A personal perspective by Gabrielle O’Connell, Winemaker, O’Connell Family Wines.
Pinot Noir grapes are grown around the world to make still red wine, as well as Champagne and Sparkling. But Pinot Noir is a challenge to winemakers, but they take them on lovingly, because the resulting wine is a fabulous expression of the attributes of the place that grew it, i.e., terroir. The climate and soil must be just right. The winemaking must be sensitive to each year’s special circumstances, then translate that into the glass.
The famous winemaker, André Tchelistcheff, declared that “God made Cabernet Sauvignon whereas the devil made Pinot Noir.” This tin skinned varietals’ name is derived from the French word for pine referencing of the shape of the cluster like a pinecone and Noir meaning night or black. It is one of the world’s most expensive wines: a bottle of 1945 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti sold for of $558,000 at a Sotheby’s auction. Pinot Noir grapes grown, fermented then aged to perfection with all the complexity it is capable of producing, are an art.
Characteristics of Pinot Noir: Elegance
Though there are differences in how a winemaker expresses the Pinot Noir grape, they share basic characteristics. The semi-translucent, light ruby color of a glass of Pinot Noir is subtle beauty. Pinot Noir is meant to be medium bodied with fruit-dominant aromatics and flavors of raspberry, cherry, plum, cranberry with undertones of tea leaves, earthy, wet leaves of a forest floor. Some winemakers are leaving skins in contact with the juice longer to produce denser jammy rich and sweet tones for those wine lovers who like a bold red. In my opinion, if you like bold reds, drink Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, or Syrah. Allow Pinot Noir to be itself.
Challenge #1: Find a cool to temperate climate with the right soils to grow Pinot Noir
Pinot Noir was made famous by the renowned region of Burgundy France, an UNESCO World Heritage Site. The grape prefers this cooler to temperate climate to maintain acidity with just enough heat and sunshine to ripen. In the US, great Pinot Noir is grown in California’s Napa Valley Carneros District, the Santa Rita Highlands other regions in the Central Coast, and Sonoma; and in the outstanding Willamette region of Oregon. The most acreage planted is in Burgundy, US and Germany. The climate and soil must be just right.
Challenge #2: Overcome growing challenges
Pinot Noir grapes buds early in the growing season, making it susceptible to spring frosts. It’s thin skin, tightly packed clusters and late ripening are additional obstacles. Its thin skin makes it susceptible to late season mildew from cool moist fall weather. Leaf canopies must be perfectly managed to allow the right amount of sun to ripen yet avoid burning the skins and to provide air circulation to each cluster.
Challenge #3: Lower tannin Pinot Noir grapes often go through phases of uneven and unpredictable aging
While lowers tannins make Pinot Noir an approachable wine, it can lead to uneven aging. However, this resolves itself naturally. To overcome this, some winemakers blend it with Merlot and Syrah. This becomes a red wine blend, which loses the pure character of a great Pinot Noir. It is important to recognize this distinction, as a100% Pinot Noir is a magical, world class wine.
CHALLENGES ARE OVERCOME, NOW THE ENJOYMENT OF A GREAT PINOT NOIR BEGINS
What Makes a Great Pinot Noir?
A great Pinot Noir is 100% Pinot Noir.
A great Pinot Noir is allowed to express the earthy and red fruit character of its growing site.
A great Pinot Noir is dry with a light to medium body with bright acidity and silky tannins.
Drinking Pinot Noir Young or Aged?
When young, 100% Pinot Noir has red fruit aromas of cherries, raspberries, and strawberries. It is spicy and vibrant with a subtle forest floor character. As the wine ages it has the potential to develop distinctive intriguing vegetal and “barnyard” aromas that contribute to its complexity. It is an acquired taste, but rewarded once appreciated.
Pinot Noir is a Foodie’s wine. What pairs well?
Pinot Noir is a very versatile wine. it’s earthy vs sweet flavor profile makes it an ideal food wine that has a wide range of pairing from red and white meat, poultry (Thanksgiving turkey is a classic), fish and vegetarian dishes such as grilled Portobello mushrooms. It is great for sipping with a plate of cheese and crackers. If the Pinot Noir is a bigger and more tannic wine due to its growing site, it is ideal with duck and other game birds.
Pietro Family Cellars Pinot Noir
O’Connell Family Wines produces Pietro Family Cellars Pinot Noir and Brut Rosé made from Pinot Noir.
Like the premium Pinot Noirs around the world, Pietro Family Cellars Pinot Noir is grown in a cooler climate region. The 2018 vintage grapes came from the Senemar Ranch Vineyard in Napa Valley, by the famous Carneros District. Located near the San Francisco Bay, at approximately 800 ft. elevation, it welcomes the fog from early evening to late morning throughout the summer. The fog maintains cool evenings and temperate days, thus preserving great acidity and structure in the wine.
The recently released 2018 Pietro Family Cellars Pinot Noir gave us wine making challenges, but were overcome to create a beautiful wine that was an immediate hit with our winery guests and Decanter Society members. Initially, the French oak was too prevalent even though we used a large proportion of once used barrels- we never over oak our wines! The solution: leave it in barrel longer to let the oak integrate, and it did perfectly. Our winemaking style is to honor the process the wine wants to take and work with it, rather than fight it with over manipulation. This leaves our wine fresh, vibrant, and authentic to its sense of place.
Tasting Notes: This sophisticated Pinot Noir shows plenty aromas and flavors of red fruits, roses, cranberry, with notes of forest floor. The mouthfeel is soft and elegant. A friendly wine that has the typical wide range of food pairings for a Pinot Noir.
The Pietro Family Cellars Brut Rosé was made from grapes grown primarily in Anderson Valley, known for its premiere Sparkling wines. It is 90% Pinot Noir and 10% Chardonnay with a crisp texture loaded with strawberry and red fruit flavors. Refined bubbles are a signature attribute that make this wine perfect for sipping and toasting any celebration.