The fashionable red burgundy grape is capable of producing divinely scented, gorgeously fruity expressions of place but often unwilling or unable to do so. Pinot Noir is sensitive to the size of crop it is expected to produce, and many vapid examples exemplify an over-demanding yield. It ripens relatively early (Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are often harvested at the same time in Burgundy) so is not suitable for very warm regions where there would be no time to develop interesting flavours before acid levels plummet. On the other hand, many of the cooler regions in which it thrives suffer autumn rains which can rot Pinot's thin-skinned berries, resulting in pale, tainted wines. The Pinot Noir grower's lot is not an easy one.
This ancient eastern French vine is, with Gouais Blanc, parent of a host of other varieties including Chardonnay, Gamay and the Muscadet grape Melon de Bourgogne. Because it is so old, there are many well-established mutations such as Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Meunier and there is enormous variation in wine quality between different clones. Planting the wrong clone in the wrong place is one of many reasons for the wide variation in quality between different red burgundies and different varietal Pinot Noirs from elsewhere.
The positive side of all this is that Pinot Noir is a very transparent grape. It really can communicate the difference in terroir, or grape-growing environment, between adjacent plots of vineyard. The heady wines grown in Les Amoureuses vineyard in the village of Chambolle, for example, really do taste distinctly different from the majestic produce of Le Musigny vineyard next door which is almost invariably fuller, denser and longer-living.
The greatest Pinot Noir is the greatest red burgundy, without any shadow of a doubt. In fact the Grands Crus of the Côte d'Or, the heartland of Burgundy, tower in my opinion much further above their counterparts outside France than Bordeaux's top wines do above the best Cabernet Sauvignons of, say, northern California. Other grands crus are on the most favoured, south-east-facing mid-slopes above the villages of Gevrey-Chambertin, Morey St Denis, Vougeot, Vosne-Romanée and on the famous tree-topped hill of Corton above Aloxe-Corton. The greatest concentration of vinous greatness is around Vosne-Romanée, with the world-famous likes of Romanée-Conti, La Tâche and, sometimes just as good, Richebourg. The first two in particular are produced in such small quantity that their prices have always been stratospheric. Pinot, as I have said, can vary enormously but its essential characteristic is charm. It tends to be fruity, perfumed and haunting. It dances on the palate rather than overpowering it. Heavy tannins and deep colour are not essential elements in a fine Pinot Noir – not even in a young Pinot Noir. In fact some of my favourite burgundies are not grand, long-living monsters but lively, sprightly essences of place, sometimes just a general village wine – not one labelled with the name of a grand cru or even a premier cru but one carrying simply the name of a village.
Pinot Noir does not tend to live as long as Cabernet Sauvignon and great Merlot. Flavours found in young red burgundies include raspberries, strawberries, cherries and violets; with time these evolve into a bouquet often reminiscent of game, liquorice and autumnal undergrowth. Many simpler examples reach a peak at just four years. Premiers crus can be delicious at six to eight. I have had some fine red burgundies from the 1940s and even 1920s but they are much less common than great relics from Bordeaux (admittedly this is partly because they are made in much smaller quantity).
Countrified, slightly coarser Pinot Noir is made to the south of the Côte d'Or in the Côte Chalonnaise. Indeed this is the dominant good-quality red wine grape in most of the north-east corner of France, including such varied locales as Sancerre, Jura, parts of Savoie and of course Champagne where, untinted by contact with the skins, it is a vital ingredient in most champagnes with its blending partners Chardonnay and a cousin called Pinot Meunier.
Across France's eastern border Pinot Noir, as Spätburgunder, is the most highly regarded red wine grape in Germany. Here plantings have been increasing at a phenomenal rate (Pinot is now second only to Riesling in vineyard area) and quality is increasingly inspiring, often thanks to top quality oak barrels and increasingly warm summers. In eastern Switzerland it is often known as Blauburgunder and can be very toothsome. Quality has also risen in wines from the more serious winemakers of Austria (where it is sometimes called Blauer Spätburgunder) and Alsace. (Pinot Noir from all these places has in the past tended to be pale, sweetish and not especially inspiring.) It is planted all over central Europe and is sometimes called Burgundac Crni in the Balkans.
Wine producers the world over tend to be so smitten by the quality of the greatest red burgundies that they cannot resist trying to make Pinot Noir where at all possible.
Oregon in America’s Pacific north-west has staked its wine reputation on cool-climate Pinot Noir (presumably inspired by its distinctly Burgundian wet autumns) with considerable success. More unexpectedly, California has demonstrated that it too has no shortage of spots quite cool enough (thanks to Pacific fog) to keep Pinot grapes on the vine as they develop welcoming fruity flavours and some texture to boot. Notable among these are Carneros, the Russian River Valley and even cooler coastal sites in Sonoma, Santa Maria and the Sta. Rita hills north of Santa Barbara, although the Chalone and Calera wineries have proved that isolated Pinot greatness can also be found in the mountains south of San Francisco too. Canada has made some successful Pinot and, at the other end of the Americas, Chile and even Argentina have demonstrated a recent facility with this vine in cooler corners.
Australians have identified Victoria (notably the Yarra Valley, Geelong and the Mornington Peninsula) and Tasmania as being cool enough for Pinot. New Zealand has long claimed to make the best Pinot outside Burgundy and certainly there are many fine examples in Martinborough, Marlborough, Nelson, Waipara and Central Otago. Most of South Africa is too warm for Pinot Noir, but the coolest coastal regions show promise.