All About Pinot Noir

Written by
Vintage Cellars
August 13, 2018
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Until recently, Australia’s wine lovers maintained a singular love for shiraz, the most planted variety in the country. Its big, bold and rich personality dominated the drinking landscape, leaving faint-hearted reds in its wake.

But while shiraz is still the most planted variety in the country, a new red is stealthily winning over drinkers with its beguiling flavour profile and supreme suitability as a partner to so many foods. Allow us to introduce you to pinot noir, the light red on the wine lover’s block.

Despite being one of the first varieties to arrive in Australia in the 1830s Busby collection (as the Mother Vine 6 clone), pinot noir’s success has taken a while to gain momentum, being somewhat stifled by its notoriously difficult temperament. This is a variety informed by its terroir, and it has little regard for Australia’s warm climate.

Notable pinot noir regions in Australia

The good news is that pinot noir has found itself a favourable home in the cooler corners of our land girt by sea. These cool viticultural regions that benefit from their proximity to the ocean or high altitudes produce outstanding Australian pinot noirs that are attracting acclaim from drinkers and writers alike, all over the world.

Our most notable pinot noir regions are the Mornington Peninsula, Geelong and Yarra Valley in Victoria; Adelaide Hills in South Australia; Tasmania; and Western Australia’s Great Southern. In New Zealand, the Martinborough, Marlborough and Central Otago regions are renowned for their high-quality expressions.

The inherent difficulty involved with pinot noir attracts producers who are not afraid of hard work. It requires fierce dedication on the part of the grower and the winemaker. Many passionate pinot believers are crafting premium wines with unparalleled complexity and intensity, wines that have evolved after being nurtured in the vineyard and the winery.

Why are pinot noir grapes so difficult to grow?

Pinot noir is a sensitive beast with a thin skin. Literally. It’s the wine world’s temperamental child, finicky and delicate at the best of times. Its sheer outer layer makes pinot vulnerable to temperature fluctuations (both hot and cold) with the risk of developing sunburn and frost. Pinot noir grapes can also cultivate rot, fungus and mildew, with these risks compounded by pinot’s small, tightly packed clusters. On top of all this, pinot noir has a propensity to grow in small amounts, so despite its love of cooler climates, its lack of vigour needs to be supervised by growers with careful crop management to ensure the perfect balance of flavour concentration and acidity.

But, in the face of pinot noir’s challenges, its producers craft wines that attract the most devoted fans the world over. Be warned. The best examples are sublime.

What are pinot noir characteristics?

Pinot noir’s thin skin lacks the depth of pigment in shiraz or cabernet grapes, which is why it's paler in colour. But it makes up for this in aroma, texture and flavour intensity. One of its most alluring qualities is perfume – heady aromas of cherry, strawberry, raspberry and herbs, moving into earth, truffles, spice and forest floor with age.

Depending on provenance, pinot's complex flavour profile can display concentrated red fruits, cherry and redcurrant alongside savoury notes, earthiness, game, chocolate and spice character traits.

Pinot noir's texture and weight range from juicy, vibrant and light-on-their-feet wines, elegant sophisticated and restrained drops, through to muscular medium-bodied expressions with expansive palates and viscous textures. Tannins are generally soft and silky but can add grip, crunchy tension and bite in parallel with punchy acidity.

Pinot’s sparkling wine collection

Let’s not forget pinot noir’s role in "méthode traditionelle" sparkling wines, predominantly in Champagne but also in Australia, where its partners chardonnay and pinot meunier combine in a perfect trio to produce this iconic bubbly. Winemakers use these varieties without skin contact in different proportions to create a flavour profile that becomes their house style. What does pinot noir contribute to the sparkling blend? Complexity, roundness, richness and textural weight.

Best pinot noir food pairings

Light-bodied pinots, such as those from Yarra Valley, pair well with pâtés, terrines, charcuterie, goat’s cheese, salami pizza and mushroom risotto.

Medium-bodied silky, sweet-fruited, elegant pinots, such as those from Mornington Peninsula, pair well with oily fish, such as salmon and tuna, roast chicken, duck pancakes, dishes including cherries or figs, and char siu pork.

Fuller-bodied pinot noirs, such as those from Central Otago, pair well with lamb, duck confit, coq au vin, dishes with truffles, butter chicken and rogan josh.