Aspen Times Weekly: The global grape

by Kelly J. Hayes

Ten Great Pinot Noir Regions

Burgundy, France

Ahr, Germany

Central Otago, New Zealand

Mornington Peninsula, Victoria, Australia

The Willamette Valley, Oregon

Sonoma Coast, California

Russian River Valley, California

Anderson Valley, California

Santa Rita Hills, California

Rio Negro, Argentina

Collectors may covet cabs. Millionaires perhaps favor merlot. But lovers are most passionate about pinot noir.

No other grape is as versatile, as difficult, as transitory and as loved as pinot noir. While it is just the 10th most planted grape in the world, trailing varietals like chardonnay, syrah and yes, even tempranillo, pinot noir is the go-to wine for almost any occasion and with almost any cuisine.

Long deemed to be fussy, pinot noir is, nonetheless, grown around the world in some of the most unlikely places one might expect. Originally prized by Cistercian Monks in 1330, who cultivated the grape in the Burgundy region of France, it now thrives in places as diverse as California, Oregon, Argentina, Italy, South Africa and Australia.

From Central Otago, on the southernmost portion of New Zealand’s South Island, which lies 45 degrees below the equator, to Ahr in Germany, which, at 50 degrees north is the northernmost red wine growing region on the planet, over 300,000 acres of vineyards are planted to the grape globally. France and the United States lead the way in production, as you might expect, but countries like Austria, Moldavia and yes, even Great Britain, host pinot vines.

One could say that pinot noir is the global grape.

So what’s the attraction? Well, for starters, elegance and flavor. Pinot noir can be produced in a number of different styles and each can be, and should be, reflective of its place of origin. Great Burgundy, from the source, is a revelation, and the wines of the region, particularly from the 24 Grand Cru regions of the Côte de Nuits, command some of the highest prices of any wines in the world. A trip to Burgundy to see the patchwork, postage stamp-sized vineyards, many of which are farmed by horse and hand, is like a trip to Mecca for those who are passionate about pinot.

Wines from Burgundy tend to be light in style, translucent and elegant. The taste from the best of these wines exudes the flavor of the terroir, that would be the aroma of the earth and flowers and mushrooms and soils and, well, everything, including the manure that is found in the fields where the grapes are grown. Once you taste it, you never forget it.

California is home to a number of different regions where pinot thrives, and there are also a number of different styles of the wine that are being produced. While traditionally the majority of California pinot noir producers have favored bigger, more intense expressions of the varietal, there is a growing movement of winemakers inclined to pick their grapes a little earlier and to keep the alcohol levels lower, producing wines that are more Burgundian in style.

The “In Pursuit of Balance” movement, started in 2011 by Jasmine Hirsch of Hirsch Vineyards and Raj Parr of Sandhi Wines, is dedicated to the concept that pinot noir and chardonnay should reflect the personalities of the variety rather than the personalities of the producers. There are 33 member wineries in the organization, and it has already had a profound effect on the wines being made in California.

New Zealand, particularly the South Island regions of Central Otago and Marlborough, have been known for the past few years as emerging pinot hot spots. But there is a new neighborhood called North Canterbury on the east coast of the island that is worth keeping an eye on. The Mt. Beautiful 2012 pinot is elegant with a hint of racy spices and a herbaceous quality that takes you to the land of the Kiwis.

And in the Rio Negro region of southern Argentina, the Incisa Della Rocchetta family, owners of Tenuta San Guido in Italy, have paired with Aspen’s Tony Mazza to produce the Bodega Chacra “Barda” pinot noir. These wines, sourced from old vines in a virtual desert, are both delicious and eye-opening, showcasing the adaptability of the grape.

I am off in a few days to the Willamette Valley of Oregon, which this year, celebrates the 50th anniversary of the first planting of pinot noir in the region. I am looking forward to seeing the vines and tasting the wines of the world’s most versatile grape. While one can drink pinot anywhere, it is particularly inspiring to do so in the place of its origin.

There is a wide world out there and, fortunately, it is filled with amazing pinot. Enjoy.

Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and black Lab named Vino. He can be reached at

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