An Introduction to Pinot Noir
Pinot Noir is one of the noble grape varieties meaning that its reach is international, that it finds home across the globe in a breadth of wine regions where its wine styles can be quite distinct from one another. While it is most often associated with red wines of light to medium body, Pinot Noir is also a constituent grape in the most renowned sparkling wines of the world such as champagne, franciacorta, and other premium traditional method sparklers.
Pinot Noir is a cool climate grape: it favors growing conditions that see cooler average temperatures and greater diurnal shifts during the fruiting season. It is touted for its ability to persevere in cooler climates while still being able to produce flavorful wines with balanced acidity and structure. As a red wine, Pinot Noir typically displays low-moderate tannin, high acidity and is pale-medium in color density. Though fresh, fruity and floral in youth as both red and sparkling, it has the capacity to make very long lived wines that evolve in maturity, developing deep complexity.
Titled in French for the words meaning “pine” (pinot) and “black” (noir), Pinot Noir’s name speaks to the grape’s tightly packed clusters of black grapes resembling pine cones. This anatomy makes Pinot Noir a tricky grape to grow. With berries in close quarters, the likelihood of clusters harboring moisture is much greater, and therefore the propensity of the grape to host disease much higher. This and the threat of harsh weather conditions that come with the Pinot Noir higher latitude territories call for skilled growers.
For the jetsetting Pinot Noir grape, a great debate enshrouds the question of its true ancestral home. Many are hasty in defense of Burgundy for this accolade, where, afterall, the grape is thought to achieve its greatest potential, sense of place and expression of terroir. While ampelographic research may rule inconclusive on the matter… make the case for Champagne…
Where is Pinot Noir Grown in the Champagne Region?
Pinot Noir represents 38% of the plantings in Champagne, making it not only the most common variety in the region, but the area of greatest density of its planting in all of France.
The historic epicenter of the Champagne region is Montagne de Reims where, despite international attention slowly shifting out and beyond this subregion, many of the large and renowned champagne houses have cellars and tasting rooms. Accordingly, it may come as no surprise that Pinot Noir – Champagne’s most regal grape – does exceptionally well and is almost the exclusive planting in this area.
Apart from Montagne de Reims, the Pinot Noir grape variety is also the predominant found in the more southerly department Aube, in the Côte des Bar. Both subregions have soils with a high chalk content and higher density influenced by the presence of clay (compactness) which Pinot Noir grows well in.
The Meaning of blanc de noirs
So now you may be wondering, how is it that the red grape Pinot Noir delivers a white champagne? And would it surprise you to know that Pinot Noir was the exclusive grape used in champagne production until Chardonnay was planted in the 1800s?
The specific term which denotes this style of champagne: blanc de noirs. It translates literally to “white from blacks,” relaying that a white (colorless) champagne has been made from black grapes. This is achieved by handling the grapes very gently in the cellar so that the color compounds concentrated in the skins have little interaction with the grape juice. A gentle pressing is carried out to minimize skin breakage and to avoid mashing, and then the grape skins are swiftly separated from the juice. This pristine juice is referred to as free run or first press and is what is used in any blanc de noirs of notable character.
(An important side note: a champagne called blanc de noirs is almost always made with Pinot Noir, but it’s important to keep in mind that Pinot Meunier – one of the other major Champagne grapes – is also a black-skinned grape that may be used in the same way and labeled as such.)
There are a few qualities of Pinot Noir that make it a grape naturally well-suited to this treatment. For one, it is thin-skinned meaning that color saturation of the juice is more easily avoided. (On the flip side, winemakers working with Pinot Noir to produce red wine have to intentionally employ techniques to extract the most color from the grape.) For two, Pinot Noir is a low tannin grape, so there is a much lower risk of imparting a harsh texture to the wine than there would be with other red grapes. Nonetheless, it’s always possible and delicate handling is always necessary.
What Does blanc de noirs Champagne Taste Like?
Though handled gently and with great care, a blanc de noirs will nevertheless contain a higher phenolic content than its blanc de blancs or blended counterparts. This makes them characteristically more structured, albeit also touted for their elegance.
Blanc de noirs tend to show red fruit notes which may be tart if from a cooler area, or fleshier if from a warmer area. Floral elements and distinct minerality are also prominent in this style. Often there is a touch of smokiness to the wine. Blanc de noirs typically possess a linear and vibrant acidity, and may be called “fresh” due to their tendency of being made reductively (without oxygen).
Blanc de noirs from Montagne de Reims
In Montagne de Reims, seek out blanc de noirs champagnes from the villages of Bouzy, Ambonnay and Aÿ. Despite this region being a powerhouse for Pinot Noir cultivation, many of its illustrious champagnes are, in fact, blends concocted from grapes sourced within and without its borders. It is common that a blend will feature Pinot Noir in higher proportion to the other varieties, but many well-known cuvées from Montagne de Reims are not true blanc de noirs. There is a strong movement towards champagnes of singularity (ie. single vineyard or single grape), and with this we’ll likely continue to see many of the prestigious houses more regularly releasing 100% Pinot Noir champagnes.
Blanc de noir from Aube
Until recently, the Aube was considered second class: a “Champagne deuxième zone.” But current drinking trends favoring small producers and low-input champagnes has made the Aube a sweet spot for sourcing such wines – at more affordable prices, too. And with the spotlight having always been tilted toward the chic albeit industrialized Montagne de Reims for Pinot Noir-forward champagnes, Aube-area producers remained steadfast in the traditional low-intervention viti- and viniculture techniques that have marked the consumer zeitgeist. Because the Aube champagne style has been afforded a sense of independence and creative license, it can be a bit hard to pin down defining characteristics. Generally speaking, expect a slightly rounder and riper fruit quality from this sunnier region’s blanc de noirs.