Okanagan Versus the Rest of the World Round Three: Pinot Noir
When it comes to fine wine, Pinot Noir always ranks as one of the world’s greatest. It’s a difficult grape to cultivate with a mercurial temperament that requires climate, soil, the terroir, to be just so. Sure, anyone can grow Pinot Noir but it takes a master to achieve true greatness with it.
Pinot Noir gets its name from the French words for “pine cone,” a nod to the shape in which the grape clusters grow and “black.” It’s a grape that is prone to mutation, something we see both in the different coloured clones Pinots Gris and Blanc, as well as the myriad red clones that are encountered wherever Pinot Noir is grown. Preferring cooler climates like those of its native Burgundy, the most elegant and ethereal Pinots tend to be found in the higher latitudes, on steep hillsides, or not far from the cooling influences of the sea. Its lovely red fruit flavours and often bright acidity make it an excellent candidate for rosé and offer light blush wines in the palest pink to deep salmon rosés with heady fruit aromas.
Okanagan Valley is perfectly situated for producing stunning, world-class Pinot Noir. Its northerly latitude means plenty of hours of sunshine so the grapes can get ripe mitigated by cool nights to preserve acidity in the grapes. And Pinot Noir needs lots of sun. What we end up with are well-balanced, elegant, yet flavourful and complex wines. Pinot Noir is susceptible to rot and mildew, something that isn’t so much a problem in the Valley as it is in other regions, Burgundy included. We have the Coast Mountains to thank for that. The best subregions for Pinot are Okanagan Falls, Naramata/Penticton, and Kelowna.
Looking for a place to start your Okanagan Pinot Noir exploration? Here are a few award-winning Pinots from the Valley and be sure to check out some of our local sparkling wines that use Pinot Noir as a part of their blends.
From the 2016 Best of Varietal Awards:
Best Pinot Noir: 2014 Ciao Bella Winery Pinot Nero
Gold Medal: 2013 Baillie-Grohman Pinot Noir
Silver Medal: 2014 La Frenz Winery Pinot Noir Reserve
2013 Privato Vineyard and Winery – Fedele Pinot Noir
2013 50th Parallel Estate Pinot Noir
2014 Spierhead Winery Pinot Noir GFV Saddle Block
2014 Arrowleaf Cellars Pinot Noir
2012 Lake Breeze Vineyards Pinot Noir – Home Estate Vineyard
Pinot Noir is often aged in new oak which imparts vanilla, smoke and spice aromas.
Tasting notes: Red cherry, strawberry, plum, red and purple flowers, smoke, cinnamon, tea, leather, brown sugar, mushroom, soil.
Pinot Noir Around the World
This is the region where it all began. Pinot Noir has definitely been cultivated in the region since at least the Middle Ages and possibly long before during Roman rule. The most expensive Pinot Noirs in the world come from Burgundy in the form of the region’s grand and premiers crus – these are amongst the most expensive, collected, and counterfeited wines in the world, period. Romanée-Conti, Chambertin, Chambolle-Musigny. In these vineyards, the concept of terroir was first dreamt up by the monks who tended the vineyards. The vines remained in the property of the Church until the French Revolution when they were sold off and ultimately divided up into increasingly small portions with each passing generation due to the Napoleonic Code. Today, Burgundy is for many still the epitome of not only great Pinot Noir but even wine itself.
Tasting notes: tart strawberry, violets, tomato leaf, black tea, freshly turned soil, and mushrooms.
Outside of Burgundy, Pinot Noir is grown in Sancerre in the Loire Valley and Alsace, where it is the only red grape permitted in the region.
As a side note, Pinot Noir is also one of the major grapes used in Champagne production. And you can bet that many of the traditional-style sparkling wines of Okanagan Valley make use of the grape, too. It adds structure, red fruit flavours and aromas, and body to sparkling wine blends.
Pinot Noir is grown up and down the state of California and can vary vastly depending on where it’s grown and who is making it. Along the coast where the climate is cooler and tempered by the California Current, the best of California’s Pinots are to be found. The cooler parts of Sonoma Valley and up in Mendocino in the northernmost part of the state are other Pinot-dominated areas.
Further inland, wines made from the grape are much riper and in warm vintages can almost seem sweet. These are jammy fruit bombs that can lack the nuance of their coastal counterparts but are popular nevertheless.
Tasting notes: Strawberry jam, black cherry, raspberry, violets, and vanilla.
The grape has seen a lot of success in Oregon, particularly in Willamette Valley. Many think of these Pinots as a sort of in between style that straddles both the New and Old Worlds. The climate is not unlike Burgundy and many Burgundian producers have put down roots in Oregon; the two regions share the same latitude, so it’s no real surprise that it does well here.
Tasting notes: cranberry, cherry, raspberry, freshly turned soil, and tea.
In Italy Pinot Noir becomes Pinot Nero and it’s found throughout the country. The best of the bunch comes from the north in Trentino Alto Adige in the foothills of the Alps. These are delicate yet savoury Pinots. It’s also found in the Veneto to the east of Trentino, and you’ll encounter Pinot Noir in various DOCGs like Franciacorta and Oltrepo Pavese where it is used to make Champagne-like sparkling wines.
Tasting notes: Cherry, raspberry, mineral-driven, dried herbs.
New Zealand may be most well-known for its whites, but Pinot Noir leads the way for reds; it’s actually the second most planted grape on the islands after Sauvignon Blanc, the one that put it on the map. The country is home to the world’s most southern growing wine region, Central Otago, and here you’ll find plenty of Pinot. Although the climate is cool, the western side of the South Island of New Zealand is dominated by the Southern Alps. This massive mountain range creates a rain shadow in the same way the Coast Mountains do here in BC. The result? The east coast of the island is much drier and perfect for planting Pinot and other varieties suited to the growing conditions on the islands.
Tasting notes: Red and black cherry, plum, spice, earth, dried herbs.
On the mainland, Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula, and Adelaide Hills are the places to watch for Pinot Noir. Australia is often thought of as being pretty hot, but these cool regions are just right for producing Pinot Noir with plenty of finesse. Tasmania is an up and coming region which has gained a lot of attention in recent years for its stunning Pinots. Thanks to its extra cool climate courtesy of Antarctic winds, Tasmania is a quickly establishing itself as a region for tasty sparkling wines as well.
Tasting notes: Black and red cherry, plum, purple flowers, spice.
Although probably the most difficult to grow of the international varieties, Pinot Noir is also one of the most popular, loved equally by wine novices and hardcore oenophiles with equal fervor. Versatile with food (a red wine that can pair with fish? Yes, please.), elegant yet capable of being phenomenally complex, and always a worthwhile addition in your wine fridge whether you’re planning on enjoying your bottle of Pinot Noir next week or a few years down the line.