Pinot Noir in the U.S.

Interest in Pinot Noir in California is still at record levels, and as demand for the grape continues to climb, producers are doing everything they can to keep up, without compromising the quality of the finished wine.

Known as being one of the toughest and most demanding grapes in the world to grow, Pinot Noir in the U.S. can range from light and earthy (as is widely seen in Oregon), to much more robust, rich and forward (as found in warmer parts of California). Pinot Noir buds early and is partial to well-drained, chalky, clay and sandy soils. It’s this soil, combined with the many other aspects that make up the "terroir" of a vineyard, which gives a wine its unique characteristics.

The word "Pinot" is reputedly derived from the French word for "pine cone," due to the cone-shaped clusters the berries take on the vine, with "Noir" obviously referring to the dark black hue of the grape.

Even though California wineries have been working with Pinot for years, it was once believed that the climate was too warm for this delicate thin-skinned grape. (NB: Maybe because winemakers were trying their hardest to emulate the Burgundy region of France.) Now, however; California wineries have finally started finding their groove and some distinct regional differences are emerging between Pinots produced in each separate appellation.

Based on 2010 figures from the Wine Institute (www.wineinstitute.org), Sonoma is still leading the way, with 2011 figures reporting 11,013 tons of Pinot Noir grapes crushed. Monterey ranks 2nd with 8,569 tons, Santa Barbara 3rd with 4,258 and Napa 4th with 2,871.

It is near impossible to discuss Californian Pinot Noir without mentioning "that movie." The release of Sideways in 2004 is often attributed with the continued demand for Pinot Noir in the U.S., although acreage of the grape had actually been on a steady increase even before the movie came out. Either way, the film was certainly a catalyst for sales of the wine, and now that a follow-up book has been written, Merlot winemakers are probably already trembling in their boots!

The true turning-point for Pinot in the U.S. began in the 1980’s, with the development of proper clonal selection. In layman’s terms, cloning grapes refers to the vegetative offspring of a single plant bud. The reason a particular clonal selection is used is most-often based on paying particular attention to the yield of a vine and the ripeness of the grapes it produces. Pinot is known to produce hundreds of different clones; however the Dijon clone (named after the town in the Burgundy region of France from which it was sourced) is thought to have completely revolutionized the growth of Pinot Noir in California.

There is no-doubt that Pinot Noir has a future in the United States, however; the marketplace is dominated by simple California-appellation juice, which often sees the addition of other grapes and additives in order to "bulk-up" the juice. If the American public is to really experience what California wineries are capable of achieving, they must be willing to shell-out a few more dollars and look to what is happening at some of the smaller producers.

Published: Oct. 30, 2012

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