Pinot Noir — A Guide to the Basics

Pinot Noir, whether from Burgundy, California, New Zealand, or somewhere in between, is capable of producing some of the most profound wines in the world.

A bottle and glass of red wine
Photo: Getty Images

Pinot Noir inspires more passion in its most ardent fans than practically any other grape variety. It makes sense: The history of Pinot can be traced back for the better part of a millennium in Burgundy, where even today the great Grand Crus of the region command some of the highest prices in the entire world of wine. It also thrives in the New World, where modern classics are produced from Oregon to New Zealand. And while it's far trickier to grow in the vineyard than Cabernet Sauvignon, for example, Pinot Noir is well worth the effort. In the right soil and the perfect cooler climate, the wines crafted from Pinot Noir are capable of greatness. It's even a key component in Champagne!

What is Pinot Noir Wine?

Pinot Noir is a wine made from the grape variety of the same name. The majority of Pinot Noir wines are red, but can also be leveraged to produce fantastic rosé (look for the Inman Family "Endless Crush" OGV Estate Rosé for a joyous and complex example). Pinot Noir is also one of the three main grape varieties in Champagne, alongside Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. But it's red Pinot Noir that garners most of the attention, and from less-expensive and more fruit-driven examples to the kind of bottles that make collectors and their accountants break out in cold sweats, Pinot Noir is capable of it all.

Where Does Pinot Noir Wine Come From?

Pinot Noir is most famously tied to Burgundy, where for the better part of a millennium, it has been the source of some of the region's top wines. Even today, the iconic Grand Cru vineyards of the Côte d'Or are synonymous with greatness: Names like Romanée-Conti, La Tâche, Richebourg, Le Chambertin, and more are studded along the limestone-rich escarpment. Yet great Pinot Noir can also be found in Champagne to the north, where it is often blended with Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay, or even used on its own for Blanc de Noirs bottlings. Bollinger's terrific PN VZ16 takes it one step further: This is a rare Champagne that's crafted entirely from Pinot Noir grown in the single village of Verzenay.

In the United States, Pinot Noir thrives in California, particularly Sonoma County, where the Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast, and Alexander Valley nurture excellent ones. Santa Barbara County is also the source of top Pinot Noir. Up north, in Oregon, the Willamette Valley has become a hot-spot for world-class Pinot Noir, and the recent further divvying-up into constituent AVAs has made the region even more exciting.

In the southern hemisphere, Chile and New Zealand have become centers of Pinot Noir gravity. Patagonian Pinot Noir is an increasingly exciting category, and the top examples from the far south of New Zealand, in Central Otago, are absolutely fantastic. When it comes to Pinot Noir, for all the challenges it presents in the vineyard and winery, the rewards are well worth it around the world.

Why Should You Drink Pinot Noir Wine?

Depending on where it's grown and how it's produced, Pinot Noir can either be bright, fruit-froward, and perfect for everyday sipping, or capable of aging for decades. In addition to its use in rosé and Champagne (and rosé Champagne!), red Pinot Noir can be found in a wide range of styles and at price points across the spectrum. In general, however, good Pinot Noir costs a bit more than its Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah counterparts, often as a result of the challenges it poses in the vineyard. Across the board, Pinot Noir's higher acidity and more moderate tannins (this is a cooler-climate grape variety, after all) make it both well-suited to drinking on its own and to pairing with a range of foods.

Indeed, Pinot Noir is one of the wines that disproves the old adage that red wine pairs best with meat. A nice bottle of Pinot Noir, after all, is fantastic alongside salmon, whose meaty texture works well with the weight of a red, yet isn't overwhelmed by the wine itself. Pinot Noir is also great with mushrooms and game meats. Pinot and duck is a classic pairing, and pork tenderloin alongside a great Pinot will lift any dinner to the stratosphere.

