more organic matter) who uses sheep for weed control and plows with horses to avoid soil compaction and diesel fumes. Unusually, most of the vineyard is planted to two older massal selections but some of the smaller blocks are planted mono-clonally to Dijon 114 and 115, 667 and 777 as an experiment. Our winemaker specifies the harvest date to coincide with an anticipated 14.5% potential alcohol. In his modern steel and concrete, industrial warehouse winery in an industrial park south of Napa (city), our producer went with a full de-steming and partial crushing before a full five-day cold soak. While he did not sulfur the grapes at reception, he did inoculate with a commercial yeast culture to speed along the fermentation. Cap management was manual pigeage three times daily reduced to twice daily as the wine approached dryness. After the wine was dry, he left it three more days in contact with the skins. After draining the open-top fermentation tanks into closed-top, temperature controlled tanks and pressing off the skins, the wine was blended and then barreled (a mix of 30-month-air-dried oak from several French forests and several different coopers in several different toast levels, 50% new barrels and 50% second use) where a warmer cellar caused malo-lactic to start in December and finish in two weeks. The wine was sulfured and racked after malo and the cellar was cooled down and humidified to allow the wine to develop slowly and without much evaporation. It was racked twice and then racked into a tank for assemblage. The wine was not filtered or fined, and was not cold-stabilized or de-gassed before bottling on a conventional bottling line.

How are they alike? They are both Pinot Noirs made using a lot of the same techniques with some seemingly subtle and snot so subtle differences in how they were applied.

How are they different?

Our Burgundy (Domaine Mercedes Neuf Clos Vougeot “le Sud de Clos”, 2009 $127.99, 94 points from BurgMule) wine is tighter and a bit higher in acid due to the lower potential alcohol. Our Burgundy producer’s decisions lead to a more focused, more fruit-oriented, terroir driven but not earthy Pinot Noir offering pure red fruit (cherry, red berries, even a hint of cranberry) with cola and spice as well as some dark floral perfume and enough richness. The wine got 100% new barrels but the oak notes are subtle and integrated. The delicate mineral component is present but provides as much focus as it does flavor. Already good, this is a wine that will last and develop to reward keeping.

The Carneros Pinot (Dinero de Papa “Happy Hippie” Vineyard Pinot Noir, Napa Carneros, 2009 $79.99, 94 points and a “hubba-hubba” from is richer and riper, higher in alcohol, and less acidic. The fruit is darker red fruit with notes of black fruit as well along with a ripe fruit and floral perfume to go with an earthy richness (maybe more mushroom than mineral) and some dusty oak. The wine is a bit more architectural in that you can more readily discern its elements. Due to the higher alcohol and ripeness and lower acidity, it is easy to drink now but it may not have as much future in terms of longer keeping as acidity is the most important element for aging wine. Because it was not filtered, fined, or stabilized, it has a tiny bit of haze and there is some evident bottle variation. Some bottles are lovely but others may seem a bit too earthy with fruit being obscured.

Maybe it is not all completely predictable but neither is it a real surprise that the wines taste as they do. And the more you learn more about how these wines are made and taste how technique affects taste, the more you will see (smell, taste, feel) technique as you taste and the better you will predict color, aroma, taste, and feel from technique.


3 thoughts on “Parsing Pinot Noir

  1. This is the best synopsis of wine making and the introduction/summary of the key factors in wine making that I have ever seen! Absolutely Brilliant, Bear! Thanks for the LONG and thorough blog! Time for a glass of Marniquet or Bonnaire followed by a good Burg!

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    a horrible or unreal creature of the imagination; a vain or idle fancy: He is far different from the chimera your fears have made of him.
    Genetics. an organism composed of two or more genetically distinct tissues, as an organism that is partly male and partly female, or an artificially produced individual having tissues of several species.

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