No other grape adopts the profile of its terroir more than pinot noir. Terroir is a French word, describing the complete set of environmental factors affecting grape flavor characteristics. Terroir is soil, wind, climate (both macro and micro), aspect toward the sun and hillside steepness. Some don’t believe in the correlation between terroir and wine flavor; people in that camp suggest it’s the winemaker who wields ultimate control. But being an Old World wine fan, I believe in terroir’s impact—and there’s no better grape to demonstrate that than pinot noir.
Pinot noir can be light-bodied, mineral-driven, fruit-forward, earthy or a combination of those qualities. Pinot noir from Willamette Valley, Oregon, is light-bodied and mineral-driven. These qualities come from the cooler climate and large diurnal temperature swings. Winemakers in Oregon tend to let natural flavors emerge; they don’t influence the wine with exaggerated wine-making techniques.
Pinot noir from Napa and Sonoma counties in California trend toward fruit-forward, bolder wines. The climate there is much drier and hotter. This simple difference allows the grapes to exhibit more baked fruit and jam qualities. Pinot noir from Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey County shows unmistakable hints of cherry cola. This flavor profile comes from grapes that develop thicker skins to protect against the howling afternoon winds that come from cold ocean air rushing into the warm Salinas Valley. Pinot noir from Santa Barbara County has its own special story. (I highly recommend the movie Sideways for a fun exploration.)
Other parts of the world also produce amazing and uniquely flavored pinot noir. The original home of pinot noir is Burgundy, France. Margaret River in western Australia and Central Otago in New Zealand are two southern hemisphere regions producing fantastic wines, each with their own flavors. Pull out a world map and let your new understanding of terroir show you pinot noir’s chameleon-like qualities. Time to explore.
Andy Carl is a local wine expert —the Woodbury Wine Wizard—whose recommendations appear each month in this section of Woodbury Magazine.