Wine Style Focus: Pinot Noir

“Sex in a glass,” “hedonistic,” “made by the devil,” “the most romantic of wines,” “the most capricous, ungracious, unforgiving, fascinating grape of them all.” It’s been called all these things and many more – so what’s the deal with Pinot Noir?

It’s capable of making sublime wine, but crafting a good Pinot demands extreme care in the vineyard as well as the winery. The vines are very sensitive to soil and light conditions, susceptible to rot, tend to set fruit irregularly, and are prone to overcrop. Ferment too hot and you lose the varietal flavors; but fermenting too cool has the same effect.

The reward for braving all that oenological danger is a layered and astonishing tapestry of flavors: ripe raspberry and strawberry, currant, black cherry, spice, dark fruit, earth, truffle, wood, and wild game woven together with lively acidity and velvety tannin in a light- to medium-bodied wine that can stand up to the same food pairings as a heavyweight Cab or Syrah.

For many, Pinot Noir finds its classic expression in Burgundy, where the Pinots of the Côte de Nuits are grown in chalky marl and exhibit exotic fruit, vegetal, and farmyard character in the nose and silky richness in the glass. However, this classic grape has taken root all across the globe, from Ontario to Australia, Austria to Oregon. In countries like Chile you’ll find a lighter, fruitier, and softer style. In the Martinborough region of New Zealand and California’s Sonoma Valley, Pinot Noir takes on more weight and color to create a powerful, fruit-forward, but still smooth and nuanced wine.

Pinot Noir is arguably the ultimate food wine: its combination of structure and delicacy make for a virtually unlimited number of pairing possibilities. It can partner brilliantly with venison, game birds, braised cuts of fatty red meat (Boeuf Bourgingnon!), and sausages; but its softness also lends it to matchings with grilled fish (planked salmon!), poultry, and soft cheeses. Its spicy, smoky, and earthy elements can find a companion in teriyaki, mushrooms or truffles, mustard-glazed pork loin, heavily herbed dishes like bisteca al Fiorentina or cacciatore, fruit, and roasted root vegetables.