Why “Pinot Envy” Has Gripped The Wine Community

It’s certainly not new. Pinot Noir has been around for centuries, adored primarily by serious wine connoisseurs. But when the wacky independent film Sideways was released in 2004, suddenly wine novices around the country were ordering this unusual and sometimes elusive varietal.

If you are wondering what all the fuss is about, here’s a Pinot Primer:

A Little Pinot History

Pinot earned its reputation in the cool vineyards of Burgundy, France (where all red wines for centuries have been made from Pinot Noir). It wasn’t until the 20th Century that Pinot began its journey to the new world, and is now planted in California, Oregon, Argentina, Chile, Australia and New Zealand.

Wherever it’s planted, one thing remains consistent:  high-quality Pinot comes ONLY from the coolest growing regions.

Where Pinot Thrives

We’re not knocking Cabernet or Chardonnay, but these hardy vines will develop just fine under a variety of climatic conditions. Pinot, not so much. It has been a notorious failure in all but a few, specific growing regions. In California, only Russian River Valley, Carneros, Mendocino County and the Central Coast have proven themselves worthy.

Why It’s the “Diva” of the Wine World

In the vineyard, Pinot is finicky, difficult and temperamental. Planting it is like backing the 70 to 1 horse. Here’s why:

  • It’s thin-skinned, which makes it difficult to ripen. While it needs ample sunlight, it can only withstand moderate heat before the grapes get “sunburned.”
  • Grapes need a long “hang time” on the vine to ripen fully, and require moderate heat throughout the season. So heat spikes and early season rains? Not so good.
  • Pinot develops best when it struggles in poor soils. (But this is normal for a grape vine. They are like hardy pioneers, where struggle built character.)
  • Matching Pinot Clones to soil types has become an art form in and of itself. There are nearly 1000 different Pinot Clones!! (In comparison, Bordeaux clones number around 200.)

It Doesn’t Get Any Easier at the Winery

The fun doesn’t stop in the vineyard. Because of its thin skin, Pinot is extremely delicate, so it must be handled very gently. Each vineyard lot can show wildly different characteristics, so most wineries (including Kendall-Jackson) keep all the Pinot lots separate all the way to blending. Pinot is generally fermented in French and American oak with fairly high toast levels.

In the Glass

Knowing all of the above … you might wonder why ANYONE would choose to make Pinot when other varietals succeed so much easier. One taste of a well-made Pinot Noir, and it will become very clear to you. Pinot Noir produces some of the most beguiling wines in the world: supple, low in tannin, with delicate berry fruit character, alluring earth tones and a plush, long, velvety, spice-filled finish. Yum.

When you sip your next Pinot Noir, look for blueberry, red cherry, black cherry, floral notes, fresh tea leaf, baking spices, mushroom and forest floor. You might just find them all.

p.s. Pinot Noir is also an outstanding food wine. See some of our favorite recipes and select Pinot Noir from the “Wine Pairing” drop-down menu.