You may have been drinking red Burgundy wines for many years, but how much time have you spent considering the grape they’re made from? We know that red Burgundy is (virtually without exception) made from Pinot Noir grapes, so let’s take a look at this fascinating variety – it’s history, style, character, and some of the wonderful wines it can produce.
Students of French will know that the so-called Black Pine grape (pinot = pine, noir = black) gets its name from the cone-shaped clusters it forms whilst ripening on the vine. Indeed, France – and Burgundy in particular – is generally thought to be the spiritual home of Pinot Noir, where it was first grown by French monks in the 14th century, and where some of the very finest examples are still grown to this day. It’s revered by enthusiasts (it even has its own appreciation day on August 18th), but its true character and personality need some teasing out to be fully appreciated.
Almost 1,000 years older than Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir is actually in the same grape family as Pinot Gris/Grigio and Pinot Blanc – they’re just different color permutations, with identical DNA. But did you know that the other cornerstone of Burgundy wine – the white grape Chardonnay – is also related to Pinot Noir? In fact, it’s a crossover between a grape called Gouais Blanc (not seen much nowadays) and Pinot Noir – and it’s for this reason that you’ll often find Chardonnay and Pinot Noir growing together. It happens in Chile, in parts of the USA, and – of course – in our beloved Burgundy.
In fact, in terms of locations where Pinot Noir is grown the most, top of the list is France, followed by the USA – not too many surprises there. However, you may find a few countries further down the list that might raise some eyebrows. In third place comes Germany (where the grape is known as Spätburgunder), and then Moldova and Italy. New Zealand, Australia, Switzerland and Chile are significant other producers, too. Globally, you’re looking at close to a quarter of a million acres given over to growing this beautiful grape.
So what makes Pinot Noir so different to other wine grapes, and why is it so special? Well, if we look at production in France, it’s one of the few grapes where something known as ‘whole cluster fermentation’ can be used. In other words, the whole grape bunch – stems and all – is crushed and fermented. It adds tannins to the process, extending the life and aging potential of the wine enormously. Potential early bitterness is a price worth paying if you have the patience to wait a couple of decades for the magic to happen.
You can also expect to get the full gamut of mouth-watering flavors when drinking a good Pinot Noir from Burgundy. Variously described as complex, silky, finessed and elaborate, it will deliver red fruits, mushroomy-earthiness, spices, vanilla and about a hundred more sensations that have to be tasted to be believed. To do this, there’s no better place to start than Elden Selection’s many small producers of quality Pinot Noirs, including (but certainly not limited to) Domaine Thierry Mortet, Domaine Jean Marechal, Maison Capitain-Gagnerot, Agnes Paquet, and Jean Claude Rateau.
The range and understated complexity of Pinot Noir gives it another valuable quality – its ability to be paired with a really wide array of food types. Lighter red meats such as lamb or duck and almost all white meats complement Pinot Noir’s fresh acidity and elegance. You can even use it in some pretty unique French dishes such as Oeufs en Meurette (eggs in a red wine sauce). And many people happily drink it with the fuller-flavoured fishes such as salmon. Of course, in the world of wine, a good match is one that you really enjoy and that brings you pleasure – so when it comes to outstanding Pinot Noirs and great food, don’t be afraid to experiment!