Pinot Noir is the third most frequent variety on the red wine paper of the MW exam (behind Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah). Eighteen Pinot Noirs have appeared across 9 of the last 13 papers. With 8 from Burgundy, 8 from the New World, and two from other Old World regions. Being such a classic variety, the ability to both identify Pinot Noir blind and justify why is an essential skill. Below are some general pointers that can help do this. Not all 10 pointers will necessarily be found in every Pinot; and, this is by no means an exhaustive list–10 is just a nice number. In The Drinks Business Pinot Noir Masters 2014, it is suggested that, whatever the price point, a good Pinot should combine either red or black fruits (or both), a relatively light body, a smooth texture, and a refreshing finish.
- Pale colour
Pinot noir is by no means the only pale coloured grape–Nebbiolo, Grenache, and Gamay also fit into this camp–but it is a big clue.
- Perfumed and distinctive with an array of aromatics
It’s not often you struggle to find the aromas in a glass of Pinot Noir. Some are highly scented and perfumed. Others are just very expressive. Former perfumer and wine industry consultant Alexandre Schmitt says Pinot Noir is his favourite grape variety because of it’s nuanced aromas. See below for typical characters.
- Red fruits, particularly strawberry
That’s not to say you can’t find black fruits. But, red fruit, strawberry in particular, is by far the dominant primary fruit character generally found in Pinot Noir. In Wine Myths and Reality Benjamin Lewin MW has a nice section on the Aromas of grapes and wine that talks about the specific chemical coumpounds that give Pinot this character.
- Undergrowth, forrest floor, Sois bous, woodsmoke, game
With a bit of age, good Pinots will take on aromas and flavours along the lines of those listed above while still retaining a fruity character.
- Silky smooth
There are tannic and rustic Pinot Noirs. I’ve seen some good tasters call a flight of Burgundy Nebbiolo from Piedmont. However, the vast majority, even the very tannic ones, have a smoothness to them. In The Wine Experience, Gerard Basset MW MS describes the best Pinots as being round or supple with a silky, velvety texture.
- Fruit Sweetness
The primary fruit in Pinot is inherently sweet. It’s not often, except in perhaps some of the coolest Burgundy vintages, that you’d see tart or sour fruits in Pinot Noir like you do in say Sangiovese or Nebbiolo. Richard Bamfield MW comments that while it can finish dry and mouthwatering the attack at the front of the palate typically has more sweetness than other grapes. And is one of the characteristics of Pinot that makes it so attractive.
- Power without weight
Even the fullest bodied Pinot Noirs would only be medium bodied stood next to an inky Malbec from Mendoza. Yet, despite its relatively light body, Pinot Noir can have a very intense, powerful level of flavour. A little bit like Riesling in white wine. Allen Meadows of the Burghound refers to this as power without weight and says Volnay is the ultimate expression of this. Similarly, Mark Savage MW talks about a weightless of good Pinot.
- Fresh, bright acid
Pinot noir inherently tends to higher acid. Combined with the cool climate needed to grow Pinot Noir well it’s not surprising that most examples, even many of the ripe ones, retain an elevated level of fresh, bright acid.
Most Pinot Noirs have an easy to enjoy appeal about them. Possibly a combination of their perfumed aromatics, sweet fruit, smooth tannins, and overall lightness and freshness.
The Drinks Business Pinot Noir Masters 2014, suggests a good Pinot should have an open, pretty nose; an attractive, smooth texture; and, enough freshness to ensure the drinker wants more. Something echoed by Oz Clarke in Grapes & Wines where he says there’s something moutherwatering about Pinot that makes you want to go back to the glass again and again.