The Versatile Queen of Red Grapes

Yinghui Liang
15 min readSep 20, 2023
Photo by Andrea Cairone on Unsplash

While I was still in the auction industry, the world record for the most expensive 750ml bottle of wine ever sold at auction was broken by a bottle of 1945 Romanée Conti fetching a whooping US$558,000 at auction house Sotheby’s New York sale in 2018 (Woodard, 2018).

Wine consumers may easily recognise the name Romanée Conti being one of the world’s most sought-after wines (from the namesake vineyard) and a luxury wine brand — forgive me for taking away your sentimental impression of wine being a rustic agricultural product, but some may not realise that Romanée Conti is made solely from Pinot Noir grape.

The Pinot Noir grape is not unique to Romanée Conti nor it is to France. Thanks to a few high-profile wine producers (brands) and regions, the Pinot Noir grape has seen rising reputation and huge commercial success in global wine market in recent decades.

U.S. is one of the world’s largest wine markets both in terms of volume and value. American wine consumers' favour over Pinot Noir started years ago when the Oscar-winning movie Sideways was released. The movie featured positive image of the Pinot Noir grape and thus drove sales, prices and demand of Pinot Noir wines in the U.S. wine market.

Across the ocean, Asia countries and regions, e.g. Japan, Singapore, Thailand, Hong Kong and Mainland China, with Asian consumers' rising spending power and a thirst for western products, drive up demand and prices for high-end Pinot Noir wines, particularly those from Burgundy (France's renowned Pinot Noir wine region).

In light of Pinot Noir’s global impact and (largely) my now leisure interest of researching about (dry) science and (nonsense) philosophy of wine, this story aims to offer you a brief geeky taste of the characteristics of the Pinot Noir grape, followed by comparing the climate, topography, soil, culture, regulations, winemaking, quality and trends of three prominent Pinot Noir producing regions: Burgundy (France), Central Coast (California, U.S.) and Marlborough (New Zealand). Among many Pinot Noir production regions, these three, in my opinion, best represent the versatility of the Pinot Noir grape. I have to warn you that this is going to be a "dry" story, where no tales to be told but a good amount of technical details and commentary.

Pinot Noir

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Pinot Noir is an ancient grape variety with evidence of existence in Burgundy, France in 4th century AD (Robinson, 2006).

With Gouais Blanc, Pinot Noir is parent of quite a few widely-known grape varieties such as Chardonnay (Yes, red Pinot is white Chardonnay's parent), Gamay and Melon de Bourgogne. Pinot Noir is easy to mutate (change its DNAs and become a new grape variety. Cool, right? Wish I could do the same…) with mutations such as Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Meunier.

Apart from mutations, Pinot Noir possesses a large number of clones that vary in quality and productivity.

This is tricky. Think you and your human clone. You are identical in DNA but you would be brought up separately. Thus, you will vary in personality.

Though existing in many different forms, in general, Pinot Noir is thin-skinned, relatively early-ripening and prone to a wide range of diseases and viruses, making it difficult (a pain) to grow. Yes, Pinot Noir is a demanding Queen.

Pinot Noir usually does best on limestone soils in cool climate regions. It is widely acknowledged that Pinot Noir has the ability to express terroir — a debatable and romantic term (more and more a marketing term if you will). What exactly is terroir though? I will adopt Dr. Jamie Goode's (amazing wine writer and scientist with a unique taste in T-shirts) definition:

“the combination of soils, subsoils, and climatic factors that affect the way that grapes grow on the vine, and thus influence the taste of the wine made from them " (Goode, 2014)

This special quality of Pinot Noir is amplified and widely marketed in Burgundy, France, where wines made from adjacent vineyard plots could show completely different characters. Other than mind-blowing still wines, Pinot Noir makes an excellent component in sparkling wines, notably Champagne, with its delicate fruit and floral characters as well as abundant acidity. Outside France, Pinot Noir is grown in a number of wine regions with local names, such as, Germany (as Spätburgunder), Austria (as Blauburgunder), Italy (as Pinot Nero), US and New Zealand.

Burgundy, France

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Burgundy, also known as Bourgogne in French, stretches from Chablis and Auxerre in the north, to Côte de Nuits, Côte de Beaune down to Côte Chalonnaise and Mâconnais.

Pinot Noir shines and thrives here. Many serious wine lovers try to make a pilgrimage to Burgundy at least once in their lifetime, where they get to stand on the grounds of and pose for pictures in front of some of the most respected vineyards in the world.

In my humble opinion, not just in Burgundy, basically all vineyards carry a sense of history and glory. They are manifestation of what nature endows us and how humans humbly farm them over generations.

