Complicated but Delicious: A Simple Guide to Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir is complicated. It’s the quiet friend you have who, after a few drinks, becomes eloquent and outspoken, revealing herself to be a a full-time artist doing surprisingly well, financially.

The grape has driven vintners crazy for centuries. Not only does it only grow in select climates, it is thin-skinned, relatively low-yielding, and susceptible to all kinds of diseases and pests. Is the torture worth it? Without a shadow of a doubt.

When executed properly, Pinot Noir is borderline mystical. It packs so much character into one medium-bodied parcel you’ll be scratching your head as to how. It loves to share the table with an assortment of foods but is equally compelling on its own. Perhaps best, it is one of the most expressive varieties on the planet, turning the volume dial way up on terroir, winemaking style, and vintage.

The gist of its history is this: Pinot Noir began in Burgundy. More delicate, it took a while to gain the Old World respect normally reserved for, say, Bordeaux. It eventually found a few pockets elsewhere to thrive in, including northern California, the Willamette Valley, parts of New Zealand and Australia, as well as Austria and Germany. It loves a temperate climate and will virtually burst into flames (or expensive raisins) in the majority of the world’s growing regions. Many dub the grape temperamental, but that’s an understatement.

Shea Vineyard
Mark Stock/The Manual

One of Pinot Noir’s many strengths is its diversity. There are countless clones of the stuff (given names like Dijon, Pommard, 115, etc.) and the resulting flavors can be dramatically different, even within a single vineyard, let alone vintage. Many labels, such as the esteemed WillaKenzie Estate, turn out clone-designate offerings most years. Give ‘em a try and sharpen the blades of your Pinot palate.

The Willamette Valley is largely considered the new headquarters for Pinot Noir. While many other varieties are taking root, it’s basically implied that you have at least one Pinot on the menu here. And while the grape generally ends up as a red wine of some kind, no two are exactly alike. Moreover, the versatile grape can be used to make stunning White Pinot, Rosés that rival those of Provence, and flavorful sparkling.

For a while, many thought Pinot couldn’t age well but that’s a mindset that has since been revoked. Most good wines of the genre can go at least 10-15 years, not bad given its relatively low tannin content. The best way to drink it is to open a bottle and savor it over time. Try a pour every hour and see how one of Burgundy’s most famous exports evolves in the glass.

Now, it’s your turn to try these excellent riffs from masters of the Pinot Noir field:

Eyrie Vineyards

Eyrie Vineyards

An OG of the Willamette Valley, Eyrie Vineyards started in 1965 by “Papa Pinot” himself, David Lett. His son, Jason, has been head vintner for some time now, crafting the same finesse-driven, drenched-in-detail Pinot Noirs his father knew the region would one day become world-famous for.

Domaine Serene Winery

Domaine Serene Winery
Domaine Serene Winery/Facebook

The Dundee Hills producer likes to flirt with the extravagant, as its sprawling tasting room, helicopter tours, and triple-digit wine price tags suggest. But there’s a class to Serene’s wines, especially in the Pinot Noir department. They routinely fetch some of the best scores imaginable and remain very much worth the price.

McKinlay Vineyards

McKinlay Vineyards
McKinlay Vineyards/Facebook

McKinlay’s estate Pinot usually comes in at around $20 a pop and is one of the steals of the appellation. The label lacks a website but is worth inquiring about at your local bottle shop nonetheless. Never mind the vintage, it’s always dialed-in, leaning toward the more Burgundian style elements of lower alcohol and more acid, making it very food-friendly.

White Rose Estate

White Rose Estate
Mark Stock/The Manual

White Rose lost its supremely talented winemaker Jesus Guillen last fall. He was one of very few Mexican-American winemakers in the Valley (check out the up-and-coming Alumbra label, while we’re on the topic) and had a certain cellar deftness. His Pinot, often made via whole-cluster fermentations, yielded singular wines that juggled intriguing fruit and savory qualities. New winemaker Tresider Burns, formerly of the esteemed Brittan label, will help keep the legacy alive.

Littorai Wines

Littorai Wines
Littorai Wines

The Sonoma Coast is generally cool enough for Pinot, making it the most-planted red there. Littora is a label to put on your radar, thanks to both its biodynamic focus as well as Pinot Noir with real restraint and elegance. Sure, California Pinot can be bigger and juicier, but you wouldn’t know it tasting these refined wines.

Baxter Winery

Baxter Winery
Baxter Winery/Facebook

The Anderson Valley of northern California is also well suited for Pinot Noir’s pickiness. Family-owned Baxter stresses the personality of varying vineyard sites in that area through wines of real purity. That typically equates to neutral oak aging and naturally fermented juice.

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