If you’re living in the Pacific Northwest and are looking for a new favorite wine to enjoy this winter, then it’s time to drive yourself to the nearest tasting room and order yourself a glass of Oregon Pinot Noir. Pinot Noir is a red varietal that has a rich flavor and an even richer history to match. It’s a warm, smooth, easy to drink and easy to pair with meals kind of wine that has seen a respectable hike in popularity in the last several years. Thanks to the favorable environment in areas such as the Willamette Valley or Columbia Gorge which have a cooler climate preferable for Pinot Noir grapes, Pinot Noir production has increased by 16% since 2005, making Oregon Pinot Noir known around the world.
In the following we’ll discuss how this wine, with many nicknames and even more flavors, has risen to the top in the pop culture world, how the deep history of the grape has contributed to its long lasting tenure, and how with just a little care and attention this particular varietal can make your palette feel like its dancing to your favorite song.
In the past decade wine sales have been struggling to keep up with craft beer and artisanal cocktails. The hipster generation is full of brewmasters and mixologists, but for millenials the job of a sommelier doesn't seem to carry the same “cool” factor.
However, thanks to director Alexander Payne and actor Paul Giamatti, Pinot Noir has seen a 16% increase in popularity since the release of the 2004 Academy Award Winning film Sideways. The film depicts Giamatti as a struggling writer and wine enthusiast who adores the Pinot varietal. “It's a hard grape to grow,” Giamatti’s character says, “it's thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early. It's not a survivor like Cabernet, which can just grow anywhere and thrive even when it's neglected. No, Pinot needs constant care and attention.” That care and attention has paid off in the last 15 years, with California alone increasing its production of P.N. by 170% between 2004-2017, contributing to what those in the wine industry refer to as “The Sideways Effect.”
One also can’t forget how Pinot Noir saw another wave in popularity with the 2015 electronic dance hit “Peeno Noir,” from the Netflix sitcom Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. The song was performed by Kimmy Schmidt star Titus Burgess, prompting the actor to release his own label, Pinot by Titus, the following year. The label is described as “to be enjoyed by all Kings and Kweens.”
Finally, Pinot Noir has earned a reputation as the go-to wine for romance. With its ruby red color, fruity aromas, and smooth finish, it was Joel Fleischman of Vanity Fair who said it best when he described Pinot Noir as "the most romantic of wines, with so voluptuous a perfume, so sweet an edge, and so powerful a punch that, like falling in love, they make the blood run hot and the soul wax embarrassingly poetic."
For the general wine consuming community, Pinot Noir is the best red wine to share at a party. The grapes are lower in sugar, and therefore the wine is less alcoholic than other red wines, coming in around 12% alcohol by volume. It’s known for its fruity aromas, which provide its sweetness yet still has a lightly dry finish, and as Pinot ages the wine develops the “barnyard” aroma of a fine wine.
What might be the most interesting fact about Pinot Noir is that it carries “secret” tannins. Unlike a Cabernet or Syrah which are more heavy-bodied, and get a lot of their flavors from the bitterness of their tannins, Pinot Noir is a medium bodied wine that gets its bitter flavor from a technique called “Whole Cluster Fermentation.” With Whole Cluster Fermentation the entire grape bunch, including the stems, goes into the crusher and fermenter. Grape stems add their own tannins, so for a Pinot Noir that is naturally low in tannin, this process gives the Pinot that bitter flavor you expect from a red varietal, but is also beautifully balanced by all the fruity flavors more commonly associated with Pinot Noir, such as cherries, strawberries, and raspberries.
Pinot Noir is also a common choice when it comes to meal pairings. Recipes with earthy flavors, such as mushrooms or truffles, bring out the depth and warmth of the light-bodied wine, adding again to its romance. Madeline Triffon, the first woman in the United States to earn the title of Master Sommelier, referred to Pinot Noir as “sex in a glass.”
If the old saying “Like a fine wine, it gets better with age,” is true, then Pinot Noir is the finest of all wines. With a history that goes back over 2000 years, even 1000 years before the first findings of Cabernet; Pinot Noir and Moscato are the oldest of today’s widely known varietals. Pinot Noir dates back to the Roman era. As the Romans invaded Europe, they also spread their culture throughout the land and with it, spread the taste and availability of Pinot.
Pinot Noir originates from the Burgundy region of France. In fact, the Red Burgundy label is made entirely of Pinot Noir grapes. Burgundy has a unique soil, in that before civilization the land was covered in shallow seawater. Today, the seawater lends itself to the limestone and marl-based soils of Burgundy, helping the earth retain water and keeping it cool enough for the Pinot grapes to survive and adding an ocean-like minerality to the wine.
If you’re a fan of Pinot Gris or Pinot Blanc, then it might surprise you to learn you’re really a fan on Pinot Noir. Compare the DNA of a Pinot Noir grape to Pinot Gris or Blanc and you’ll find an identical match. P.N. is the father of many popular white varietals, including the almost extinct Gouais Blanc.