Climate, topography and soil Climate here is continental with cold winter and uneven rainfalls. You will see hail, frost, sometimes drought and heavy storms. The Saône Fault has defined the topography of Burgundy. To the west of the fault, it is what we know as Hautes Côtes. To the east, it is the flat valley of the Saône River, where basic Bourgogne wines are produced. Between them, it is the fault line called Côte d’Or, where some of the greatest Pinot Noir wines are made.

From west to east, the escarpment is cut by several streams and dry valleys which alter the orientation of some vineyards. Côte d’Or is divided into the northern part — Côte de Nuits and the southern part — Côte de Beaune. In Côte de Nuits, the slop is facing east and steep, while in Côte de Beaune, the aspect turns to southeast and the slope is gentler. Côte d’Or consists of largely limestone with lots of diversities. The composition of soils with its dominant limestone and the soil drainage capacity have subsequently determined the quality level of Burgundian Pinot Noir wines.

The Premiers Crus and Grands Crus (details coming in next paragraph) are usually located at mid-slope, where soils are less fertile than the plain but not too poor as those on the top of the slope. At mid-slope, the vineyards usually drain well and enjoy greater sun exposure, both of which are keys factors producing ripe and high-quality grapes. The fertile soils of the plain and the poor soils of the hilltop often produce basic wines at village or Bourgogne level.

As cliche as it may sound, this resembles raising a child. Too fertile (spoiled) and too poor (lack of care) destroy a kid.

Burgundy’s Premiers Crus and Grands Crus reds are alluring wines, showing delicate red fruits, floral notes, subtle earthiness and wonderful, savoury sous bois characters (showing off my wine jargon here. sous bois is a fancy French term of describing forest-floor scent. Imagine walking into a wet forest — you get a bit of mushroomy, leafy and earthy scent). These wines are also long-lived, with evolving characters overtime. Some wine consumers love aged (roughly 15–50 years) Pinot Noir wines — charming mushroomy, dried plummy, delicate fading floral and silky characters if kept well.

For me, I am a believer of "Best Before". Though these wines can indeed live indefinitely, I love my Pinot Noir wines with a grid (showing textured tannins), vibrant fruits and still somewhat prominent floral scents. This means my favourite drinking window is between 5–15 years of age.

Culture, regulations and winemaking Same as other French wine regions, Burgundy is regulated by Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC). Literally, wine law. The Burgundy AOCs are classified into four levels, from top down: Grands Crus, Premiers Crus, Villages and Regional. Maximum yields for red wines at village and premier cru level are set at 40hl/ha while at grand cru are at 35hl/ha (Robinson, 2006).

Each domaine (producers) has its own philosophy of winemaking, which usually includes a combination of these practices: whether to de-stem (remove the stalk of grape) or not, length of pre-fermentation maceration (soaking, not as literally), length of barrel maturation, the type of oak barrel to use, use of sulfur and so on and so forth. All these practices are crucial in final wine styles and quality. And the details of them worth a whole book, read Dr. Goode — The science of wine: From vine to glass.

Wine quality and winemaking trends in Burgundy Led by several quality producers, such as Lalou Bize-Leroy, Christopher Roumier, and Jean-Marie Fourrier, Burgundy Pinot Noirs are at a quality level that probably no other regions can match. Burgundy is a region with rich tradition yet a region continues to innovate the way Pinot Noir expresses itself.

The use of whole bunch had been on and off-trend. In recent years, it seems to be coming back into fashion. There is a growing number of winemakers who prefer stems in fermentation and who believe whole bunch fermentation could give more elegance, complexity, silkier tannins, lower alcohol levels and more freshness, especially in light of riper grapes due to global warming (Jefford, 2016). Take Domaine Dujac as an example. The domaine uses around 65% and 100% whole cluster during fermentations depending on the vintage and cuvée.

Another trend is minimal intervention in winemaking. Winemakers are increasingly cautious about the use of additives in particular sulfur dioxide. And the trend of organic and natural wine is spreading, driven by rising consumer demand.

Burgundy, as a classic region of Pinot Noir, makes probably the most pricy and long-lived Pinot Noir wines among all, not to mention a great regional branding, supported voluntarily by wine merchants worldwide. Undoubtedly, consumers will continue to enjoy beautifully made Burgundian Pinot Noir wines, though the prices they claim now may bring both benefits and increasing drawbacks to the region.

Central Coast, California

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Central Coast American Viticultural Area (AVA) covers a large area from San Francisco County in the north to Santa Barbara County in the south, responsible for around 15% of California’s total wine grape production. The area is characterized by mountains, hills, canyons and valleys, covering quite a number of renowned wine regions, for example, Paso Robles, Santa Ynez and Santa Maria valleys.

