Why Single Varietal Wines?
Blending is the belief in Bordeaux, like many European regions, but purity is the precept in Bourgogne. Chablis is Chardonnay. Pommard is Pinot Noir. Single varietal wines provide perspective on the grape and its terroir as well as allowing for worldwide comparison, something that’s less possible with multi-varietal blends. What better way to get to know a grape and its expressions of place than drinking a single-varietal wine, as Bourgogne teaches?
Here we introduce single-varietal wines made in three distinct world regions, starting with Pinot Noir (stay tuned for other varieties). Buy one wine from each featured region and compare! The point is not to suggest wine from specific producers, but to highlight appellations making different expressions of the same grape with technical finesse. We start with Bourgogne, Pinot Noir’s home, move onto New Zealand, and finish in Sonoma County, California.
Among the best-known wine grapes, Pinot Noir success stories come from extremely careful site selection due notorious difficulty in vine cultivation alongside its superb capacity to express a sense of place. Pinot is extremely sensitive to climate, humidity and yield, prone to fungal diseases, but, on the positive side, “is a very transparent grape,” says Master of Wine Jancis Robinson. “It really can communicate the difference in terroir, or grape-growing environment, between adjacent plots of vineyard.” And this is more applicable appellations as different as Bourgogne, Sonoma, and New Zealand.
While it excels in the same climate as Chardonnay, Pinot Noir is much more limited in its adaptability to weather extremes and, in winemaking, to alterations of its essential character. It’s a wine where the grape, the soil, and the climate, rather than the winemaker, should do the talking. Some oak ageing can be beneficial; too much overpowers Pinot’s delicate character.
Pinot Noir wines, at their best, exude aromas of hibiscus, red cherry, and raspberry, extending to mushrooms, violets, and duff, with vanilla in some New World versions. These are dry wines of medium body, low to medium tannins, and medium to high acidity. The best examples charm you with mouth-filling flavors, perky acidity, and tannins that soothe the palate rather than inflaming it. Common, but still excellent Pinot Noirs should be drunk within two to three years, peaking at around four. French Premier Crus drink well with six to eight years of age, though some can last much longer. These wines will benefit from a bit of bottle ageing, but not too much.
Bourgogne, or Burgundy, is the cradle of Pinot Noir and the reference for other worldwide regions. It’s an ancient wine growing region, where longstanding viticultural traditions and clonal variations have produced a mosaic of wines. It is home to 84 appellations as well as climats and lieu-dits, and vinous expression can vary from plot to plot, vineyard to vineyard, as well as appellation to appellation, highlighting the importance of terroir to the ultimate character of Pinot Noir-based wines.
That said, we can generalize Bourgogne red wines are distinguishable by the delicacy and elegance of their aromas, focusing on the subtlety rather than powerfulness, with balance, freshness, and round body on the palate. Many winemakers here choose fermentation using whole grape clusters to increase tannin levels since without such a technique overall lightness could detract from expression in the mouth. In younger Pinot wines from Bourgogne you will note fresh fruit aromas of raspberry, cherry, black currant, red currant and even wild, plump blackberry. There can also be hints of cut grass and green tobacco. As these wines age floral aromas of rose, violet, and peony may emerge. Spicy notes on the nose and the palate come from barrel ageing like cinnamon, gingerbread, and bay, even licorice. Aged Premier and Grand Cru Pinot Noirs will reveal mushroom, wet forest, game, and musk aromas.
At the other extreme from Bourgogne in terms of history are New Zealand Pinot Noirs. Although this country has become famous for its distinctive white wines from Sauvignon Blanc, excellent Pinot Noir wines have been made since 1987, often using similar winemaking techniques to express freshness and purity. You increasingly find these wines on store shelves and wine lists worldwide. Pinot Noir is predominantly grown in the appropriate cooler regions in the south of the country. Wairarapa, Marlborough, Nelson, North Canterbury, and Central Otago are appellations to look for.
These Pinot Noirs will have more driven, fresh fruit intensity that Bourgogne wines and perhaps more acidity. They are fermented in stainless steel and often made without much oak ageing, to really express the fruit flavors and aromas. This may come to the detriment of earthiness and minerality in the wines, though they generally have intense color. There is a typical red fruit spectrum aromatically and bright raspberry, cherry and red plums on the palate. “Wines typically have freshness from subtle acidity that is complemented by their linear structure and even tannin backbone,” says New Zealand Wine. “The Southern Valleys tend to produce fuller-bodied wines.” Aromas can range to dark plum, chocolate, and dried thyme in wines from warmer regions.
Sonoma County is relatively big and boasts variety in wine appellations, and this includes prominently Pinot Noir in areas with a direct maritime influence from the Pacific Ocean and San Pablo Bay. There are over 13,000 acres of pinot noir planted in Sonoma, or about 20% of the region’s vineyards. Burgundian grapes like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir thrive in Sonoma’s cooler climates, where wind and fog, combined with well-drained soils, create an optimal environment for producing highly nuanced wines. Of the 18 American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) in Sonoma County, three are historically renowned for Pinot: Los Carneros, the Russian River Valley, and the Sonoma Coast. California’s brand new AVA, the West Sonoma Coast, must now also be included in this list.
Expect Sonoma Pinot Noir to be more intense and meatier, often with a darker color than either New Zealand or Bourgogne examples. Vanilla aromas from oak contact may come to the fore. These Pinots tend to showcase their flavor and aromas more distinctly, including darker berry, plum, and baking spices, sometime extending to cola aromas. Cooler regions will have more noticeable acidity and minerality as well, which may be more prominent than in the other two regions discussed here. Overall, these are lusher wines with potentially higher alcohol levels—truly worth contrasting with New Zealand and France!
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Author, chef, and historian Charlie Leary started his first restaurant wine program in New Orleans in 1996. He went on to create different wine experiences for diners in Costa Rica, southern France, and Nova Scotia, Canada, where his efforts won Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence for multiple consecutive years. He also planned, planted, and managed an IGP vineyard in Andalusia, Spain. Charlie developed a wine and food column for the Halifax Chronicle-Herald newspaper in 2017, and Random House published his cookbook on Creole cuisine in 2004. He regularly writes for publications such as Sommelier Business and Sommelier Choice Awards, and his feature articles on wine history have appeared in Bordeaux wine expert Jane Anson’s Inside Bordeaux. Charlie earned a Ph.D. in history from Cornell University in 1993, taught briefly for Tulane University, and has received various wine certifications from the Wine Scholar Guild, Napa Valley Wine Academy, and the Society of Wine Educators, among others. He holds the California Wine Certification Level 3 (advanced) from the California Wine Institute.