Responsible for some of the world’s most expensive wines, Pinot Noir is surrounded by a level of intrigue and mystique that would have made Agatha Christie envious. And whilst the limelight has always been very much focused on the elite of Burgundy’s ‘Côtes d’Or’ region, the explorative and determined nature of winemakers, assisted to some degree by the effects of climate change, has led to a multitude of modern interpretations being crafted across the globe.
Some of these unique zones are so well-suited to this notoriously fickle grape variety that even some of Burgundy’s glitterati have been unable to resist a dabble.
Getting to grips with the New World order
Before we showcase the wines, let’s take a quick spin around the globe to find some of the hottest areas for Pinot Noir outside of its Burgundian spiritual home.
Starting in North America, the first known commercial plantings of Pinot Noir actually took place in Napa around 1880, at the Inglenook Estate in Rutherford. Whilst these vines have subsequently been replaced by varietals more suited to the warmer climate, Inglenook did gain global recognition for their Burgundian lookalikes.
Also during the 1880s, the largest concentration of Pinot vines was planted at the Stanly Ranch in Carneros and it’s in Carneros that Pinot Noir still has a stronghold today, especially for bottle-fermented sparkling wines.
Elsewhere in California, the oldest Pinot Noir vineyard still in production today lies in the Sonoma Valley at Hanzell winery. This little 3-acre gem planted in 1953 helped kick-start a wave of plantings throughout the county, particularly within the Russian River sub-region, that’s ideally suited thanks to the cool, foggy, maritime-influenced climate for which this region is renowned.
The Central Coast region, which includes the AVA’s (American Viticultural Areas) of Santa Barbera County and Monterey County amongst others, saw Pinot Noir arriving around the mid-1960s and, like Sonoma, it quickly earned a reputation for high quality. The wines here offer some of the most affordable examples in California and are quite widely available.
The last North American hotspot for Pinot lies in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. The first vines hit the ground in 1966 at The Eyrie Vineyards in the Dundee Hills, and was quickly followed by a succession of new enterprises set up by enthusiastic winemakers from California, Burgundy and beyond. Today, there are around 500 wineries across 9 sub-AVA’s.
Down in South America, Pinot Noir has become synonymous with Chile and it first made an appearance in 1879 when Alberto Valdivieso first launched his sparkling wine range. The next major commercial planting of Pinot took place in the late 1960s in the cooler Colchagua Valley. This inspired the founders of Cono Sur to adopt Pinot as their flagship variety when they set up their business in the same region in 1993 and today, they’ve grown into the world’s largest producer of Pinot Noir.
Whilst the majority of Chile’s Pinot is made for everyday drinking, there’s been a movement over the past decade or so towards high-end wines and the best examples are coming out of the far northern Limarí, western Casablanca, San Antonio and southern Bío-Bío valleys.
Argentina’s association with Pinot Noir is relatively new with the southerly region of Patagonia being the main source, both for the country’s sparkling wine industry as well as cool-climate, single-varietal red wines. The Río Negro and Neuquén sub-appellations are the two names to look out for here.
Proportionately, Pinot Noir represents just 1.5% of total wine vine plantings in South Africa but its popularity is steadily increasing. Whilst a lot of the Cape is climatically unsuitable for Pinot, there are a number of elevated or ocean-influenced sites that are capable of producing world-class wines.
Pinot Noir was first introduced to Stellenbosch at Muratie in 1927, though it wasn’t until the mid-70s that the grape really took off under the stewardship of Tim Hamilton-Russell at his eponymous winery in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley.
With the introduction of better clones in the 1990s, Pinot Noir extended its reach to nearby Elgin, other parts of Walker Bay, Franschhoek and elevated parts of the Robertson Valley.
Pinot Noir was first planted in the Great Western sub-region of Victoria, to the north-west of Melbourne. Planted in the 1860s by Henry Best, using cuttings that originated from Burgundy, they’re now thought to be the oldest Pinot Noir vines in the world.
Since then, other cool-climate areas have been identified in Victoria state with Geelong, Mornington Peninsula, the Yarra Valley and the Macedon Ranges being the most prominent.
In New South Wales, the Southern Highlands and Orange sub-regions are making exciting Pinots and Tasmania has had a close affinity with the grape since the late 1950s too. Though it was Andrew Pirie that really set the trail ablaze in the mid-70s when he established his Pipers Brook Vineyard.
The Great Southern wine region of Western Australia is another hotspot for Pinot of which the Mount Barker and Porongurup sub-regions are the most noteworthy.
Our final stop is in the land of the long white cloud. Pinot is the largest planted red grape variety by far and is only second overall to Sauvignon Blanc. Although it first arrived in 1889 and was planted at the Mission Vineyards in Hawkes Bay, it wasn’t until the 1970s that it really emerged at a commercial level with Nobilo marking a first with the launch of their inaugural release in 1973.
It started to spread far and wide as prospectors discovered plenty of suitable terrains and micro-climates, but the biggest explosion in plantings took place in the 90s when higher quality vine material became freely available.
The most significant regions are Marlborough, for volume and affordability, the Martinborough and Gladstone sub-regions of Wairarapa, for more powerful styles of Pinot, Nelson, for boutique examples with elegance and finesse and finally Central Otago for edgy, mineral-driven blockbusters.
Showcasing 3 fantastic New World Pinot Noirs
If you like the generosity of Australian wines, then you’ll love Larry Cherubino’s Ad Hoc Cruel Mistress Pinot Noir. Sourced from various sites across Western Australia’s Great Southern region, this is a relatively low-intervention wine with some wild fermentation encouraged. Refined in a combination of 1-3 year old French oak barrels for 6 months, there’s a brooding nature to this wine that’s really appealing. The palate is forward showing black cherry and graphite and finishes with soft tannins and a touch of savoury spice. This will continue to evolve for a few years if cellared properly and will drink perfectly with roasted game.
Fans of New Zealand Pinot Noir will definitely want to try the Lake Chalice ‘The Raptor’ Pinot Noir from the Waihopai Valley of Marlborough. Coming off their flagship Eyrie Vineyard, the grapes are rigorously selected before being fermented in French barriques for 11 months. The result is a densely-structured wine with an attractive floral perfume and a full, enveloping impact on the palate that’s brimming with ripe black fruits, spices and olive brine. The finish is long, silky, savoury and gently spiced. Again, this will improve with up to 5 years of cellaring and will drink beautifully with roasted duck or grilled sea fish.
For a South African Pinot that will take you by surprise, try the De Wetshof ‘Nature in Concert’ Pinot Noir from an elevated site in the Robertson Valley. Planted in the late noughties on a steep, south-facing slope with a high slate content (80%), this is the kind of challenging environment that seems to favour this tricky grape. Very low-yielding, the pristine fruit is kept cool throughout its elaboration process and then finishes with 12-15 months of ageing in carefully selected French oak barrels. This is a rich Pinot that’s full and textured with fresh red berries, both on the nose and palate, and nutty undertones. With very smooth, grainy tannins, this elegant wine can pair with a range of dishes from lobster to cheese soufflé to a prime-cut steak.
Thursday marked the celebration of International Pinot Noir Day, a wine that we have a particular fondness for at Wharf Side Wines as our range will testify. Why not join us in celebrating with a special bottle this weekend. Cheers!