Pinot Noir Introduction
Pinot Noir is a red wine grape variety of the species Vitis vinifera. The name is derived from the French words for pine (pinot) and black (Noir). The grape cluster is small and conico-cylindrical; shaped like a pinecone. Some viticultural historians believe this shape similarity may have given rise to the name.
Pinot Noir has been cultivated in Burgundy France since the first Century. Much of its fame is contributed to the Cistercian monks of Burgundy, who during the Middle Ages, planted vineyards everywhere they built monasteries. Over hundreds of vintages, these monks took detailed production records in which they also noted the areas where these vines flourished.
The monks in effect created the world’s first harvest reports and gave birth to the idea that a variety reflects the micro and macro conditions of the area, referred to as the “terroir”, in which it is planted. The church owned vineyards were distributed to families in Burgundy during the French revolution around 1789.
Today, Pinot Noir grapes are grown around the world, mostly in the cooler climates, and the grape is chiefly associated with the Burgundy region of France. Pinot Noir is now used to make red wines around the world, as well as Champagne, and such sparkling white wines as the Italian Franciacorta, South African Methode Cap Classique and English sparkling wines.
The wine’s colour when young is often compared to that of garnet, frequently being much lighter than that of other red wines. This is entirely natural and not a winemaking fault.
However, an emerging, increasingly evident, style from California and New Zealand highlights a more powerful, fruit forward and darker wine that can tend toward Syrah in depth, extract, and alcoholic content.
In addition to being used for the production of sparkling and still red wine, Pinot Noir is also sometimes used for rosé still wines, Beaujolais Nouveau-styled wines, and even vin gris white wines. Its juice is uncoloured.
Pinot Noir in South Africa
Professor Abraham Izak Perold imported the Swiss BK5 Pinot Noir clone around the 1920s and Muratie in Stellenbosch became the first farm to plant the variety in 1927. The variety at the time struggled to take off in other areas than Stellenbosch, because of the strong focus on the production of wine volumes instead of wine quality. The quota system, introduced in the late-1950s, also prohibited production expansions.
In the mid-1970s, Tim Hamilton Russell of Hamilton Russell Wines in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley played a huge role in unlocking the true potential of Pinot Noir in the country, when he decided to produce the variety in spite of the quota system and the fact that the available clone was aimed at the production of sparking and not table wine. Together with his then winemaker, Peter Finlayson, Russell proved the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley to be ideal for Pinot Noir production. The cool climate is the sought-after attribute in this area where vineyards benefit from persistent cooling winds from the nearby ocean. The soils – predominantly weathered shales – and terroir are also ideal for cool-climate loving varieties.
New Dijon clones, better suited for the production of fine table wines, became available in South Africa around the 1990s. Together with the shift to the production of quality wines, these new clones resulted in many new regions also producing the variety, including Elgin, Doring Bay and Franschhoek.
Growth and Ripening
Growing this fickle, low-cropping variety is extremely challenging, even infuriating, as the thin skins are particularly sensitive to temperature fluctuation and the grapes are susceptible to sunburn, rot, fungus, and mildew.
Pinot Noir has moderate to low vigour. The production potential ranges between 8 t/ha to 14 t/ha, but yields should be kept low to enhance the quality of the wine. Grapes ripen early midseason, from the first half of February.
The berries are small, slightly oval with colours ranging between violet-blue to purple and black. The skin is thin and tough, while the flesh is soft, sweet, and juicy. The leaves are medium to large, round and entirely or poorly three-lobed.
The variety is also referred to as Spätburgunder in Germany, Brazil, and Canada; Pinot Nero or Blauburgunder in Greece, Hungary and Italy; or Burgundac in the United States and Yugoslavia.