Burgundy isn’t Burgundy without Pinot Noir. Along with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir is the principal grape used to press Burgundy wines. To this day the grape is nearly synonymous with the region – and with good reason. Native to east-central France, Pinot Noir has been cultivated in Burgundy for nearly a thousand years, and over the centuries the grape, terroir, and winemaking tradition have evolved and intertwined to produce marvelous wines the likes of which can be found nowhere else.
The Pinot Noir grape produces wines that are highly reflective of their terroir (roughly translated as land or territory, the combination of climate, soil, topography and winemaking tradition of a particular region), and while great Pinot Noirs can be found around the world, none produce a wine quite like Burgundy reds - and it all begins with the grape.
So without further ado, here is Pinot Noir: profiled
Pinot Noir is a small, delicate and thin-skinned grape that grows in tightly packed bunches of relatively low yield. Both a blessing and a curse, these characteristics are an indelible aspect of Pinot Noir wines. Tight clusters make the wine more susceptible to hazards like fungus and bacteria, while thin skins mean grapes are more sensitive to abrupt changes in temperature, sunlight and pests. Naturally, low-yielding grapes will also result in less wine produced per hectare.
Incidentally, these are also among the factors that make Pinot Noir more expensive than other wines. Their low yield and the finesse required to make them shine means that they can’t be pumped out in larger quantities like the more robust Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. Softer tannins also means they age a little more unpredictably, which increases the relative price of vintages recognized as excellent.
Those thin skins however, also contain fewer tannins and phenolic (flavor) compounds compared to their thicker-skinned cousins, and result in the characteristically delicate and complex flavor of Pinot Noir wines - a direct result of the fine balance between the juice of the grapes and the flavor introduced by the skins. It’s also one of the reasons the resulting wine is so reflective of the terroir – the subtler flavor of the grapes leaves more room for things like soil, sun, and temperature to influence the taste of the wine.
But with delicate flavors comes a need for careful cultivation and dedicated vinification. For the domaines that have mastered the process, with a long history of cultivation, winemaking and family know-how, their diligent efforts are rewarded with beautifully balanced crystalline flavors offering a sublime reflection of the Burgundy terroir.
The Influence of Terroir
The delicate flavor of the Pinot Noir grape gives the resulting wines lots of room to express the subtle nuances of their terroir, leading to a tremendous variety in the finished product. Pinot Noir produced in other popular regions such as Germany, South Africa or California will taste very different to those made in Burgundy.
In warmer climates such as these last two, Pinot Noir loses much of its characteristic acidity. The fruit flavors grow jammier, reminiscent of cooked fruit, while the delicate and savory barnyard flavors typical of Burgundy reds are lost.
Think of terroir as a question of nurture versus nature. The grape itself has some inherent characteristics – soft tannins, refreshing acidity, and a delicate complexity – and these can be highlighted, tempered, or lost entirely depending on where they’re grown.
Pinot Noir is Perfectly Suited to Burgundy
There are a number of reasons why the best Pinot Noirs are considered to come from Burgundy. As mentioned earlier, Burgundy is where Pinot Noir came into existence. All the things that make Pinot Noir special – its characteristic acidity, its delicate complexity, and the balance between fruity and savory aromas shine brightest in Burgundy because the grape has had thousands of years to adapt to the unique combinations of climate, latitude and elevation.
Winemakers themselves have had almost as long to fine-tune their technique, and coax out the unique flavors that their terroir has to offer – the spicy, berry richness that comes from sunny slopes, or the entrancing violet floral notes of the more shaded regions, learning over hundreds of years how to highlight the best characteristics that the grape has to offer.
In effect, it is the unique terroir of Burgundy – the combination of temperature, humidity, rainfall, the soil and the sunlit slopes, the tradition passed down over generations and all the other factors that make Burgundy Burgundy.
Wine doesn’t always have to be consumed alongside food - after all, a great bottle is a main course in its own right. But good wine makes good food better, and the right pairing can result in an experience that’s greater than the sum of its parts.
Like many things in life, pairing wine with food is about balancing the separate elements to create harmony out of the whole. A robust and powerful Cabernet Sauvignon won't pair so well with delicate tilapia because the taste of the wine will overpower the subtler flavors of the fish.
Thanks to its delicate tannins, bright acidity and balance between fruity and savory aromas, Pinot Noir occupies the mid-range in terms of flavor intensity, and can be paired with a wide range of dishes. Think strong cheeses and cured meats, as well as red meats like beef, lamb and duck, which are all heightened alongside a red Burgundy.
Heavy sauces and strong seasoning should be reserved for light meats like chicken and pork, and for fattier fishes like salmon and trout. The same can be said for fatty fish like trout or salmon, and vegetables like mushrooms, carrot, cauliflower or tomato.
The ideal temperature for serving a red Burgundy is between 55 and 6 degrees, meaning cool, but not chilled. This focuses the flavors, tightens the structure, and helps bring out the more subtle flavors. Served too warm, the taste of alcohol is much more prominent, and the wine feels softer and flabbier on the tongue.
Since you’re unlikely to have a thermometer lying around your kitchen, a good rule of thumb is just to cool your bottle in the fridge for 15 minutes before you pop the cork.