Culinary Arts

Wine 101: What Is Pinot Noir, How to Serve Pinot Noir, and How to Pair Pinot Noir

Written by MasterClass

Apr 29, 2019 • 4 min read

"Only somebody who really takes the time to understand pinot's potential can then coax it into its fullest expression. Then, I mean, oh, its flavors. They're just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and ... ancient on the planet."

That's how the character Miles Raymond describes his favorite wine—pinot noir—in the Oscar-winning 2004 movie Sideways. In truth, he may have been talking mostly about himself, but he's not wrong when describing the dry red wine, which is one of the world's favorites.

French monks are the earliest known cultivators of pinot noir, using the grapes to make wine as early as the 14th century. Since then, the grape has become one of the most popular in the world. A great pinot noir will have complexity, elaborate aromas, refined texture, freshness, silky tannins, and finesse.

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What Is Pinot Noir?

Pinot noir is both a grape and the name of the wine varietal consisting solely of such grapes. The name comes from the French word for “pine” (pinot), because the grapes grow in pine cone-shaped clusters, and “black” (noir), a reference to their dark hue.

Pinot noir is used to make four different types of single varietal wine, meaning the wine is 100% pinot noir grapes; red pinot noir, rosé pinot noir, white pinot noir, and sparkling pinot noir. Pinot noir is also used in blended wine, such as in Champagne, blended rosé, and Sancerre.

Is Pinot Noir Wine a Red or a White Wine?

Pinot noir is a very versatile grape, that can be used to make both red and white wines. Pinot noir grapes are light red and translucent because of the water they retain while on the vine.

Pinot noir is most frequently used to make red wine; white pinot noir wines are somewhat rare.

Common Characteristics of the Pinot Noir Grape

  • Selective: Pinot noir grapes grow in a narrow range of temperatures and conditions. Pinot noir grows best in dry climates with cool nights and warm days, and in chalky soil or clay.
  • Fast: Pinot noir grapes have a short growing season: 100 days, compared with up to eight months for other varietals.
  • Delicate: Pinot noir grapes are thin-skinned and more susceptible to disease than other grapes. Pinot noir is also more susceptible to disease are especially vulnerable to rot and fungus.

Where Is Pinot Noir Grown?

Pinot noir is grown worldwide, though it is temperamental and difficult to cultivate. In France, most pinot noir comes from the region of Burgundy, which carries a legal designation as an official wine-growing region for pinot noir (known as an appellation). Pinot noir also grows in Germany (where it is called Spätburgunder or “late Burgundian”), Austria (where pinot noir is called Blauburgunder or “blue Burgundian”), and Italy (which uses a synonym for pinot noir, “pinot nero”).

Outside of Europe, California’s wine-growing regions of Sonoma, the Russian River Valley, and the Central Coast all produce of pinot noir. The Willamette Valley in Oregon is also known for its pinot noir.

Pinot noir is also cultivated in Australia, Chile, New Zealand, and South Africa, all of which are major global exporters of pinot noir wine.

Differences Between Merlot and Pinot Noir

Pinot noir and merlot are both tannic red wines with similar berry flavors.

  • Merlot is darker in color, with flavor notes of dark fruits like blackberries. Pinot noir is lighter in color with tasting notes of red fruits like raspberries.
  • Merlot is most often used in blends. Pinot noir is mostly produced as a single varietal wine.

What Does Pinot Noir Taste Like?

Pinot noir’s flavor profile varies widely depending on the grapes’ provenance and growing conditions. For example, California pinot noir wines have notes of sweet black cherries, vanilla, and clove. A bottle of pinot noir from France may be earthier, with more prominent mushroom and forest-floor notes.

Frequent descriptions of pinot noir include:

  • Fruits such as strawberry, cherry, raspberry, and blackberry
  • Earthy elements such as mushroom and leather
  • Spicy notes such as cinnamon, clove, and tobacco

Pinot noir has lower tannins than other red wines, yielding a wine that tastes fresh and complex straight from the bottle.

Is Pinot Noir Dry or Sweet?

Pinot noir is a dry, light-bodied wine. Pinot noir is more acidic than other red wines with lower tannins, which makes pinot noir smooth and easy to drink.

5 Tips for Serving Pinot Noir

  • Perfect Temperature: Pinot noir is best served slightly chilled at about 55°F.
  • Don’t Decant: Pinot noir is read to be served out of the bottle and does not necessarily need to be decanted.
  • The Right Glass: Drink your pinot noir from a large, bell-shaped glass to best enjoy its nose or aroma.
  • Bottoms Up: Drink pinot noir within a day after opening to keep the wine at its prime.
  • Age Gracefully: Pinot noir can be aged for up to eight years.

How to Pair Pinot Noir With Food

In the same way that pinot noir is a versatile wine grape, pinot noir can also be paired with a variety of different foods. Because of its high acidity and low tannin content, pinot noir is light enough for grilled fish; but it is also complex enough to stand up to richer fare, such as roast chicken or beef stew.

Other great pairing for pinot noir include:

  • Charcuterie, ham, and other cold meats
  • Soft, nutty cheeses, such as taleggio, gruyere, brie, or goat cheese.
  • Patés and terrines
  • Grilled asparagus
  • Spring vegetables like peas
  • Gamey meats, like lamb or venison
  • Roasted meats, like turkey, ham, or goose.