As the nigh-inevitable fourth wave continues its inexorable approach, I gathered my double-vaxxed drinking companions with what we all hoped would not be our final backyard get-together to celebrate International Pinot Noir Day with tastings of this illustrious wine.
For those not familiar with the varietal, the Pinot Noir grape tends to have a lighter flavor profile than a Cab Sauv or Merlot, and generally is only around 12% ABV, instead of the 14-15% of the fuller wines.
The lower alcohol content, combined with a fruit forward flavor makes Pinot Noir a very quaffable, drink-all-night type of wine.
The true origin of the Pinot Noir grape is lost in the wine-soaked mists of antiquity, but it first rose to prominence in the French vineyards of Burgundy nearly two thousand years ago.
The word Pinot is derived from the French word for pine, as the grape clusters on the vine form a shape similar to a pinecone.
Pinot Noir simply means Black Pine, as the grapes are very dark in color. There have been countless offshoots and mutations of the Pinot Noir grape over the millenia, including the well-known cousins like Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Meunier.
Lest you think that Pinot Noir is exclusively used for red wines, the sparking white wines from the Champagne region of France are most commonly a blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, with perhaps just a dash of Pinot Meunier. While the Pinot grapes have dark skins, the clear juice is gently pressed out to make the sparkling white wine, then immediately separated from the skins to prevent colouring the juice.
Despite its worldwide popularity with consumers, winemakers refer to Pinot Noir as the heartbreak grape, due to its fussiness about temperature, thin skin, and susceptibility to various vineyard mildews and pests.
Pinot Noir grapes tend to shrivel up with too much heat, so they do best in cooler growing regions with warm afternoons and long chilly evenings. Outside of the Burgundy region in France, Pinot grapes do quite well in cooler climates like Oregon and Ontario. New Zealand is another up-and-coming Pinot Noir region, crowding out the Sauv Blanc plantings that the kiwi winemakers are so famous for.
Even when the grapes survive a season on the vine, they ferment unpredictably in the winery, and generally produce a much lower yield than other varietals like Cab Sauv or Merlot.
Despite its fragile nature, the Pinot Noir grape makes it all worthwhile, with the vast majority of the red grapes in the famed Burgundy wine region of France being Pinot Noir, dominating the Grand Cru (top 2%) appellations in the region, making the prices sky-high for mere mortals.
Fortunately, there is plenty of reasonably priced Pinot Noir out there, be it from France or around the world. Expect a light-bodied red wine with minimal tannins, and a sophisticated bouquet of flavours, including cherry, raspberry, and mushroom on the tongue. As Pinot Noir ages in oak barrels, it gains vanilla and spicy complexity, with the top wines aged 5-10 years before bottling.
Always eager to support our domestic wine industry, I am a frequent imbiber of Pinot Noir wines from the Okanagan Valley of BC, which are available at a variety of price points.
My favourite daily drinker is the award-winning Pinot Noir from Castoro de Oro (Golden Beaver) near Osoyoos, widely available in Alberta for around $22. Bursting with cherry and black tea flavours, followed by cedar notes on the finish from the barrel aging. The winery is located on the so-called Golden Mile sub-appellation of the Okanagan Valley, home to some of the best wines in Canada, and a regular stop for me whenever I visit the region.
For special occasions, I turn to the Quails Gate Pinot Noir, one of my long-time favourite vineyards on the western edge of Kelowna. With differing price points at $35, $45, and $55 available, each reflecting different blocks of the vineyards with distinctive terroir, they have a Pinot Noir for every occasion. Unsurprisingly, the top-tier price spends many years aging in first-fill oak barrels, imparting a complex bouquet like no other.
Whatever your preference, there is a Pinot Noir available at a price point and flavour profile for you. Ask your friendly neighbourhood wine merchant for a recommendation, or take a few different bottles home to compare for yourself.