What Is Pinot Noir?
Pinot noir wine is named after the variety of grapes used to make it. Also known as “Red Burgundy” in many parts of the world, the pinot noir variety of grapes is the 10th most planted grape variety in the world. However, these grapes are not among the most common, as they have a reputation for being high maintenance.
It takes a particular climate to be able to grow these uniquely dark, dense grapes — the Burgundy region of France, the Sonoma Valley in the United States and the Baden region of Germany all have it. Even within these areas, the grapes remain tough to grow — they’re fragile and susceptible to disease in addition to being tough to ripen evenly. Since they’re difficult to grow, a bottle of pinot noir is a little harder to come by, which usually means when you do find it, you’re going to pay more.
Perhaps the fact that it’s usually more expensive and can be hard to find is part of the reason it’s the stereotypical choice of a wine snob. Despite its reputation for being a snobby wine, it’s also known as a crowd pleaser — perfect for serving to large groups of people.
While the region that a bottle of pinot noir comes from has a large effect on the taste, pinot noir from the United States has a reputation for being consistent, with dominant fruit flavors. Perhaps that, along with the rest of its wine profile, is what makes it such a popular choice to serve at parties.
Pinot Noir in History
Pinot noir grapes were first grown in the Burgundy region of France, hence why pinot noir is French for “pine” and “black,” a perfect name for these tightly knit, pinecone-shaped, dark grapes. When you envision these clusters of dark grapes, you may connect them to the quintessential grapes found in Roman art — and you’d be correct in doing so. These grapes date all the way back to the first century when the Romans enjoyed them due to their popularity in what would later become France.
The Catholic Monks
After the Romans, it was the church, particularly the Catholic Monks, that became religiously devoted to pinot noir — literally. In 1000 A.D., after the Romans had abandoned their vineyards in Burgundy, the Cistercian order of Monks took over. These monks believed hard labor brought them closer to God, so they put their heart and soul into the vineyards, cultivating them and taking copious, detailed notes regarding how and where the grapes grew best — and how the wine tasted as a result.
These monks invented the first harvest reports, a foundation in winemaking. Wine enthusiasts today know this as “terroir,” which is the French word for “a sense of place.” In simpler terms, terroir means the wine exemplifies the flavors one would expect from that particular area — and it’s become a major selling point for wine. The monks’ location in Burgundy was off the beaten path and not on a major trade route, which is part of the reason this wine became such a delicacy. Their focus was on devotion to hard labor to please God, not on making money.
Outlawing Pinot Noir’s Competition
In addition to the monks’ way of life, Gamay, the other red grape of Burgundy, was outlawed in 1395 by Duke Phillipe, leaving no competition in the region for pinot noir. As the monks continued to focus exclusively on pinot noir vineyards, their wine began to make a name for itself. Legend has it Pope Urban V refused to return to Rome in the Middle Ages, saying, “You can’t get wine like this in Italy.”
Pinot noir quickly became the favorite wine to use for various sacraments. Soon, the public embraced the wine, too — after all, if it was good enough for the church, it must be good enough for the public. As new vineyards began appearing in California, Oregon, New Zealand and Australia, their winemakers began taking notes from the Europeans. As a result, there are more than 40 mutations of pinot noir on the market today, each with its unique flair of flavor — some good, others not-so-great.
What Does Pinot Noir Taste Like?
Pinot noir wine goes against some of the stereotypical characteristics of red wines. For example, contrary to the popular belief that red wines should be served at room temperature, it’s ideal to chill pinot noir wine to a temperature around 55 degrees Fahrenheit. This wine is a lighter red, meaning it’s pale in color and has subtle fruity flavors like cherry, cranberry and raspberry, combined with other flavors like vanilla, clove, licorice, mushroom, cola and caramel. The intensity and combination of the flavors you get depends upon the individual bottle of wine.
Pinot noir is considered a dry wine, which means it tends to be less sweet due to a lack of leftover sugar, or “residual sugar,” after fermentation. However, even dry wines can have differing levels of sweetness, so while pinot noir wines are classified as dry wines, there still can be some versions of the wine that will be more or less sweet than others.
Pinot noir is described as a medium-bodied wine. If you aren’t a wine enthusiast, the body of the wine is used to describe its weight and viscosity. This may seem odd, but consider the different types of milk — skim, 1%, 2% and whole milk. When you drink a glass of skim milk, it’s different than drinking a glass of whole milk. If we were describing milk as we describe bodies of wine, skim would be characterized as having a “light body” and whole milk would be “full body.” Pinot noir’s medium body makes it a versatile wine, pairing well with a variety of foods.