There is a wide range of grape varieties,s uch as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, growing across the AVA thanks to its diversity in mesoclimate, topography and soil types.

Climate, topography and soil Proximity to the Pacific Ocean, much of the region is influenced by cool winds and fog from the ocean. The San Andreas Fault has a significant impact on the soil types and topography of Central Coast AVA. According to Professor Alex Maltman (2018) (The BEST wine topography book if any of you wine geeks fancy):

the western side of the San Andreas Fault saw presence of limestone soils — signature of Paso Robles, while the eastern side had almost none. The fault line altered the orientation of some of the mountain ranges to an east-west orientation, thus drawing in cool breeze from the Pacific Ocean and cooling down areas such as Santa Maria and Santa Ynez valleys, where Pinot Noir flourishes.

Due to complex topography here, there are various soil types across Central Coast AVA, with mountainous soils often related to quality winemaking while fertile alluvial soils in the valley floors being associated with bulk production. Therefore, styles and qualities of wines vary a lot here with the best being aromatic, fruity and dense, whereas the lesser ones being simple and flat.

Culture, regulations and winemaking In the U.S., wine regions are regulated by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau and are defined by American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). If an AVA is stated on the label of a wine, at least 85% of the grapes in that wine must come from the listed AVA. Central Coast AVA covers a number of small AVAs where boutique producers thrive and value innovation and uniqueness. The southern part of Central Coast is among California’s oldest wine regions. It is a melting pot of big wine companies such as Robert Mondavi and Kendall-Jackson as well as boutique wineries like Au Bon Climat. Winemaking mindset diverses here. Au Bon Climat makes a series of terroir specific Pinot Noir wines while Kendall-Jackson produces a regional blend.

Wine quality and winemaking trends in Central Coast Quality varies here as well. Consumers are able to get both cheap and cheerful party wines as well as expensive and luxury wines. In terms of trends, there is a rising number of boutique producers embracing the popular terroir concept and producing site-specific Pinot Noir wines. Some winemakers select specific blocks, even rows of Pinot Noir with designated clones to make unique bottlings that reflect the characters of the Pinot varietal and their vineyard sites.

Another trend is the natural wine movement. Though wineries here rarely claim to make natural wines, a growing number of them are adopting the philosophy of natural wine — minimal intervention on both winemaking and vineyard management. Domaine de la Côte in Sta. Rita Hills AVA, for instance, makes Pinot Noir wines without any fining or filtration.

For some serious wine drinkers, Central Coast Pinot Noirs may not be a go-to choice and may perceive them as resembling the Cabinet Sauvignon wines from California in general, namely big and fruit bomb. At the first glimpse, the region seems no uniqueness, which is true in some sense. However, when you dig deep, you realise this is a region where the true versatile facet of Pinot Noir, from fruity and floral to dense and oaky, unveils. It is the region where you can get casual dinner party wines and the region where you can find utterly boutique producers, all at a price that you cannot believe in Burgundy.

Marlborough, New Zealand

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Marlborough is New Zealand’s largest wine region with Sauvignon Blanc being the most planted variety and Pinot Noir being second in place. Marlborough has diverse soils and meso-climates that are suitable to a wide range of cool climate grape varieties.

Climate, topography and soil Marlborough enjoys cool maritime climate with low rainfall, large diurnal variation (day night temperature difference) and long sunshine hours, which are especially good for retaining acidity and for aroma developments of grapes. Marlborough is located at the north eastern part of the South Island of New Zealand, with a large and flat river valley and various soil types. Poor and stony soils are considered to be best for quality winemaking here. The stones provide good drainage, absorb heat during the day, then reflect back to the vineyards at night, keeping the vines warm during Marlborough’s cool nights and assisting flavour development.

According to Professor Alex Maltman (2018):

the Alpine Fault has significant topographic influences on the South Island of New Zealand. The Fault heads towards the northern part of South Island and breaks up into several major splays. Some of these splays has marked out the wine growing areas of Marlborough, such as Wither Hills and Cloudy Bay.

Wither Hills are unique upland area formed by rocks caught between faults and here, Pinot Noir tends to be rich, bold and full of dark berry fruits; Cloudy Bay is a wide area formed by weakened rocks of Wairau Fault while it leaves the coastal area of South Island and here, Pinot Noir is subtle, fragrant and refreshingly acidic. An amazing representation of how Pinot Noir reflects terroir. You can taste where it comes from.