Though Pinot is the parent to so many white wines, its true white wine partner is the Chardonnay varietal. Chardonnay is also from the Burgundy region of France, which is why Chardonnay grapes thrive in similar environments as Pinot Noir, prompting vineyards to grow the two side-be-side. Visit any Northern California or Oregon vineyard where Chardonnay stocks the shelves, and you’ll find its Pinot companion.
The Pinot Noir varietal has a few nicknames to help wine-drinkers describe its unique qualities. The name “Pinot Noir” itself translates from French to mean “The Black Pine Cone Grape Variety,” referring to the tight, pine-cone shaped clusters of the dark, black grapes as they grow from the vine. Another nickname is “The Diva Grape,” which comes from the fact that Pinot Noir is known for being a difficult grape to grow. You might ask “tight diva-grapes that are hard to grow? What’s even the point?” Well even if the grapes might be considered a diva, the Pacific Northwest, especially Oregon, is the ideal climate for harvesting Pinot Noir.
Like Paul Giamatti said in Sideways, Pinot Noir requires care and attention in order to thrive. The grape’s tight pine-cone shaped clusters and its thin skin make the grapes susceptible to fungus and can be known to rot in the heat. While the production of such a sensitive grape might discourage some vineyards, Oregon vintners have eagerly worked to use the cool climate to create an environment for Pinot Noir to thrive.
Pinot Noir was one of the first wines to use a terroir in its production. A terroir means creating a set of unique environmental factors, farming practices, and a crop’s specific growth habitat in order to ensure healthy production of the grapes. In short, a wine terroir is the set environment intended to protect the grapes from destructive features. To put it simply, a terroir stands for the signature of the land that harvests the grapes, and whenever you drink wine from a terroir, you should be able to taste the region where the wine was made.
Like Burgundy, areas of the Pacific Northwest were also beneath sea levels millions of years ago; until they experienced massive volcanic activity that resulted in similar cool, rich, clay-like soils, perfect for growing Pinot Noir. According to the Oregon Wine Board, there are more than 19,000 acres of vineyards in this valley, and nearly 74% of them are planted with Pinot Noir grapes.
When it comes to producing quality Pinot Noir, any winemaker will tell you it’s all about the land. If the land and the grapes get along, then there’s nothing holding back this varietal from discovering its full potential in flavor, aroma, or aesthetic. It’s for this reason that one can only compare Oregon Pinot Noir to Pinot Noir from its hometown in Burgundy, France. Since the 1960s, wine pioneers have been making their way to The Beaver State to harvest grapes in the region’s unique soil.
The original pioneer for Oregon Pinot Noir was David Lett, who opened Eyrie Vineyards in Willamette Valley in 1965. David Lett took the wine industry by storm when he showcased The Eyrie Vineyards 1975 South Block Reserve Pinot Noir at the Wine Olympics in Burgundy in 1980. Lett’s label took second place in the competition, and instantly put Oregon Pinot Noir on the national map. In 1987 Robert Drouhin, of Burgundy’s legendary wine producer, Maison Joseph Drouhin, purchased land in Dundee Hills.
Another Oregon settler we have to thank is Ken Wright, original founder of Panther Creek Cellars and current owner of Ken Wright Cellars, who has been running single vineyard Pinot Noirs since 1995. Ken Wright, like David Lett before him, studied Horticulture at the University of California, Davis, before moving to Oregon in 1985 where he quickly established himself as an innovative winemaker, with a special focus on “the mother rock.” Wright was one of the first to notice that there was a significant signature difference between Pinot Noir grown in volcanic soils, such as Oregon, which led to more fruit driven flavors, compared to Pinot Noir grown in marine sediments. Ken Wright has stated in interviews, “Really great success is when you have the right variety in the right location, where it inherently wants to be magical… Pinot Noir is a completely blank canvas and everything you smell and taste has everything to do with where it's grown.”
We’ve already discussed that Pinot Noir is the father of many popular white wines, but it’s also a fact that P.N. grapes have a special talent for transforming into fantastic rosé sparkling wines. While many expect a pink wine to be sweet, the acidity of the Pinot Noir grape make it great for rosé, giving the sparkling wine a dry finish similar to its red wine parent. In Oregon, most rosés are made from Pinot Noir, which put the state on the world winemaking map when it was first planted there 50 years ago.
Sparkling wines are usually fermented twice. The first process mirrors the production of traditional wine, and the second adds sugar and yeast to the base wine to create the bubbles. In many vineyards, sparkling wines are made as a “by-product” method where juice is bled off from the original red grape and used to create the pinkish hue for a rosé. However, for an Oregon Rosé of Pinot Noir, sparkling rosés have their own set of Pinot Noir grapes grown and harvested every season.
While it may be true that Pinot Noir is a sensitive grape; perhaps that’s what makes it such a special wine. Certainly vineyards in The Pacific Northwest have seen the value in promoting and elevating the production of Oregon Pinot Noir. The film Sideways got it right when Giamatti’s character said “it can only grow in these little tucked away corners of the world. And only the most patient and nurturing growers can do it. Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot’s potential can then really coax it to its fullest expression. And to its flavors… just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and ancient on the plant.” In the words of Titus from Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, “Pinot Noir, You’re a Star. Pinot Noir, Au Revoir.”