The viticultural variety we are dealing with today can be considered the matrix that gave rise to European viticulture.
Certainly it is the variety that represents the perennial challenge of the wine maker who works with the earth and is dependant upon its capricious climates in order to create a sublime expression. The wine maker's commitment and dedication are not always proportional to the final outcome, but that is part of the surprise and delight.
The origin of Pinot Noir is attested to around the fourth century AD, highlighted by a document of thanks to the emperor Domitian, in which a famous vineyard is mentioned for its quality, located in the northern area of French Burgundy.
Pinot Noir has always been considered a wild varietal (born spontaneously) which was subjected to the first processes of domestication and is characterized by the viticulture of the middle Rhine basin and central Europe; specifically, Pinot Noir represents the origin of a varietal family, the so-called "Noiriens". Further indication of the wild classification of the varietal is due to the small size of the clusters and berries and their great polymorphism, the special flavour of the must where methyl anthranilate (an aromatic compound typical of "Vitis Labrusca") is present.
The monastic contribution in the selection and diffusion of the spontaneous grape has favoured the "birth and knowledge" of Pinot Noir, albeit with different names with which it has been identified for centuries; an example can be found in the Roman written description of many centuries before which identified the varietal as having rounded leaves (typical of wild vines), which loves lean soils for their high fertility, which tolerates the cold and which is preserved with aging. At the beginning of the second millennium AD, Pinot was generically called "Plant" from a plant or stock followed by the name of its geographical origin and later the name of the color of the branches was added: Plant Gris for grey-hued vines of small clusters and wine of modest quality and Plant Dorè, for more golden-hued vines that matured earlier and produced the best wines.
The nineteenth century is the period of ampelographic splendor that highlights the original characteristic of the grape, namely its great intravarietal variability that allows to identify more than fifty types of Pinots, different in appearance of the leaves, color of the grape, of the juice, production processes, maturation time. In Burgundy and Champagne the "current" types appeared, which were classified into various groups, and of which the main one is defined as the "group of typical Pinot Noirs". Today, a simpler classification is considered that distinguishes the "fine types" especially for the production of red wines and the "productive types" in general for sparkling wines.
France is the noble cradle of the Pinot Noir grape. Its wines are classic and memorable, and the Burgundy red is its symbol! The basic aromatic bouquet of the Burgundy reds, and of many other Pinot Noirs, includes strong notes of cassis (black currant), black cherry, cherry, and the varietal development of the bouquet can be amplified with notes of citrus, mint and wax. The wine's evolution sometimes pushes towards foxy aromas ("chicken coop") that some consider to be a trait of the typicality and elegance of this grape, but which can actually constitute a defect if they are too pronounced. Wine produced from Pinot Noir has a clear olfactory trajectory in its youth and it demonstrates an evolutionary character of the fragrant timbre that includes articulation and stimulation of hedonistic pleasure: red fruit with drupes, violet and cyclamen, cloves and nutmeg, leather and rhubarb, sandalwood and incense, dried mushrooms and leaves, truffle notes.
The Champenoise sparkling wines have catalyzed a safe and defined profile: aromatic notes of small berries, grapefruit and cloves. Aromatic notes of mushroom and tobacco can be found in the most prestigious Crus.
The "Austro-Germanic" style produces red wines that are warmer than the Burgundy reds, with notes of dark cherries. The wines of the Swiss Valais are elegant with notes of red flowers. Authentic German confederation wines produced near the Rhine present notes of peach and plum.
The new wine world has expanded other horizons of the varietal with sensational results: in the foreground is the United States with Oregon (Willamette Valley), which for quality and complexity has now reached the level of excellence of Californian Pinots (Sonoma and Mendocino regions) and French Pinots; Australia and New Zealand with their variations; South Africa with their best vineyards along the most suitable slopes; and other micro-areas which have been sensitised for the quality challenge.
At the beginning, imports into Italy were widespread throughout the peninsula thanks to regular production and high sugar content. On the oenological level, the Pinot Noir grape was usually used with other grape varieties, diluting its value, and in the warmer environments of southern Italy, the grapes were even pecked by birds due to their early ripening process. Therefore, in the post-phylloxera period, Pinot Noir underwent a contraction of its cultivation areas, settling mainly in the northern regions.
The Oltrepò Pavese became an important basin in the world for the production of Pinot Noir variations in white as a sparkling wine and in red; the high clay content of the soils with limestone at the highest altitudes produce an aromatic profile with hints of red fruit, ripe fruit (e.g., plum) and sweet spices (e.g., cinnamon).
Trentino-Alto Adige, a transalpine and alpine region with a temperate climate produces a Pinot Noir with clear flower petal notes, berry notes, balsamic notes, citrus peel and mineral notes, even without reaching the peaks of the best Burgundian climates.
Friuli and the eastern Veneto regions have shown interest in the variety with satisfactory results especially in some areas of Collio.
In the Aosta Valley, Pinot Noir is of considerable sensorial interest, where it finds an ideal habitat in the central part of the territory. In this area the wine takes on distinctive characteristics to the point of being able to be defined as an “Alpine” Pinot Noir, with very fine and elegant aromas that combine classic scents alternating with hints of aromatic herbs (e.g., rosemary and thyme) and roots.
And around the country the story goes with a particular predilection in lower Tuscany, in the Marches and even nowadays, in Sicily.
Recalling the beginning of this article, there are several "cultural" problems that make Pinot Noir a very difficult grape to grow and develop into wine. Some aspects of this type concern the grape's high sensitivity to botrytis and powdery mildew among others that limit the range of action for qualitative expression of the grape and wine. The climate conditions its quality: Pinot Noirs from particularly hot vintages/areas develop hints of ripe fruit and pepper, but lose their aromatic “coordination” and are less fine and elegant. Aging in wooden barrels can lead to excellent results, but it is a process that requires a lot of skill. In fact, Pinot Noir's aromatic profile is altered according to the specific wood of the barrel in which it is aged: it is therefore particularly difficult to achieve the balance between the olfactory picture of the typical red fruits, and the aromatic notes characteristic of the different types of wood and of the different barrels. Pinot Noir grapes are also demanding when it comes to the choice of clones and in the meticulous care of the vineyard and its cellar. It is a varietal that best expresses the most intimate secrets of a terroir in its wine and the sensitivity of those who transform it from fruit to wine nectar.
"It doesn't handle any type of mediocrity" is a Burgundian statement that summarizes the nature and essence of Pinot Noir.
Pinot Noir is versatile, but different from the other varietals. It is a sort of antithetical prototype of traditional red wine. The same Pinot Noir grapes that generate the best wines can easily lead to bad results, with no middle ground.
In this “aromas tour” it is also useful to remember that Pinot Noir does not have its own profile, or rather it should not have one!
- Luisito Perazzo