The tightly clustered fruit provide the wine’s strengths and its growing challenges. (photo by Andrew Hagen)

“There’s a magic in Pinot Noir; it’s a lifelong pursuit. While Cabernet is in front of grand homes, Pinot Noir is in peasant plots. Pinot Noir is of the earth. There’s that part of Pinot Noir that is decay. There’s a sort of fleetingness about it, there’s a purity. It’s refreshing. It’s without clutter.” Richard Sanford, Alma Rosa Winery

No other wine subject, it seems fair to say, has generated more verbiage, most of it rapturous. Here, then, it seems prudent to start simply. This particular variety of Vitis vinifera has long been one of the six so-called Noble Grapes (a Eurocentric term now widely replaced by “International variety”). The name seems to have been derived from the French for “pine” and “black” and indeed, the smallish fruit clusters bear resemblance to pine cones.

While experts will call Burgundy the grape’s ancestral home (brought north, or perhaps found, by the Romans as they arrived), Pinot Noir has also taken root in nearly every wine growing country in the world. In large part because of climate change, as well as the multifaceted challenges it presents to growers, its presence in various regions has had to evolve—and with it, our perceptions.

In the 1971 edition of The World Atlas of Wine, magisterial author Hugh Johnson pulls no punches. Pinot Noir, he writes, is “the single red grape of the Cote d’Or in Burgundy (Chambertin, Romanee, Corton, Beaune), i.e. the world’s best red wine grape, in the right place. In Champagne it is pressed before fermentation, to make white wine, which becomes the greater part of the best champagnes. At its best the scent, flavor, body, texture of its wine are all profound pleasures. It transplants from France less well than Cabernet, makes light wines in Germany and Eastern Europe, where it goes by various names, and, with exceptions, not very exciting wines in California.”

California, of course, now makes a range of quite exciting pinots. Oregon, New Zealand, and Argentina didn’t even rate a mention, 50 years ago. Not to mention the upcoming pinot growers in Alsace, and even Germany. It can be drunk young or old, rich and spicy, or light and fruity. The wine is known for delivering delicate cherry notes and hints of forest floor, all in the same mouthful.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the vine is challenging to grow, preferring cool climates but needing bright sun as well (and thus often found to thrive, as so many grapes do, where fog protects the vines throughout part of the day). The latest, 8th edition of the Atlas, by Johnson and the great Jancis Robinson, notes simply that “this early ripener is fussy.” Pinot noir, writes Aldo Sohm is his charming new book, Wine Simple, is “a diva in the vineyard.” The late, great Alexis Lichine, in the massive 5th edition of his New Encyclopedia of Wines & Spirits, was slightly more generous, describing the vine as “temperamental.” In Reading Between The Wines, Terry Theise notes that “Pinot Noir is difficult in the vineyard and persnickety overall.”

All that trouble, naturally, is what yields all that pleasure. The grape is known to express minute differences in terroir, and Burgundy in particular is divided into hundreds and hundreds of small parcels, all producing distinctly different and uniquely excellent wines, making some of the land there mind-blowingly valuable. And of course, the wines, too, reflect that in their prices. But that hasn’t stopped wine lovers enamored of the grape. “It is suave yet rustic, polished yet swarthy, intricate yet forthright,” writes Theise. “Somehow it is both sensual and, at its best mystic.”