What Sets Pinot Noir Apart
Pinot Noir has been vinified for centuries and is one of the world’s noble grape varieties. But what is it about Pinot that allows it to make wines that have such haunting finesse and concentration? While its greatness has often been attributed to the muses, there are some definitive things that set Pinot Noir apart from other red grapes.
Pinot Noir is a thin skinned grape with lighter pigments than most other red varieties. This is because Pinot Noir lacks acylated anthocyanins which most other red grapes have. (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, etc.) These tannic compounds are responsible for much of the pigments in red wine. Pinot does contain the other major tannic compound called polyphenols, which gives it sufficient structure.
Pinot Noir is one of the most difficult grapes to grow and produce into wine. This has at the same time infuriated and delighted winemakers. When it is done well, there is nothing else like Pinot Noir. But several things must fall into place to accomplish this, and both nature and man must cooperate.
Pinot Noir ripens early in the growing season, and because of its thin skins, it is particularly susceptible to rot. It needs to methodically develop in a cool climate, but also needs enough heat to develop its distinctive flavors and aromas. Therein lays one of the difficulties in cultivating the grape.
The best soils for Pinot Noir are limestone and clay based. In general, the more clay, the more weight the Pinot will have. Pinot does well in soils that were once ancient sea beds and have a high pH from fossilized sea shells (high Calcium content). In contrast, Cabernet Sauvignon and many other red grapes like gravelly, very well-drained soils that are often of alluvial origin and have a lower pH.
In comparison to most other red varietals, Pinot Noir has a greater propensity for mutation. Part of the reason for this is that the grape has been grown since ancient times and there has been ample opportunity for genetic variation. Whereas Cabernet Sauvignon has around 20 distinct clones, Pinot Noir has over 1,000. This is why Pinot translates the terroir of a site so effectively; it adapts and changes to its natural environment significantly more than most other red grapes.
Cabernet Sauvignon and other red grapes can certainly display terroir, but not to the same extent as Pinot. Cab is a much more predictable grape, and no matter where it is planted, it will have some traits distinguish it. This is not the case with Pinot Noir, and there is much more variation depending on the specific plot of land and the people who vinify it.
Hence the more complex AOC system in Burgundy as opposed to Bordeaux. The French in general are concerned with terroir, but in Burgundy it is an obsession.