Spotlight on Pinot Noir

Written by
Winsor Dobbin
February 16, 2017
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Delve into the history of this stylish and versatile red wine and uncover some stellar Pinot Noir you simply must try.

Pinot Noir is the most capricious of all wine grape varieties. It is demanding at all stages of the winemaking process, from vineyard to winery, but can also be the most rewarding if all the stars align. Aromatic, complex, gentle, elegant and beguiling are just a few of the words that can be used to describe fine Pinot.

Stylish choice

Pinot Noir is not just stylish; it is also versatile. As well as being the great red grape of Burgundy it is also one of the two major grape varieties in the great sparkling wines of Champagne and used in many Australian sparkling wines.

In Burgundy, Pinot produces wines of impeccable balance, but it is only over the past two or three decades that New World producers have come to grips with the complexities of sweet-fruited Pinot.

Today, winemakers in Central Otago in New Zealand, Oregon and California in the United States, tiny Walker Bay in South Africa and regions of Germany and Austria (where it is known as Burgunder) have joined several cool-climate districts in Australia in taming its wanton ways.

It is fascinating when looking at the 2016 edition of the James Halliday Wine Companion annual to see that Pinots scoring 97 or more points come from no fewer than six different regions, underlining how Australian winemakers have engaged in a love affair with this difficult lady.

The Mornington Peninsula, Geelong, Yarra Valley and Gippsland in Victoria, all cooler regions, along with the Adelaide Hills and rising star Tasmania, have either the maritime influences or high altitude in which Pinot thrives.

Pinot is also planted in Henty, Ballarat and the Macedon Ranges in Victoria, the Great Southern in Western Australia and in Canberra, where Clonakilla makes a standout.

It can be made in a range of styles from fresh, bright and fruity for immediate enjoyment (look for 2015 releases) or as a complex, cellar-worthy dry wine. In Central Otago, particularly, the wines are often fruit-driven and assertively forward. When Pinot was first planted in Australia, many winemakers tried to imitate the Burgundy style. Nowadays, a range of techniques are used, including the use of whole bunches, depending on the maker and the region.

French ancestry

There is nowhere Pinot shines quite so brightly as in its spiritual home of the Côte d'Or of Burgundy. Records show that Pinot has been cultivated in Burgundy since 100 AD, and the best wines from the region can be cellared for 20 years or more, although cork closures can prove problematic, particularly in older wines.

There is a general rule that wines from the Côte de Beaune mature more speedily than those from the Côte de Nuits, but nothing is set in stone. What is more certain is that wines like those from Domaine de la Romanee Conte and Comte Vogue are among the greatest – and most in-demand - red wines in the world.

Pinots are generally medium-bodied and quite low in tannin – making them exceptionally food friendly; duck is regarded as one of the classic partners for high-quality Pinot.

Key names

Pinot Noir is often more expensive than other varieties because it can be so difficult to make well, but good examples generally start from around $20 upwards. David Bicknell at Oakridge Wines in the Yarra Valley is considered a Pinot specialist, and his entry-level Oakridge Over The Shoulder Pinot Noir is a lighter, fresh and fragrant "drink now" example which won’t break the bank.

The Mornington Peninsula is an excellent source of quality medium-bodied Pinot, juicy when young, but with potential to age. Try the soft and supple Stonier Pinot Noir that offers excellent value and is made by one of the region's pioneering wineries.

For those who enjoy bigger, in-your-face styles, the Peregrine Pinot Noir from Central Otago has serious length and depth. Tasmania, meanwhile, is a reliable source of long-lived Pinot like the world-class Freycinet Estate Pinot Noir, a benchmark in excellence.

And, of course, for those wanting the best of the best from the Burgundy heartland, try the likes of the complex Frederic Magnien Vosne Romanee.