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The Many Moods of Pinot Noir

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Old Pinots - 6/14/07

So far in discussing different styles of wine, we've explored two of the most widely planted grapes in the world -- Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. Now it's time to talk about what may be the world's most beloved grape, Pinot Noir.

Pinot Noir from its region of origin, France's Burgundy appellation, has an almost fanatic following among wine geeks and collectors. The top vineyards of Burgundy -- its "grand crus" and "premier crus" -- are, on the whole, very small, and usually divided up among many producers. There's a relatively tiny quantity of red Burgundy, which is what Pinot Noir is called in Burgundy, compared to the vast amounts of Bordeaux produced, and the increasing demand for it by collectors worldwide has led to enormous prices and scarcity.

Pinot Noir has also become wildly popular in the United States, with its acreage having grown dramatically over the past 15 years. California and Oregon both produce large quantities of Pinot Noir these days. The number of festivals and events devoted to Pinot Noir also dwarf those devoted to any other grape.

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It certainly helps that Pinot is one of the most versatile varieties when it comes to food pairings. Its delicate flavors and usually good acidity match up ideally with salmon, duck and lamb, but also go well generally with poultry, lighter meats, vegetables and heavier types of fish. It also tends to be lower in alcohol than some of the bigger, heavier red varieties, thus meeting the current interest in wines with less alcohol.

The grape, one of the oldest varieties of vitis vinifera currently cultivated, has a thin skin, which makes it highly susceptible to a variety of diseases and rot. Unlike Cabernet Sauvignon, which derives so much of its coloring matter, or anthocyanins, and tannins from its thick skins, Pinot's thin skin results in red wines that are lighter in color and lower in tannin. Compared to most popular wine grapes, Pinot is also very sensitive to wind, temperature extremes, the types of soil in which it is grown and how it is pruned.

So what are the different styles of Pinot Noir? Since so many growers and winemakers refer to it as a "fickle" grape, explaining that it is both hard to grow and often tricky to make wine out of, perhaps we should refer to the "moods" of Pinot rather than styles.

As an early ripening grape that needs lots of hang time to ripen fully, the most important contributor to style is the climate in which it is grown. It does not do well at all in very warm climates and tends to excel and produce more flavorful grapes when grown in cool climates like Burgundy, New Zealand, Oregon and cooler, more coastal portions of California, like the Sonoma Coast, Carneros and Santa Lucia Highlands.

Pinot Noir is more prone to mutation than most grape varieties, and there are a lot of available clones, including some particularly selected by French authorities to excel in cool climates and be relatively disease-free. Some clones produce wines that feature red fruits, like raspberries and cherries, while others tend toward blue and black fruit characteristics, like black cherry and darker berries. Other contributors to the style of the finished wine are the decision whether to pick it earlier or later, whether stems are included in the fermentation, the length of time the juice is allowed to mix with the skins (maceration time), and how much new oak is used in barrel aging.

Testarossa and Roar - Rosella's Vineyard Pinots 5/31/07

Some of the successful California producers who aim for a riper, fruitier style include David Bruce, Roar, Sojourn, Testarossa and Kistler. They will wait to pick at optimum ripeness and sugar levels, and often use extended cold macerations to extract as much color and flavor as possible from the skins. Excellent California producers that pick earlier, going for a higher acid and more minerally style, include Arcadian, Calera, Copain and Littorai. Producers whose vineyard locations and clonal selections tend to produce the most structured and ageworthy Pinots include Fort Ross, Mount Eden and Pisoni.

Since Pinot Noir is so sensitive to its environment, Pinot grown in particular areas takes on noticeable flavor characteristics. Russian River Pinot Noirs, for example, are known for a distinct cola flavor, while Anderson Valley Pinots have strong spice notes.

The practice of fermenting some or a high percentage of whole grape clusters, i.e., stem inclusion, also has a profound effect on the style, flavors and amount of aging required of the wine. Unless the stems are fully ripe, and sometimes even when they are, they impart green notes and flavors to the wine, ranging from camphor and various mints, to green chili pepper, asparagus and green beans. Over time -- five to ten years of bottle age -- the tannins imparted by the stems can resolve some, and the green notes can evolve to "forest floor" and tobacco characteristics. The California producers that currently use the highest level of stem inclusion are Calera, Melville and Rhys.

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So what style, or mood, of Pinot Noir do you prefer? And which regions and producers are your favorites? Knowing what the stylistic differences are in wines made from a particular grape variety can help you find the one that most fits your taste preferences. Zeroing in on the region or winemaking techniques that go into producing that particular style of Pinot can also help you locate other producers whose wines you will likely enjoy.

This post was originally published at Palo Alto Patch.