Pinot Noir Wine by Region
While these pinot noir characteristics are what separates this type of wine from the rest, they are generalizations. After all, not all pinot noir wines were created equal. The location of the vineyard plays a significant role in the taste. Here are a few notes regarding how the taste of pinot noir could differ from region to region:
- France: In the region where pinot noir first started, you’ll find a lighter version of the wine with earthy aromas that dominate and may remind you of mushrooms or wet leaves. It still has the floral and fruit aromas, but they’re a bit more subtle.
- California: Within the United States, California is known for making some of the best pinot noirs. This bold glass of wine will have a flavor that screams fruit — specifically cherry and raspberry — with a side of vanilla, clove, cola and caramel.
- Germany: The main region for pinot noir in Germany happens to be right near the border of France. The wine from this region is a mix of what you’ll find in France and the United States. Overall, these pinot noirs feature a solid mix of earthiness and raspberry and cherry aromas.
Pinot Noir Wine Family
Pinot noir has a few relatives in the pinot wine family. These are mutations of pinot noir grapes, not crosses, so pinot noir remains the “parent grape.” While there is diversity among pinot noir wines alone, the pinot family gives additional diversity.
The pinot wine family includes:
- Pinot Gris: Replacing the “noir” with “gris,” French for “grey,” this relative of pinot noir has grapes with a pinkish tint, which you may notice in your glass of pinot gris. Pinot gris wine is usually rich and honeyed.
- Pinot Grigio: “Grigio” means “grey” in Italian, so the grapes used to make pinot gris and pinot grigio are the same. The difference comes in the way the wine is made. This Italian version is full of crisp, fresh fruit aromas and has a much lighter body.
- Pinot Blanc: If pinot grigio isn’t light enough for you, pinot blanc may be the perfect fit. “Blanc” means “white” in French, and this wine is very light, fresh and crisp.
In addition to these mainstream members of the pinot wine family, there are a few others that are less common — among them are pinot meunier, pinot auxerrois, pinot teinturier and pinot gouges.
Pinot Noir in Champagne
In addition to being used to create wine, pinot noir grapes are also the most widely used for making champagne, which may come as a surprise, given these are dark grapes. The ratios of grapes used to make champagne vary, but the overwhelming majority used two-thirds red grapes, like pinot noir, and one-third chardonnay grapes.
In addition to being the most common grape for champagne, the pinot noir grapes used must be bottled within 100 miles of the champagne region of France, according to European Law.
How Is Pinot Noir Made?
Making pinot noir is very similar to other winemaking processes, but there are some unique elements to the process. Part of what makes each bottle different is the grapes themselves, since their taste differs depending on where they were grown. The winemaking process itself also plays a role. In general, making pinot noir can be broken down into three steps:
- Harvesting and Sorting the Grapes
Once the grapes have been harvested, they’re sorted to ensure no loose stems, insects, leaves or compromised grapes make it into the wine. This manual process is often the first step, sometimes followed by running the grapes through a destemmer to — you guessed it — remove the stems. Theoretically, after the destemmer, you have just the grapes left, which are put into a stainless-steel tank.
- Fermenting the Grapes
A destemmer or crusher is then used to split open the grapes and release the juice. The grapes and their juice are then left to soak for a period so the native yeast can begin the fermentation process. The process of fermentation is the yeast consuming the natural sugar within the grapes, ultimately converting it to alcohol. Pinot noir wines are often fermented at a lower temperature to retain the aromas. During this stage of the pinot noir winemaking process, there may be pressing and occasional stirring. You can also add yeast to encourage the fermentation process.
- Aging and Bottling the Wine
After the fermentation process is complete, the wine is separated from the solids — like skins and seeds — and put into barrels. For pinot noir wine, this almost always means French Oak barrels, which is part of what gives pinot noir its unique flavor profile. The amount of time it’s left to age varies and is ultimately up to the winemaker. The difference in aging time is another reason not all pinot noir wines taste the same. Once it’s finished aging in the French Oak barrels, it is bottled. Then, the winemaker may also decide to store the wine and give it time to age in the bottle. Once it’s bottled and aging is complete, it’s ready to be transported to stores to sell.
What Food Is Best for Pairing With Pinot Noir?
While pinot noir may have a stereotype for being a fancy, snobby wine, it pairs well with a variety of foods — both delicate and rich. This makes it a favorite to serve at parties and get-togethers with friends. Pairing wine with food is a tradition that developed into very strict rules — overall, reds go with red meats and whites are for fish. However, many have recently returned to a single basic rule — if you like a particular glass of wine with a particular glass of food, pair them together.
