More so than with any other red wine grape, Pinot Noir wine reflects its terroir – that sense of place that incorporates climate, soil type, elevation, position to the sun and surrounding vegetation.

In Burgundy, for instance, it’s possible to easily differentiate two Pinot Noir wines made from grapes grown in vineyards less than a 100 feet apart; that was how reflective the grape is of its terroir.

Because of this, it’s hard to fit Pinot Noir nicely into a box of defining characteristics, although there are a few generalities that can be applied, starting with the fact that it’s a thinner-skinned grape that can be challenging to grow. It grows best in cooler climates where the grapes do not become overripe, and as a result, Pinot Noir wines tend to have higher acidity compared to many other red wines.

Its taste, however, can be quite varied, depending on terroir, its age, and to a lesser extent, the winemaking process used to produce it.

Color and body

Since Pinot Noir grapes have thinner skins than many other red or black grapes, and red wines get their color from their skins, Pinot Noir wines tend to be lighter in color than other red wines, light enough, in fact, that most are translucent. However, even the color can be different depending on where it’s grown.

For instance, Pinot Noirs from certain places in Oregon or the Côte de Nuits in Burgundy are often darker than Pinot Noirs from California and the Côte de Beaune.

Pinot Noir is generally considered a medium-bodied wine, with body being a direct reflection of alcohol level and sugar content. Grown in a cooler climate, Pinot Noir usually has an alcohol by volume content of 14 percent or below, but in some warmer climates – like many places in California – alcohol levels can be 15 percent or higher in wines that are very fruit-driven.

The Marlborough wine region of New Zealand's South Island.
The Marlborough wine region of New Zealand’s South Island.

Aromas and taste

Wines made from Pinot Noir grapes are most often associated with aromas and tastes of cherries, strawberries, raspberries and cranberries, at least when they are young. They can also have aromas and flavors of spices such as cinnamon and allspice. As they age, Pinot Noir wines tend to become less fruity and more savory, taking on earthy aromas like mushrooms and wet forest and flavors like plums. Some can have hints of those aromas even when young, and they become more pronounced as they age.

It’s the high acidity in Pinot Noir that allow the wines to age because they do not have much of a tannic structure. Tannins generally come from the skins, and since Pinot Noir grapes have thin skins, the juice does not naturally have a lot of tannins, making the wine softer in the mouth.

To give Pinot Noirs more tannic structure so that they’re more complex and can age longer, some wineries, particularly in the Old World, do not remove the grapes from the more tannic stems before fermentation. Fermenting and aging Pinot Noir in oak casks or barrels also adds tannic structure to the wine.

Depending on where the grapes are grown, Pinot Noir can be very elegant or very fruity. In either case, Pinot Noir is a food-friendly wine, thanks largely to its high acidity.

Old World Pinot

The benchmark for Pinot Noir wine is Burgundy, and more precisely, the Côte d’Or, which consists of the Côte de Nuits to the north and the Côte de Beaune to the south. Most of the best red Burgundy vineyards – the Grand Cru vineyards – are in the Côte de Nuits. Pinot Noir wines from the Côte d’Or are elegant, powerful and have almost intoxicating aromas. The best ones are among the most expensive wines in the world.

Pinot Noir is also made in the Alsace region of France, and while it retains Old World characteristics, the quality is not the same as in Burgundy. In the Champagne region, Pinot Noir is a very important grape and is used as one of three main blending grapes in Champagne. However, it is vinified without allowing the grape skins to color the juice so that it remains clear. One form of Champagne, called blanc de noirs, is made entirely from Pinot Noir grapes that have been vinified clear.

Italy, Germany, Switzerland and Austria all produce Pinot Noir wines, most Burgundian in style and some quite good. These are, however, rather rare in this part of the world and fairly expensive, though not in comparison to Côte d’Or wines.

Burgundy in France is known to produce some of the best Pinot Noir wines in the world.
Burgundy in France is known to produce some of the best Pinot Noir wines in the world.

