Infuriating to grow, fascinating to taste, Pinot Noir is the grape of great red burgundy. Unlike its white counterpart Chardonnay, Pinot Noir has resisted attempts to duplicate the Cote d'Or taste elsewhere. That does not stop winemakers trying, such is the allure of classic burgundy.
Pinot Noir has an ancient history, with documents tracing it back to 14th-century Burgundy, and folklore taking it beyond to Roman Gaul. With age goes an unstable genetic character, leading to many mutations, and a great susceptibility to disease. Recent genetic work has multiplied the number of clones of the vine available. Some of these clones increase disease-resistance, but produce inferior wine.
It is possible that some of the problems faced by Pinot Noir growers around the world stem from the use of inferior clones. Clonal variation is also shown by the wide range of wine styles made in the Cote d'Or, which is a Pinot Noir monoculture. Whatever the clone, Pinot Noir poses problems for growers. It is in danger from spring frosts, from summer rain (which leads to rot) or excess summer heat and from cool autumns which inhibit ripeness. It never makes much wine: yields must be kept low if quality wine is the aim.
Outside Burgundy, Pinot Noir makes great wine in Champagne, where it is almost always blended with (red) Pinot Meunier and (white) Chardonnay in that most famous of sparkling wines. Pinot Noir is widely grown elsewhere in the world, but its claims to greatness are contested. Spatburgunder (the German name for Pinot Noir) is growing deeper in colour and drier in style since lower yields and barrique-ageing took over from the sweet versions. Pinot Noirs made in Italy and eastern Europe often disappoint with their lack of character and intensity of flavour. In California, and even more in the Pacific Northwest of the USA, avid experimentation has produced a wide range of Pinot Noir wines, both in style and quality. Perhaps Oregon has the best track record so far, but unaccountable disappointments mar the progress being made. Australia has only recently begun to discover, or rediscover, the cool vineyard sites needed by this variety.
The taste of Pinot Noir is hard to define: much depends upon terroir and winemaking, more so than with other red varieties. Light versions hint at soft fruits; more solid wines, with oak in their ageing, develop complexity and density, while still retaining a relatively pale colour and a hint of ripe fruits.