Known for creating some of the most compelling wines in the world, capable of reaching ethereal heights, Pinot Noir is considered one of the Greats. It is, however, a subtle wine: with lighter body, lower tannins, and often lower alcohol levels. Great Pinot Noirs are achieved by a lightness of touch, and by taking great care in the vineyard.
It would be disingenuous to come up with a new phrase to describe Pinot Noir when one that encapsulates the essence of the variety so perfectly exists already: The Heartbreak Grape. Why? In the vineyard, it breaks the hearts of many growers; to say it’s not always the easiest to tend would be being kind. In the cellar, it can also be a bit tricky, as it can be susceptible to bacterial problems, such as volatile acidity.
However, when it's in the right hands, it can create wines of another dimension; wines that seem to be born from something far greater than basic grape juice. These examples can mend the hearts that were previously broken in the vineyard, and they make every step of the struggle worthwhile. The finest examples will cause even the most stoic of us to weep out of happiness and awe. A glass of great Pinot Noir will fuse the pieces of a broken heart back together and divert tears of misery to become tears of joy.
The Pine Cone Grape
It is commonly believed that pinot comes from the old French pineau, meaning pine, because its bunches are shaped very similarly to that of a pine cone. As it was often documented as pineau as well as Pinot, it’s likely that for once, the etymology of this ancient variety is actually fairly simple.
However, once upon a time it went under other synonyms, such as Noirien and Morillon, which today is a synonym for Chardonnay in the southern Austrian region, Styria, just to confuse things even more. The earliest mention of the variety appeared under this name in French legal documents of the 1200s. In the 1300s, the spelling of Pinot/Pinoz appeared. Very soon in these historical documents it becomes clear that Pinot was seen as a superior variety: the Grape Bible Wine Grapes, by Jancis Robinson, José Vouillamoz & Julia Harding, reports that a 15-year-old boy was killed because he had disobeyed an order that stated he must ensure that the Pinot Noir was kept separate from other grapes at harvest time. No risks would be taken in the name of Pinot.
The grape spread to neighbouring countries throughout the centuries that followed, and by the 1700s it was found in vineyards across Europe.
A not-so-teenage Ninja Mutant Grape
As Pinot Noir is both extremely old and has a longstanding reputation for producing the highest quality wines, it was propagated intensely over the centuries: far and wide. Along the way, it has mutated a number of times.
Mutations occur in all plant species, but have become famous in grapevines as farmers have selected and propagated the mutant examples to investigate their potential. One of the most famous recent examples is the ‘Pinot Gouges’ of Henri Gouges: a white mutation of Pinot Noir (so a kind of Pinot Blanc) that Henri himself discovered in the Nuits-St-Georges vineyard, ‘Clos des Porrets,’ in 1936. He marked the vine and checked in 1937 to see if the mutation had reoccurred, which it had. In 1939, he grafted around 2-300 plants to his own nursery. He was so pleased with the fruit that he planted a whole (albeit small at 0.5 hectares) vineyard to it after the second world war.
Today, both the Nuits-Saint-Georges Premier Cru Les Perrières cuvée, as well as their Bourgogne Pinot Blanc cuvée, is produced from this specific mutation.
At some stage in the 70s, an Oregon winemaker was so excited by the prospect that he brought back rumoured suitcase cuttings to the US, so now you can also find Pinot Gouges in the Zivo Vineyard, of which the fruit is vinified by the likes of Minimus and Origin wineries.
As mutations like these occur naturally on the same vine, and don't involve sexual reproduction, it means that the parentage and genetic makeup of the variety remains the same. So, Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Teinturier and Pinot Noir Précoce, also known as Frühburgunder, are technically speaking all the same grape variety.
Pinot Meunier - one of the three main Champagne grapes, also came from Pinot Noir, but it stands a little apart, as it is a mutation known as a chimera. This means that its inner cell walls are similar to Pinot Noir, while its outer cell walls are composed of a distinct mutation.
All of these grapes might be composed from the same genetic material, but they have vastly different appearances and characters.
Who’s your Daddy?
As Pinot Noir is so ancient, we do not know who its parents are. The only thing we know for certain, due to DNA tests, is that it has a parent-offspring relationship with Savagnin, the white variety of the Jura region. Currently, it is impossible to say which came first, unless new evidence emerges. It might seem like a lost cause, but surprisingly evidence that can help us dig deeper into the past of grape varieties does emerge from time to time. Recently, an excavation dig in Orléans, central France, revealed a 900-year-old grape seed that turned out to be Savagnin. This means we have direct proof that Savagnin existed in the 1100s, and has been propagated by cuttings ever since. The Wine Grapes book also tells us that there was a mention of Savaignins Noir in 1386, in the Jura. Knowing what we now know from DNA about the interesting connection between Savagnin and Pinot, could it be possible that Pinot Noir was in fact born from Savagnin, and that Savagnin might be Pinot Noir's parent, instead of the other way around?
