Ask Wine Wizard

Discussing Pros v. Cons of Pinot Noir


Burt Reber —Sparks, Nevada asks,

I live in Nevada and I’ve been ordering frozen grapes in buckets for the past few harvests from Wine Grapes Direct, mostly Syrah, Zinfandel, and Cabernet. We’ve never tried Pinot Noir, though my wife has really been itching to give it a whirl. We’ve watched the movie Sideways and have also read that Pinot is really hard to grow and make . . . is that true?


Pinot Noir has quite a reputation. Often known as the “Heartbreak Grape” and lovingly discussed, dissected, and degustated (is that even a word?) by rabid Pinot-philes the world over, Pinot Noir was being talked about in the wine world well before the movie Sideways thrust it onto an international stage. Many years after Miles and friends brought the joys of Pinot to a wider audience, the tidal wave of Pinot Noir shows no signs of slowing down and I couldn’t be more thrilled. I grew up in California’s Santa Barbara County, spent my first harvest making estate-grown Pinot Noir at the unique Chalone Vineyard, and now make Pinot Noir at Garnet Vineyards. As a dyed-in-the-wool (or in the hair, during harvest) Pinot-freak, I wanted to share with you some quirky factoids and some common misconceptions about my favorite grape.

Pinot Noir: A Little Fiddly in the Vineyard

The tightly-clustered bunches and thin skins always means that Pinot Noir will be a bit more difficult during the growing season. If you’re going to be buying frozen grapes in a pail, you won’t really have to worry about issues the grapes have traveling long distances, and in fact, you may enjoy the “pre-maceration” effect that freezing can have on red grapes. If, however, you are buying fresh grapes from California and transporting them to Nevada, make sure your hauler has a way to keep the grapes chilled, and try, if possible, to transport them in small picking bins or lug boxes to make sure the berries aren’t squished and turned to must by the time they get to you.

Pinot Noir: Not Always “The Heartbreak Grape”

Is Pinot Noir called “The Heartbreak Grape” because it’s so tough to make or because it’s so tough to shell out the ducats for that first growth Burgundy? Seriously, the “tough to deal with” label has been stuck to Pinot Noir throughout the years perhaps because it’s generally a thin-skinned, tightly-clustered varietal, which means it’s susceptible to rot and fungus. Given that Pinot Noir does best in cool, moist climates (like California’s Russian River, Carneros, Monterey County, and Petaluma Gap), it’s logical to see how, especially in wet years, Pinot Noir can get a reputation for being sensitive.

The flip side of this dismal-sounding coin is that Pinot Noir is an early-ripening variety, which means that it tends to get picked before late-season storms can rain on the tasty wine parade. The good news is that not every clone is the same and some have looser, less rot-prone clusters. Even though both 2007 and 2011 were relatively wet years, I found that my vineyards pulled through just fine and were happily fermenting away when things were getting ugly out there. Fortunately I also tend to find that Pinot Noir (unlike some red grapes) behaves very well in the cellar and benefits from minimalist winemaking. No heartbreak there. Though Pinot Noir does take a little extra care and feeding in the vineyard, in the winery I find it responds very well to a classic “hands-off” regimen of time-honored simplicity: Destem, ferment, press, and age.

Pinot Noir: A Large Extended Family

Ever heard of Pinot Blanc, Pinot Meunier or Pinot Grigio? The definitive study has yet to be done on who exactly gave rise to who and when, but what is certain is that the Pinot genome is very changeable. Pinot Noir, with its long (some say over 2,000 years) history in production and suspected gene transposition properties, can spontaneously create different clones and even offspring that are deemed different enough to be classified as different varieties entirely. Though mutations tend to take years to happen, discover, and classify; there are over one hundred different clones of Pinot Noir identified in the winemaking world today. Myself, I like the blending complexity that the different clones planted in different soils and vineyards offer me. Are these genetic shenanigans a good thing or a bad thing? If you like variety and a little unpredictability in your life, it’s great and couldn’t be more fun. I think Pinot drinkers (and Pinot winemakers), who tend to be a curious, quirky bunch anyway, would agree!

Pinot Noir: “The” Versatile Food Wine

There, I said it. Some would say it’s bubbles, some would say it’s the darling-of-the moment, dry rosé, but I plant my food-friendly flag permanently in the world of Pinot Noir. Pinot Noir can be made in so many styles (even Champagne and pink wine!), from light and fruity to dense, dark, and brooding. Salmon is an obvious fish pairing but give blackened catfish, mussels, or halibut a try too. It goes with poultry, cheese, pork, roast veggies, and many Asian-influenced dishes. Try a higher acid, lower alcohol cuvée to cut through spicy and fatty foods like smoked duck tacos. I even challenge you to pair a robust Petaluma Gap or “Far Sonoma Coast” Pinot Noir whose uncharacteristically thick skins yield a higher tannin profile, with a steak and see what I mean. Pinot Noir, especially those that are fruit-forward and have some good acid, can even pair with rich and spicy Mexican food. Chewy, rich Pinot to stand up to picante carne asada? Pinot: It’s what’s for dinner.

Response by Alison Crowe.