Jane Parkinson on why the perfect pinot noir doesn’t necessarily come from Burgundy
Just as chocolate fondant is the nemesis of MasterChef contestants, pinot noir is a grape that gives winemakers sleepless nights. Loved and feared in equal measure, pinot noir is one of the world’s ficklest varieties; it sings like an angel when happy with its growing conditions, but sulks like a teenager when it isn’t.
And yet, winemakers around the world persevere with vintage after vintage, because making delicious pinot noir is the holy grail of winemaking.
For wine drinkers, pinot noir is loved for its intricacy and hedonism. But its soft, red fruit flavours, lightness of tannin and (sometimes) earthy, savoury character also make it a fantastically versatile wine with food. It can match anything from lamb, to charcuterie to meaty fish, but it’s also delicious when slightly chilled and drunk with Sunday roast leftovers, or even with a hedgerow fruit crumble.
Many wine drinkers worship at the pinot noir altar that is red Burgundy and I confess I’m guilty of this myself from time to time. But it can be pricey and a bit of a gamble in terms of quality, so it is fortunate that there are many delicious sources of pinot noir to be found these days, despite its diva-ish nature.
Burgundy isn’t the only French region where it flourishes—it also plays a huge role as one of the two most respected grapes used in champagne. Pinot noir soups up champagne with richness, red fruit flavours and extra body to add to the elegance of chardonnay (the other main grape).
Or it can just as easily stand alone as a single grape champagne. When made this way it’s called blanc de noirs, which roughly translates as “white made from red grapes”.
Moving across Europe and back to the traditional style of dry, red pinot noir, Italy and Germany also make serious versions. Known in Italy as pinot nero (though occasionally still as its French name) it’s largely found in the north.
Regions such as Alto Adige and Lombardy are especially good because their cooler temperatures play to pinot noir’s climate demands. A drop of pinot nero with wild boar ragu pasta is nothing short of heaven.
In Germany, plantings of spätburgunder have increased so much in recent years it’s now the third largest producer of pinot noir in the world—now there’s a pub quiz question just waiting to be asked. Generally, the German version is robust and fruity with a chewier tannin backbone relative to many other pinot noirs. They’re delicious—handsome rather than pretty.
A knock-on effect
Back on home turf, pinot noir is now the second most planted grape variety in England after chardonnay. Its popularity is tied to the fact that our sparkling wine production has gone gangbusters in recent years, but a knock-on effect of it being used for bubbles is that excellent still, dry red wines are now also being made, albeit in tiny quantities.
The English version of pinot noir is not as fleshy as those from other European destinations, but they have a cool and calm reverence about them, with a touch of spice. Think shepherd’s pie.
Pinot noir comes good—very good in fact—in cooler patches of the New World too. California, Oregon, Chile, New Zealand and Australia all take it very seriously. In Australia, it is about two states: Victoria, especially the regions of Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsula, and the coolest of Australia’s states, Tasmania.
New Zealand has great pinot noir hubs in Martinborough and Central Otago, but the more under-the-radar spot of Nelson crafts a juicy version with a red fruit flavour that’s as luscious as it is fresh.
In the USA, Oregon is especially proud of pinot noir as its flagship red grape. The extra concentration you find in these wines makes them perfect with other dishes for the autumn. Pinot noir with slow roast lamb over a bean stew is quite possibly my favourite food and wine match of all time.
One word of caution: this decadent grape is rarely cheap no matter where it’s made, but for the experience you get, oh wow, it’s usually worth it.
Five of Borough Market’s best pinot noirs
2014 Bolney Pinot Noir, England
The Wine Pantry, £16.99
Hands down one of England’s best red pinot noirs, this is full of red cherry flavours with a smoky, earthy character and a lovely bite of spice to finish.
2012 Sokol Blosser Delinea 300 Pinot Noir, Oregon, USA
Cartwright Bros, £20
Lively and aromatic with cranberries and rose petals. Tangy and fresh with sour cherries, generous raspberry flavours and smooth tannins.
2014 Villa Wolf Pinot Noir, Germany
Borough Wines, £12
A perky and easy-drinking pinot by German standards with an enticing dried herb aroma. So supple, the fleshy red fruit characters just glide across your tongue.
NV Paul Déthune Grand Cru Blanc de Noirs, France
A 100 per cent pinot noir champagne that’s a real treat. Tantalising and fizzy with the full spectrum of fruits; it’s citrus-fresh with an exotic pineapple richness and a clean green apple bite to the finish.
2011 Woollaston Pinot Noir, Nelson, New Zealand
Organic and energising with a cumin and paprika spice to the aroma and full-on strawberry juiciness in the mouth to start, followed by a more meaty richness.