A Prolific Breeder: Parent to Many
Together with Gouais Blanc, an ancient and fairly obscure variety that has almost disappeared, Pinot Noir has had over 20 children through natural crosses and varieties. Chardonnay, Aligoté, Romorantin and Gamay are examples of these.
I got 99 (Pinot) Problems
Despite the fact it can produce some of the most compelling wines when planted on the right terroir for the variety - it particularly loves clay-limestone “marne” soils - it is far from the dream variety in the vineyard.
It has thin skins, which means it’s particularly prone to disease pressure, such the various types of rot, and mildew. As it ripens fairly early on the scale of things, it’s often planted in cooler continental climates. However, it’s often these climates that struggle with rain and disease pressure, so Pinot gets itself into trouble frequently. However, if it’s planted in a climate that’s too warm, it quickly becomes uninteresting: too ripe, alcoholic, and lacking in character.
If allowed to produce high yields, Pinot Noir also tends to become less interesting and more dilute in flavour. This means that yields are often kept low in the name of quality; although this is trickier news for the bank.
For legendary winemaker Jean-Yves Bizot, and the talented young Charles Lachaux, it doesn’t stop just at the low yields. They prescribe to the ancestral method of training the vine, which involves not cutting the apex and growing it on sticks, known as "paissaux." They believe this will help the vine to find an integral balance, as well preserving freshness in the bunches, as they’ll be shaded by the canopy, resulting in lower and more stable alcohol levels.
To Stem, or not to Stem?
Until the arrival of machine destemmers in the 70s, a lot of wines had been produced using at least a portion of whole bunches, as destemming by hand - with metal or wicker grills - was laborious and time consuming. For many, including Jean-Yves, it is a nod to their ancestors to continue making wine in this manner: if their wines have aged so well, then surely it makes sense to follow the path they laid out?
The use of stems also introduces another element of aroma and taste: stems are often said to give floral aromas and additional freshness.
Diana Snowden-Seysses, of Domaine Dujac, explains that conversely, due to the potassium in the stems, you actually lose some tartaric acid in the wine. Despite this, it is a question of faith in the stems: even with the "technical" acid levels dropping, they bring about a freshness that is not necessarily quantifiable. For Diana, this became particularly clear in the boiling hot summer of 2003. She remembers,
“There were only eighty five days from flowering to harvest, usually there are 100. I spent the whole vintage on the forklift! We did everything with 100% whole bunches - cleaning the destemmer would have been too much to cope with!”
As a result, in a year where many struggled with expressions of Pinot Noir that were too ripe, the Dujac wines shine, with an equilibrium between floral perfume and fruit.
The young Charles Lachaux, who carries out all of his fermentations with 100% whole bunches, also believes in something greater, saying,
"The wines that have given me the most pleasure; older vintages of Dujac and DRC... they were made with whole bunches. They still have life and spirit; it gives a third dimension to the wine - and that's the point of wine. It must bring emotion: it should take you on a journey and make you feel something."
For him, it is a matter of not just ageworthiness; it is the quest for the ethereal side of great Pinot Noir.
Whole bunch fermentations must, however, be handled with care: too much punching down during fermentation will release too much of the stem tannin into the wine, and the Pinot can quickly go from pretty to rough, needed many years to be approachable, especially if new oak tannin is added on top. It is likely this fear of stem tannin was what led so many to back away from using whole bunches - following in the footsteps of the legendary Henri Jayer, who made some of the world's finest wines with no stem inclusion at all.
Massal vs Clonal
Due to its genetic diversity and to the global interest in the variety, there are an enormous amount of Pinot Noir clones available to purchase on the market: the good, the bad, and the ugly. In the 60s, some clones were used to try to combat an increase in virus affected vineyards, but more productive vines were selected, as opposed to the ones that showed the greatest promise of quality. This was problematic as the overall quality went down.
Various other clones that were (and continue to be) very promising popped up in the New World, many of which had originated from “suitcase cuttings;” which were brought back by fiercely dedicated growers like Joe Swan's "Swan Clone;" cuttings that are rumoured to have come from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti once upon a time.
However, no matter how wonderful the single plant which is chosen for clonal propagation may be, it remains a single plant. When clonally reproduced and planted en masse in a vineyard, this is a little like having a room full of 1000 versions of the same person. Even if this person is Usain Bolt or Angelina Jolie; it is still, to some degree, a monotone expression.
This is one of the reasons for the increase of massal selections, known in French as sélection massale, for Pinot Noir. This is a process whereby old vineyards are examined and the healthiest appearing vines are selected for cuttings. This can result in new vineyards being planted where the parent material in fact comes from hundreds of different plants, as opposed to the single same mother plant. In the New World, where there is less ancient genetic material, instead it is common practice to plant vineyards to a selection of several different clones.
