There is so much beauty and fascination in a wine called Pinot Noir that it would take books to be able to write all of the details on this varietal. Pinot Noir is one of the wines that really reflects the terroir from where it comes. Regional influences such as soil and climatic conditions all weigh heavily with the creation of this spectacular wine not to mention the long list of clones that have been created through the magic of genetics. I have been attending Pinot Days of Southern California produced by Steve Rigisich over the past few years where I am fascinated by the diversity of this beautiful varietal.
Keeping in mind the fact that Pinots are so diverse have you ever wondered how or why there is so much difference in Pinot Noirs with regards to color, body, alcohol, flavor, etc? Even in California a person can find one that is a beautiful translucent red or it can be a deep dark purple in color. Tasting these wines from just California definitely show flavors of a soft elegant wine to big bold fruit forward style. What causes this difference? Some say that the vintner has added Syrah to enhance the Pinot Noir and achieve the darker color and bolder flavor. It is true that California only requires by law that 75% of a specific varietal is required to be labeled as a single varietal. However, this practice was also used in Burgundy pre World War I where Burgundy purchased the bulk of Chateauneuf-du-Pape for blending to increase the strength and alcohol of the Pinot Noir's known as vin de medecine according to Karen MacNeil in her book "The Wine Bible". One item to note however is that the Chateauneuf-du-Pape wines of this time were much lighter than those produced in France today. The practice of blending in Burgundy has since died off and there is no evidence to reflect the frequency that the practice was used.
So what about those luscious, dark California Pinot Noirs that so many of us love? Are they blended with a Rhone varietal such as Syrah or are there other factors that need to be considered? The topic that some Pinot Noirs are too big and ripe to be 100% pinot has created a lot of discussion and debate in wine circles. If you research Pinots with additions of other varietals (shown on the label), you will find that most are in the lower price range ($10). This addition is a way to produce Pinots which are difficult to grow and generally drive a much more expensive cost. Dr Vinny in Wine Spectator states, "You’re correct that it’s more of a rarity to see Pinot Noir blended in still wines. If anything, I’ve heard of a touch of Syrah or other heavier red wine grapes blended into Pinot Noir to give it more intensity. But Pinot Noir’s supple texture, sense of place and wonderful balance don’t generally lend themselves to blending, and neither do its relatively high cost and difficulty of cultivation."
This tends to question if producers (small and large) would ever want to utilize such a process with their estate grown Pinot Noirs. Though one cannot say that it has never been done as it is allowable in both France and California.
Looking deeper into the process of producing fine Pinot Noir, there are other factors that have a heavy influence on creating these big, bold and dark colored Pinots. One major effect is the length of time the grapes go through different phases of development. Once the grapes reach a stage called fruit set, the berries have little sugar and are high in organic acids. The next stage is termed Veraison and is the point where the grapes ripen. It is at this stage that the chlorophyll in the grape is replaced by anthocyanins (red grapes) and the sugar content increases and the acidity level is lowered. Typically this stage is 100 days but at many vineyards the time from Veraison to harvest can be 120 days or more. The added time in this stage allows for further anthocyanin development and phenols which definitely increase the darkness of the Pinot being made. To make it more complex, addition of enzymes such as Color Pro or Color X can be used which assists in the breakdown of the skin which can also lead to a much darker Pinot.
Another factor that influences the depth of color in a Pinot is in the fermentation process. Pinots that are fermented as whole clusters, where the stems are maintained, produce lighter wines than those fermented using only the berries.
Many of us that drink Pinot Noirs have seen the many profiles that it can offer, whether it is caused by vineyard, vineyard location, vintner processing, etc, etc, etc. The possibilities of style, color and flavor are endless in this most prestigious wine that evolved from Burgundy France. Adding Syrah, or Rhone varietals, would have a drastic impact on the beauty of these wines that the producers are showcasing.
For further proof of this wine's diversity, attending the Southern California Pinot Days is extremely beneficial. You will see Pinot Noirs ranging from brilliant translucent red to almost black in color along with a wide variety of flavors and profiles that will open your eyes to this beauty. It is definitely worth the price of admission. However, if you are unable to attend this event have one of your own to sample and explore the many variations this varietal has to offer in all of the terriors it hales from.