How Pinot Noir From Around The World Is Changing Wine-Drinking Perceptions
I cover food, wine, drinks, travel; host dinners; and consult on wine.
I am a food, wine, drinks, and travel writer, restaurant and beverage consultant, wine educator, and event host and speaker. I was Editor-in-Chief of Drink Me Magazine and restaurant critic and drinks columnist for Philadelphia Weekly. I host beverage-focused dinners, workshops, and seminars around the country for private and corporate clients through On The Front Vines, my gastro-consulting company, have consulted on wine lists for dinners at New York’s James Beard House, created beverage programs for a number of the Philadelphia region’s top restaurants, work with private clients on their wine collections.
Pinot Noir continues to be a critical and consumer favorite, with growing awareness of the grape variety among even the newest wine-lovers. And Pinot’s reputation as an intrinsically high-quality wine has benefited even lesser bottlings: As with all grape varieties, perception can be a make-or-break phenomenon. (California Merlot is a handy example of the other side of the proverbial coin, with increasingly impressive bottlings that often still struggle against the tide of negative publicity that afflicted Merlot for years. Of course, there is never anything inherently good or bad about a particular type of grape or the wine made from it, Pinot and Merlot included: There is plenty of great and terrible Pinot Noir on the market, as there is of every grape variety.)
What’s more interesting is the sheer range of Pinot Noir available right now, and the stunning number of places in which this most finicky grape variety is being successfully grown and vinified. As consumer demand for Pinot Noir continues to expand, it is being planted and bottled in an increasingly diverse and exciting range of locales.
Earlier this winter, for example, I traveled to Oregon on a media visit to explore the wines of the Willamette Valley, and in particular those being produced in McMinnville. I came away from the experience surprised. Not by the overall high quality—that was something that I fully expected—but rather by the diversity of bottlings being successfully produced there. Pinot Noir is a rather “transparent” grape, transmitting the nuances of the land and micro-climate in which it’s grown with often shimmering clarity. So while it’s easy to describe in broad strokes what sets one growing region apart from another, that often proves to be an effort in inaccuracy. Better, then, to focus on the uniqueness of a particular appellation.
McMinnville, for example, located an hour’s drive from Portland, lies “along the Van Duzer corridor, and [the] rich mix of sediment deposited by the Missoula floods and deep veins of volcanic soils provide an extremely unique micro-climate for growing pinot noir,” Moe Momtazi, owner of Maysara Winery and Momtazi Vineyard, explained in an email. “While the AVA [American Viticultural Area] receives higher amounts of rain during the winter and spring seasons, the summer and fall receives significantly less precipitation than much of the valley.” At Momtazi Vineyard in particular, he pointed out, “the southern facing slopes we plant on take advantage of drying afternoon winds from the coast range and keep our vineyard disease free throughout the growing season.” As a result, he has the luxury of “allowing grapes extra time to mature on the vine without the fear of rain that is experienced in other AVAs.” Through McMinnville in particular and the larger Willamette Valley in general, producers like Soter Vineyards, Goodfellow Family Cellars, R. Stuart & Co., Bergström Winery, Winderlea Vineyard and Winery, and more are shining right now.
On the other side of the world from Oregon lies Australia, whose Pinot Noir production has been gaining traction and sales in the United States. From December 2015 to December 2016, according to Wine Australia, premium Pinot exports to the United States increased overall by 105%. Stylistically, Australian Pinot Noir runs the gamut—it’s a large country, after all—but the “very best regions (and sites within those regions) are genuinely cool climate such as Tasmania, Yarra Valley, and Mornington Peninsula,” noted Mark Davidson, Global Education Manager, Wine Australia. “The wines are lighter structure, fragrant, and quite different from any other New World Pinot regions. Cool climate Australian Pinot Noirs tend to be elegant and balanced with purity of fruit, and acidic backbone with lovely finesse and subtlety.” As a wider range of Pinot clones is utilized, and as a “better understanding of where Pinot does best in Australia (cool regions/sites) and how to cultivate and vinify it better” continues its spread…a restrained, structured style” will continue to evolve. Look for wines from Moorooduc and Mac Forbes, among plenty of others, for excellent, delicious examples.
New Zealand, too, has become highly respected for its Pinot Noir, and even within a relatively small land mass, a plethora of styles and expressions has flowered. As the overall reputation of New Zealand Pinot has grown, that has opened up the possibility for lesser-known appellations within the country to thrive. I’ve recently loved bottles from North Canterbury (The Hermit Ram 2015), Central Otago (Felton Road 2012), and Marlborough, among others.
Daniel Brennan, winemaker and owner of the remarkable Decibel Wines, in Martinborough, is a Philadelphia-area native who was so struck by the Pinot Noir from there that he was forced to ask himself, “Can you taste a glass of wine and it would make you move to the other side of the world? That’s exactly what I did, and that’s why I moved to” New Zealand, he told me in a phone interview. “Because I smelled and tasted Martinborough Pinot. So I think when you can capture that in a glass, that’s our advantage.”
Martinborough, which sits on the southern part of New Zealand’s North Island, tends to exhibit a distinctly earthy note, which Brennan attributes to increasing vine age as well as the fact that many vineyards there grow on older riverbeds. “Martinborough has these old river terraces that I think create some distinct characteristics,” he told me, “but also…concentration of fruit. We get some really cold antarctic winds that come through in the spring, and there’s not a lot of fruit on the vine after flowering,” which adds to the concentration of the resulting Pinot Noir.
Interesting, unique Pinot Noir is being produced all over the world, which wasn’t always the case, at least to the extent we are seeing now. Some producers are leveraging this growing market for and understanding of Pinot in unexpected ways. Etude, for example, is producing Pinot Noir across a broad swath of regions and appellations, including New Zealand’s Central Otago; California’s Santa Maria Valley, Santa Rita Hills, Sonoma Coast, and Carneros; and the Yamhill-Carlton District of Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Others are making tiny quantities of noteworthy Pinot that are well worth searching for: The Loos Family Coastside Cuvée 2015, from the Santa Maria Highlands, for example, is a lovely wine made in a run of just 300 bottles.
From ocean-influenced sites in Chile, Patagonia in Argentina, and the Sonoma Coast, to Italy’s Alto Adige and throughout Germany—and far, far beyond—this grape variety, for all its notorious finickiness in the vineyard and difficulty in the winery, is finding a home in locations that stretch far beyond its classic growing regions. The implications for the businesses of the producers and the spending habits of the consumers who gravitate toward them will be affected dramatically. Much of it, seemingly, for the best.