Pinot Noir can be produced in a style that is more appropriately enjoyed as soon as the bottle is bought, and also in ways that are intended to age for years –– in some cases, for decades! Many people invest in Pinot Noir for their collections, and given the precious prices of the most famous and highly regarded bottlings of red Burgundy — Grand Crus from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Comte de Voguë, Georges Roumier, and more — they are increasingly being used as investments. But even those bottles are meant to be opened and enjoyed. It's still wine, after all!

What Does Pinot Noir Taste Like?

Pinot Noir thrives in cooler climates. Its best sources around the world — Burgundy, Sonoma Coast, Oregon's Willamette Valley, New Zealand's Central Otago, and more — aren't necessarily the kind of regions where extremely hot daytime temperatures tend to dominate. As such, it should come as no surprise that Pinot Noir is a relatively higher acid grape variety, structured more by those acids than by particularly assertive tannins. Flavors of red berries and cherries are commonly found, and as well as a counterpoint of subtle floral perfume and a more earthy base note reminiscent of mushrooms or forest floor. Even hints of tea can be experienced. Of course, there are plenty of bottlings that showcase darker fruit and spice, too.

Given its freshness, Pinot Noir is best enjoyed just a bit above cellar temperature; room temperature Pinot Noir is not advisable. Remember, "room temperature" should be taken to be more akin to some drafty castle or farmhouse in Europe 500 years ago, not the 70 degrees Fahrenheit most modern thermostats are set at. If your bottle of Pinot is at room temp, place it in the fridge for 20 minutes, which will help bring its freshness and energy to the fore.

Pinot Noir is best enjoyed in a Pinot Noir glass, which angles more dramatically in from the widest part of the bowl to the lip, forming a more or less triangular shape. But a good bottle of Pinot Noir will shine from a universal wine glass, too.

Five Great Pinot Noir Wines

There are countless great Pinot Noir wines on the market today. These five producers, listed alphabetically, are a perfect way to start exploring all that Pinot Noir has to offer.

Dutton Goldfield

Respected for their single vineyard Pinot Noirs, Dutton Goldfield has hit a home run with their 2019 Dutton Ranch - Emerald Ridge Vineyard Pinot Noir from the Green Valley of Russian River Valley. A beautifully lifted nose of red cherries and rose water precedes an energetic palate vibrating with cherries, cranberries, pomegranates, and blackberries. Bright, concentrated minerality and acidity cuts through, as well as a touch of baking spice and forest floor before the flower-flecked, mineral finish.

Sea Smoke

The 2019 Sea Smoke Pinot Noir and Chardonnay releases represent the 20th anniversary of the storied producer, but don't forsake previous vintages: The 2017 "Southing" Pinot Noir, from the biodynamic estate vineyard in the Sta. Rita Hills, offers up stunningly pure cherries and a hint of black raspberries complicated by subtle suggestions of licorice, cracked peppercorns, and candied rose petals. Sweet spices ring through the long finish.

Authentique

From his base in Amity, Oregon, Nicholas Keeler produces a fascinating, reliably excellent range of single vineyard Pinots and Chardonnays vintage after vintage. The Eola Springs Vineyard Heritage '72 Block Pinot Noir 2016 Eola-Amity Hills is a delicious example of his talent, with red plums, rose petals, and cola spice resolving with flavors of sarsaparilla, dried porcini, oolong tea, and vivid cherries.

Craggy Range

Craggy Range is one of the more well-known producers from New Zealand, offering a range of Pinot Noirs and Saugivnon Blancs. Their 2018 Te Muna Road Pinot Noir, from Martinborough, is a spicy, savory bottle with lots of tamarind paste and tart cherries.

Louis Jadot

One of the most familiar names in Burgundy, Jadot produces a wide range of wines that run the full price gamut. The 2018 Nuits-Saint-Georges Les Boudots 1er Cru Domaine Gagey is elegant and very well-structured, the silky palate carrying flavors of red and black cherries, pomegranate, cardamom, and red tea, all of it framed by sappy tannins and energetic acidity that promise another decade of evolution.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles