11 things you need to know about Pinot Noir right now
Following this year’s Global Pinot Noir Masters, here are 11 things I learnt about the variety, from the character of celebrity-backed drops to the best-value bottles, and most reliable sources when it comes to this pernickety grape.
Such conclusions I’ve drawn having blind-tasted as many as 200 Pinot Noirs from around the globe last month for The Global Pinot Noir Masters, so it’s a snapshot of 2021, based on this particular sample set.
However, my thoughts below are also informed by the many year’s I’ve been assessing wines from this grape, most of them in a ‘blind’ setting, not just for the Master of Wine exams, but also the Global Wine Masters, which I’ve been chairing for almost a decade – the first Pinot Masters was held in early 2014.
So read on for my 11 observations from the Masters 2021, and click here to see my top 10 highlights, featuring the best bottles from the tasting.
The medallists in full have been published in the June edition of the drinks business – and you can download a digital edition by clicking here.
11. There is such a thing as good inexpensive Pinot Noir
For some time I’ve been convinced that it was virtually impossible to make pleasant Pinot Noir at entry-point wine prices, which in the UK, means under £10. One exception to this has been the Bicicleta Pinot Noir from Chile’s Cono Sur, which is still a great bottle that does really taste of Pinot, and now includes an organic variant at this bargain level – a deeply impressive feat tapping in to two wine trends: organics and light reds.
But there are new players in the fiel of cheap Pinot: setting a benchmark is Romania’s Cramele Recas, particularly with its £8 UK retail (Waitrose) Sorcova Pinot from Banat.
Another is De Bortoli, with its ripe but delicate Yarra Valley versions, and a surprisingly fine find from Baden, which is made by the Achkarren grower co operative.
10. Australia has become a serious Pinot player
A nation famed for its ripe, concentrated, oak-laden reds from Shiraz might seem an unlikely source of delicate Pinots, but the country’s diversity of sites and climates makes anything vinous possible – even within the same area. After all, Barossa, home to the nation’s richest of reds, also makes piercing whites from Riesling. As for the Pinots, these seem to reach a particularly fine and high point in the Yarra Valley, where the wines achieve a wonderful lightness, along with a cool peppermint appeal, despite containing plenty of ripe red berry fruit flavours. It’s a trait seen in the Adelaide Hills too, and, although not featured in this year’s competition, Mornington Peninsula and Geelong as well.
9. Celebrity Pinot is here – and it’s good
With the number of celebrity-backed wine brands on the rise, it was only a matter of time before well-known personalities turned their attention to Pinot Noir. While Sauvignon Blanc and rosé have been the starting points for many a famous name, we had two celebrity Pinots this year, and they were very fine. One was a Gold medal winning drop from Australian pop princess Kylie Minogue – using grapes from Yarra, and the expertise of De Bortoli. The other was a top-end Pinot from British cricketing legend Sir Ian Botham. Made by Central Otago’s Maude Wines, this was a magnificent red with ripeness, lightness and layers of flavour from dark cherry to vanilla and dried flowers.
8. Don’t forget Italy when seeking fine Pinot
While Italy is hardly renowned for making Pinot, there is plenty of it planted in the country, particularly in Trentino-Alto Adige, as well as the Oltrepò Pavese. Of course, quantity is not a reflection of quality, but Italy does have wide experience with this grape, and can produce exciting results, and at relatively affordable prices. Not only that, but the Pinots appear to have a distinctly Italian stamp, with a combination of high, dry tannins and fresh acidity, along with cherry aromatics – traits one associates with Sangioveses and Nebbiolos from the nation. The difference with its Pinots, however, is that they tend to have a softer, sweeter, fleshier mid-palate than wines made with those aforementioned grapes. We had some excellent-value Gold medallists from Trentino this year, including Castelfeder’s Pinot Nero Riserva Burgum Novum – an outstanding, perfumed, textured Pinot that’s both delicious and unique.
7. Pinot makes lovely rosé
If one’s asked to find pale, dry, refreshing rosé, then it’s tempting to only consider Provence, with its peach, pear and grapefruit tasting Grenache-based drops. But southern France is not the only source of such a wine style, and when considering the basis of crisp pink drinks, remember that Pinot can make lovely rosé. For those used to drinking the delicate rosés of Sancerre, this may already be well known, as the pink wines from this region are made entirely with Pinot. But this year, proof of the grape’s suitability for fresh, dry rosé came in particular with a delicate, pleasing pink Pinot from Germany – which was organic too.
6. Blanc de Noirs are better than ever
There was a time when pure Pinot-based sparkling wines were missing one thing: white grape Chardonnay, which brings yellow fruit and fresh acidity. But an increasing number of producers are managing to craft crisp, delicate, appealing traditional-method sparkling wines using nothing but Pinot. This was proven this year by three wines: a fruity, great value vintage Pinot fizz from Lombardy; a bone dry refreshing sample from Cava; and a great blanc de noirs from Champagne, made by Gremillet, a specialist with Pinot because of its southerly location in the region.
5. New Zealand Pinot offers range and value
As the vines mature, and the Pinot vineyard and cellar management improves, it appears that New Zealand is becoming a seriously exciting place for this grape, both in terms of the range on offer, and the value its wines can represent. At the cheaper end of the spectrum, much of the Pinots hail from Marlborough, where they have a cherry and tomato leaf appeal, although the deeper clay soils of the Southern Valleys of this large, mostly Sauvignon Blanc region, can yields Pinots with more concentration. Elsewhere, Central Otago has rightly earned its reputation as one of the world’s great Pinot places, with dark cherry and blackberry aromatics, and wines with plenty of fine tannin, freshness, and, a newfound lightness that has been achieved without sacrificing ripeness.
4. Chile has found its own pleasing Pinot style
Earlier this century, it felt as though Chile was playing with Pinot – trialling different sites, vineyard management styles, and cellar techniques. As a result, the wine styles were variable, ranging from a touch too light, to overtly jammy. Today, the country has found its sweet spots for the grape, and is yielding delicious results. Be it Leyda, Limarí, or Casablanca, the Pinots are fruity and fresh, with judicious oak use too. Tasting them blind, there appears a national character to the wines as well, particularly at the higher end. This relates to a darker fruit flavour than one might traditional associate with Pinot; often there’s a blackcurrant note, combined with a dried herbal lift; it’s almost like fine Cabernet, but in a dilute form. As for a flagship, Cono Sur’s Ocio tastes better than ever.
3. If you love Burgundy, drink Oregon
It may sound ridiculous, but if you love the style of Pinot that emanates from the great vineyards of Burgundy, particularly the villages of the Côtes des Nuits, then you’ll enjoy exploring the wines of Oregon, particularly from its Willamette Valley sub-region. As shown again in this year’s Pinot Masters, this part of the US manages to craft powerful Pinots with a level of refreshment uncommon in reds with such deliciously ripe fruit. So, while there’s creamy oak, and dark berry flavours, there’s a lightweight feel to Oregon Pinots that ensures they glide across the tongue, leaving one salivating, and sipping again and again.
2. Great Pinot may not be cheap, but it’s accessible
It may come as a surprise for a grape variety used to make the world’s most expensive and collected wine – Romanée-Conti from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti – but you don’t have to spend a fortune to sip fine examples. This year’s Masters showed that you can enjoy complex, textured, age-worthy, perfumed Pinots for under £30 (Joel Gott, Hahn, Cambria), although a sweet spot for quality was £30-£50, taking in some stunning wines from California, Italy, Burgundy, New Zealand and Chile. A bottle over £20 is pricy, but less than £50 for a truly fine wine, and one that’s approachable in its youth, is an appealing prospect for those used to spending big sums on top Cabernets, be they from Bordeaux, California or Tuscany, and a bargain compared with the finest that Burgundy has to offer. Plus, the really high-priced Pinots in this year’s competition were very fine, but the step up in quality was a small one, and, in a few cases, there were steps down.
1. California is the Pinot Noir class leader
Based on this year’s results, and past competitions too, the most reliably-seductive source of juicy, balanced, instantly appealing fine Pinot Noir in the world is California – or, rather the county of Sonoma. You do have to spend a bit to get your hands on it, but for Pinot Noir over £25, areas such as Sonoma Coast, Russian River Valley, and Carneros deliver greatness, with, in my experience, few disappointments. What makes them so appealing? It’s the combination of ripeness and brightness; the fleshy red berry fruit and mouth-watering finish; the creamy oak and cherry stone dryness. In short, this part of the world seems to consistently deliver the soft sweet fruit that great Pinot is famous for, without the jammy character that can come with this style. They are not all perfect, and alcohol levels can reach palate-warming levels, but they are the safest option for fine wines from a grape known for yielding high-priced, lean disappointments.