Culture, regulations and winemaking In New Zealand, winemakers are often regarded as key to produce good quality wine and they enjoy the kind of freedom that old-world winemakers can only envy. As Jancis Robinson MW (2006) commented,

“winemakers in New Zealand operate relatively free from regulatory constraint, with acidification, deacidification and enrichment all permitted.” — Jancis Robinson MW

Other than this, irrigation is widely practiced as well, which was often regarded as illegal in old-world (think France, Germany) wine countries. However, over-irrigation can be an issue for the region especially among contracted grape-growers who are paid by the weight of their grapes and who therefore, do not care about the quality of the grapes (Robinson, 2006).

New Zealand is where you will see modern technology in winemaking comes into play. I am not an opposer of advanced wine technology nor am I a believer in completely artisanal production. I believe the way winemakers choose to produce their wines should reflect their values and ideology. The results are left for consumers to judge. There is no recipe for all but there is a recipe that the market currently demands and a recipe you believe. A balance must be made.

New Zealand wines are regulated under Geographical Indication (GI) — again, wine law that controls the wine production in a geographical location, quality level, and some other characteristic linked to that location. This GI regulation concerns only geographical boundary. The labelling law requires that if a particular grape variety, vintage or area is stated on the wine label, then at least 85% of that wine must be from that specific variety, vintage or area.

In terms of winemaking, stainless steel tanks are widely used to preserve fruit characters so as to create Marlborough’s iconic styles — refreshing and fruity. Some winemakers may choose to ferment part of their wines in old French oak barriques to add a bit of texture. 100% new oak is not often used here.

Wine quality and winemaking trends in Marlborough The cool climate conditions combined with long sunshine hours have provide a long and slow ripening period to produce a Pinot Noir wine with great fruit intensity and expressive varietal characters. A large diurnal variation helps keep grapes’ refreshing acidity during cool nights. Marlborough Pinot Noir is often soft with bright fruits and silky tannins; however, some could show bold fruits and oakiness. Wine quality is generally high and consistent.

Marlborough wines have seen significant growth in recent decades with its exquisite Sauvignon Blanc. There is growing awareness of protecting the brand value of the Marlborough region which leads to the establishment of a new certification mark named Appellation Marlborough Wine (AMW).

There is a growing trend of producing single vineyard bottling in Marlborough that distinguishes different terroirs within the region. Boutique winery Tiki Wine makes a single vineyard series that highlights their best parcels. Industry giant Villa Maria Estates also make two acclaimed single vineyard wines in Marlborough: Seddon Vineyard Pinot Noir and Southern Clays Pinot Noir. These single vineyard wines tend to position at premium level with a high quality statement.

Overall, Marlborough Pinot Noir wines deliver — they are mostly juicy, light-hearted (not generalising here) and many would say they are great social wines. Indeed, though they may not stimulate deep conversations, they are perfect in the background, offering the kind of comfort and escape you may need at an awkward encounter.

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I am cautious that this has become a 15-mins read, deviating from its original 5-mins plan. I realise if you have gone this far, either you lost patience thus skimming through (I would certainly do so), or you are tipsy drinking a glass of wine (I would certainly need a glass to read through). Enough gibberish. A few final sentences to wrap this up.

Drinking Pinot Noir wines from renowned Burgundy producers seems to become an extravagant lifestyle in recent years. I cannot deny that such scene has indeed stained my romantic sentiment towards Pinot Noir wines. Oftentimes, the more one consumes mindlessly, the less one treasures and appreciates. Peeling off its luxury label, Pinot Noir is ultimately a multifaceted grape that justifies its own existence. I only wish for more wine consumers to appreciate its versatile styles from various regions and for more wine producers to believe in the potential of their own regions.

Thanks for reading.

References and recommended wine books for wine geeks. (No joke. They are hard to digest)

Goode, J. (2014). The science of wine: From vine to glass(Second ed.). Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press.

Jefford, A. (2016, October 04). Jefford: Whole bunch fermentation is the new wine fashion. Retrieved from https://www.decanter.com/wine-news/opinion/jefford-on-monday/jefford-whole-bunch-fermentation-332676/

Maltman, A. (2018). Vineyards, rocks, and soils: The wine lovers guide to geology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Robinson, J. (2006). The Oxford companion to wine(Third ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Woodard, R. (2018, October 15). DRC 1945 sets record for wine auction price. Retrieved from http://www.decanter.com/wine-news/1945-drc-wine-auction-record-403025/#luyuTIICXUc2cLXO.99

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Yinghui Liang

Aspiring management researcher. Previously auction and wine industry veteran. Programming language: Python, R, SQL, C