New World Pinot

California produces the most Pinot Noir in the United States, with Oregon producing the second most. California actually produces two distinct styles of Pinot Noir: Fruity wines from warmer areas, and wines with earthy notes to go with fresh fruit flavors from areas on the coast at higher elevations, or where vineyards are kept cool by the fog rolling in off the Pacific Ocean.

Perhaps the best Pinot Noirs in the United States are from the Willamette Valley in Oregon, which is on the same latitude as Burgundy and has both volcanic and sedimentary soils to impart terroir on the grapes.

Pinot Noir is also grown in Washington State and in British Columbia, Canada, and some very good wines are being made in both places, although they are harder to find, especially in the Caribbean region.

Australia and New Zealand also produce excellent Pinot Noir wines, with the Central Otago and Marlborough regions of the South Island of New Zealand producing some world-class wines.

New Zealand and especially Oregon produce Pinot Noir wines that offer the benefit of New World fruit, but with similar complexity and elegance to Burgundy.

Not to be outdone, both Chile and Argentina are now also producing good Pinot Noirs, which are improving every year. While not to the refined standards of Burgundy, Oregon and New Zealand yet, these South American Pinots offer excellent value.

Old World options

To really know Pinot Noir, trying Burgundy wines is a must, but be prepared to pay between $25 and $65 for even the less expensive bottles.

Maison Louis Jadot, one of the larger land owners in Burgundy, is known for its value-for-quality proposition. Its best wines from Grand Cru vineyards still aren’t cheap, but they cost less than wines made from other producers using some of the same vineyards. Jadot uses efficiencies of scale and production – while still using many traditional Burgundian wine-making processes – to produce wines at a lower cost, the savings from which are passed on to the consumer. Entry level Pinots from Jadot start around $25 and go up from there as the quality increases.

Domaine Roger Belland also produces good value wine. Its Marganges Premier Cru “La Fussiere” is $26.99 at Premier Wines & Spirits. Others of even better quality from this producer priced under $65 include Pommard “Les Cras” and Volney-Santenots Premier Cru.

For something a little different from the Old World, try a bottle of Rudolf Fürst Spätburgunder Tradition from Germany, which sells for $45 at Jacques Scott Wines & Spirits.

Also at Jacques Scott is Vincent Giradrin Savigny-lès-Beaune “Les Maronnets,” a Premier Cru for under $40 that is very good quality for the price.

New World choices

The best New World Pinot Noir options available in Cayman are from North America or New Zealand.

Good Oregon Pinot Noirs aren’t inexpensive but still offer good value for quality. Adelsheim’s regular Pinot Noir is priced at $37 at Premier Wines & Spirits, while that producer’s excellent “Elizabeth Reserve” is $58.

Other good-to-excellent Pinot Noirs from Oregon at Jacques Scott include Domaine Serene, Domaine Drouhin and Sokol Blosser.

BlackBeard’s and Big Daddy’s offer a wide range of Oregon Pinot Noirs at different price points. Try Cooper Hill for an entry level, easy drinking wine, or Cooper Mountain for one that is a step up in quality. Elk Cove also makes very good Pinot Noirs for a reasonable price.

California Pinot Noirs are plentiful in all of Cayman’s wine retailers’ stores. Some of the best ones include Thomas Fogarty’s wines from the Santa Cruz Mountains; Flowers Vineyard & Winery from the Sonoma Coast; Merry Edwards from the Russian River Valley in Sonoma; La Follette; and Patz & Hall. Easy drinking and less expensive Pinot Noirs from California include Lucky Star, Meiomi and Foley, the latter representing excellent value for quality.

A relatively new entry into the Cayman market is Burrowing Owl Pinot Noir from British Columbia. A mid-range priced Pinot Noir, it has picked up local following because of its savory flavors and silky texture. If you’ve never tried a Canadian red wine, this would be a great place to start.