Yes, there are reasons that specific wines complement certain dishes, but ultimately, the winning pair is if they taste good together. The list of foods pinot noir pairs well with is extensive, but here are a few examples to try:
- White Pizza
Who doesn’t love cheese and bread? A glass of pinot noir is a fantastic addition to your white pizza night. Add fresh herbs to your white pizza, and you’ll find it brings the taste of your favorite bottle of pinot noir to a whole new level.
- Chicken With Beurre Rouge
White wine butter sauce is a common addition to chicken dishes, but making the same sauce with pinot noir instead gives you a delicious beurre rouge sauce. This sauce over your chicken ties in perfectly with a glass of your favorite pinot noir.
It doesn’t get much more “earthy” than mushrooms. If you have a fatty mushroom dish — like mushroom risotto — pairing it with a glass of pinot noir will bring out the fruitiness of the wine.
Pinot noir’s acidity is a perfect match for a gamey, fatty meat like duck. The acidity cuts through those flavors and, if you spice the duck, you may be surprised at the taste of your pinot noir. You’ll likely expose some of the subtle flavors you hadn’t noticed before.
- Trout and Salmon
Seeing the word fish paired with a red wine will make some of the traditional wine enthusiasts cringe, but hear us out. Yes, the aftertaste of fish and the aftertaste of the tannins in pinot noir can make a terrible combination, but if you choose a fresh river fish, like trout or salmon, a glass of pinot noir will make a nice addition to the hearty dish.
- Pinot Noir Wine in Cooking
In addition to pairing well with a variety of dishes, pinot noir wine is also a favorite to use in cooking. You can use it to create a sauce to accompany red meat, but you’ll also find it works as a great addition to sauces with mushrooms and herbs.
Pinot Noir Drink Recipes
If you’re more of a mixologist than a chef, there are several drinks you can make with a bottle of pinot noir. Many enjoy trying different brands of pinot noir due to the differences in flavor. There are many ways to incorporate this wine into a few fun cocktails during any season. Here are a few of our favorites:
- Cardinal Cocktail
If your glass of pinot noir is a little too dry and you’d like to sweeten it up, consider making it into a Cardinal Cocktail with the help of a sweet, low-proof liqueur. It’s easy!
- 5 ounces of pinot noir
- 1 ounce of Crème de Cassis
- A few berries
Fill a wine glass with ice. Add one ounce of Crème de Cassis. Pour the five ounces of pinot noir over the ice and Crème de Cassis. If you’re feeling festive, add a few raspberries or blackberries to the rim, as well.
- The Paysan
If you’re searching for a light, wine spritzer recipe to cool you off on a sizzling summer day, the Paysan is the perfect solution. By adding fruit juices and Sprite, you’ll have a refreshing play on your favorite glass of pinot noir.
Here’s what you’ll need to make a batch for you and five of your friends:
- 16 ounces of pinot noir
- 8 ounces of cranberry juice
- 4 ounces of fresh orange juice
- 4 ounces of Chambord
- 3 ounces of chilled Sprite
- Thinly sliced lemon zest, lime zest and orange zest
Combine the wine, juices and Chambord and refrigerate for approximately two hours. Stir well and pour over ice into glasses. Top each glass off with half an ounce of Sprite and garnish with lemon, lime and orange zest for extra flavor.
- Piping Hot Pinot
When there’s a chill in the air and you’d like to trade in your hot cocoa for a warm cocktail, a piping hot pinot is the perfect mix of fall and winter flavors. Barefoot Wine gets credit for creating this recipe.
To make it, just gather these few ingredients:
- 5 ounces of pinot noir
- 6 fresh or frozen (thawed) cherries, pitted
- 6 dashes each of ground clove, cinnamon and nutmeg
- 2 tablespoons of brown sugar
- 1 ounce of cranberry juice
- 1 ounce of orange juice
In a large, microwave-safe container, mix the fresh or thawed cherries, spices, brown sugar and fruit juices. Heat in the microwave on high for one minute. Then, lightly mash the cherries and add the pinot noir. Place it back into the microwave for one to two minutes — make sure it doesn’t bubble. Remove from the microwave and enjoy!
Shop for Pinot Noir Online
If you’re looking for the perfect pinot noir to serve at your next get-together, Marketview Liquor has a variety of options available. Our wines are easy to order online and can be shipped anywhere in the United States.
At Marketview Liquor, we know pinot noir grapes grow best in specific regions, like France and California, and our inventory of pinot noir wines reflects that. You’ll find we have wines from regions recognized for their pinot noir grapes at affordable prices, ranging from $6 to $50+ per bottle.
If you’re interested in buying several different brands and types of wine, we have a mix and match case discount that can save you up to 10% when you order from us online. Get started by browsing our selection of pinot noir wines.