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Thin-Skinned and Temperamental: A Guide to Pinot Noir Grapes


The Noble Grape”.

It’s one of the colloquial names given to pinot noir varietal. And for certain, there is something to that. Pinot noir grapes are thought to be an ancient variety, only one or two generations removed from the wild.

With that long history, it’s no wonder that they have become one of the most venerable of all wine grapes. But what makes them so special, and do they deserve their lofty reputation? To find out, let’s take a look at the background, key pinot noir characteristics, and the wines they produce.

Background on Pinot Noir Grapes

Pinot noir was first documented by the ancient Romans, who started to imbibe it not long after they captured the grape’s native Gaul, now modern-day France. How long the grape was cultivated before the arrival of the Romans is unclear, but suffice to say it’s been around a long while.

The name pinot noir is a more or less verbatim description of the grapes themselves. Pinot means “pine” referring to the fact that the grapes grow in tight clusters, like a pinecone. And noir means “black”, referring to the dark pinot noir grape color.

The wine these grapes produce is a dry, light-to-medium-bodied red. It has a bright acidity, silky tannins, and moderate alcohol content. Its moderate body and versatile flavor make it easy to pair and a suitable choice year-round.

These qualities drive pinot noir’s popularity, which has exploded in recent years.

Growing Pinot Noir Grapes

Pinot noir’s popularity can prove problematic, as they’re a tricky varietal to raise. They’re a thin-skinned variety, for one thing, making them more prone to disease than other grapes. And it grows in tight clusters that encourage mold and mildew.

They also tend to bud early, leaving them susceptible to spring frosts. At the same time, they’re vulnerable to heat spikes as well. They need to be raised at perfect, temperate conditions and harvested soon after they ripen to reduce the risk of the grapes shriveling or burning in the summer heat.

And even if you know when to harvest pinot noir grapes for optimal yields, the total bounty still tends to be lower than other grape types.

This is why some vintners will try to dilute their wines with grapes similar to pinot noir.

Pinot Noir Around the World

Beloved as they are, it’s no surprise that pinot noir grapes are found anywhere the climate permits.

There’s their native France, of course. But Russian river valley pinot noir has become a popular alternative of late.

They are likewise a popular variety in California, New Zealand, Chile, Italy, and Germany.

The Varietal for any Occasion

For many aficionados, pinot noir is the “anytime” kind of wine. It’s light enough that you can enjoy it throughout the balmy summer months, an admirable quality of any red. And it’s versatile enough to pair with most fish and a respectable variety of meats and cheeses.

And without the traditions associated with pinot noir grapes, the wine landscape may have developed into a very different one.

Though venerable as they are they’re hardly the only wine grapes worth your attention. For all there is to know about the vino, be sure to keep up with our latest wine guides.

About Ken McRae

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