This has another important benefit: safety in numbers. If one single plant is reproduced en masse, and that single plant turns out to struggle with a new pest or a new climatic challenge, like drought, then the whole vineyard will go down. In a world where climatic conditions seem to become less reliable every year, this has become a worry on every grower’s mind. The legendary Domaine Prieuré Roch in Burgundy has planted 300+ different selections of Pinot Noir for this very reason. Yannick Champ, winemaker at the estate, emphasises,
“When you plant a vine, you don’t know what that vine will need in the future. We are certain of one thing, however: we need diversity in our vineyards.”
Homes: Old & New
The heartland of Burgundy is the hallowed ground of Pinot Noir, where the soils and climate come together to produce moving wines that are seen as liquid art. The notion of terroir has long been ingrained in the Burgundian approach: the goal for the winemaker and farmer is to best translate the vineyard into the glass, according to the human vision. It’s not it’s only home, however; it has historically always been grown up the road in the Jura, and slightly further away in Alsace. It’s also one of the core three wine grapes used for Champagne production, and it’s seen great success in recent years in the UK; both for sparkling and for still wines.
Already by the 18th and 19th centuries, Pinot Noir had found homes in many regions across Europe, including in Germany (where it is most commonly known as Spätburgunder or Blauburgunder), Austria, Italy (where it is known as Pinot Nero), Switzerland, and many others. The 19th century saw rapid expansion into the New World: it arrived in California; where today it is grown on both the East and West Coasts, Australia, and later New Zealand, Canada and cooler areas of South America, such as Patagonia in Argentina and Chile.
It is having particular success in areas that have sunlight, but cooler temperatures, such as the ones you find in the Sta. Rita Hills, where Rajat Parr and Sashi Moorman’s Domaine de La Côte sits. Here, they can produce wines that are born with an old world soul, but which speak of their unique terroir. Similarly, in the cooler Adelaide Hills region of Australia, the likes of Gentle Folk are producing strikingly pretty Pinot Noirs that have the crunchy freshness that carbonic maceration brings, with an underlying and deeply serious soul.
In South Africa’s cooler Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, Storm and Restless River are producing wines that can easily rub shoulders with fine Burgundies. Craig and Anne Wessels of Restless River's vineyard was planted in just 2013, so is still a baby, but their cuvée Luc produced from it is already taking a step onto the stage of fine Pinot. Craig is dedicated to these young vines, saying,
"If you don't spend all year in the vineyard, you have no relationship with the grapes, you cannot hear them speak, and it's unlikely you will have the sensitivity to translate their unique language of self and site once in the cellar. I don't 'make' Pinot Noir; it's watching me, deciding on what to reveal of itself, I am just the conduit, the translator."
Ever since the movie Sideways knocked Merlot off centre stage and Pinot Noir’s popularity surged in its place, there seems to be no stopping the global domination of Pinot and there are more thrilling versions of the variety available globally than ever before. In a post-Parker era, richer styles of Pinot Noir are becoming a thing of the past, giving birth to fresher versions with higher acidity and lower alcohol.
Claus Preisinger, winemaker in the Burgenland, is a self-confessed Pinot devotee. He has been through every style in the book: from destemmed in new wood, to whole bunches in amphorae. He has settled on one factor: that he seeks a lighter style:
“I really love the super-light style of Pinot, but here is not the coolest area, so we harvest the grapes in mid-August, early. We pick them in the morning, when it’s cool, and this means 11.5% – 12% alcohol for my Pinots is possible, even in a warmer area.”
Rajat Parr and Sashi Moorman’s Domaine de La Côte vineyard has a little section that forms part of the Memorious vineyard. The vineyard is named after this specific plot: for the memory of Pinot Noir, which they are endeavouring to refresh.
There is one thing in particular that makes this vineyard different from almost every other vineyard in the world: it is planted from seed. As such, they are embarking upon a project that is somewhat comparable to rowing across the Atlantic. A vineyard planted from seed will produce dramatically different plants, the majority of which will probably not be suited for wine production. The varieties that will grow will genetically no longer be the same as Pinot Noir: they will be Pinot Noir’s unruly children. Fully aware that they may only find around 20 plants of interest, nonetheless they work in the hope to breed something very similar to Pinot in character, but which is better adapted to the specific mesoclimate of their vineyard. Sashi says,
“If you speak to biological geneticists about our experiments, they say that we are opening up Pandora’s Box to the DNA of Pinot Noir. Pinot Noir has been propagated for so long: that is the problem. It is likely why it is so frail; you are not refreshing genetic material. It is like a human being that is 300-400 years old, being kept alive.”
Back in the Hemel-en-Aarde, Craig is also carrying out similar research. He says,
"I am not a fan of clones, the idea of homogeneity terrifies me. I am now working on massale but I want to go even deeper, so this year I have planted my first seeds to begin our own Pinot Noir breeding program. It's going to take decades."
To say that their projects are ambitious would be an understatement, but in a world that so rarely breeds grape varieties from seed, it is an important one. Without their efforts, we won’t know which of Pinot Noir’s children might be the future.