An ode to the ‘heartbreak grape’

Ah, pinot noir! Thou art so fickle. Aficionados of wine made from this iconic grape are well aware of its elusive and unpredictable nature. Why, you might ask? First and foremost, no two pinots are alike. So inconsistent in quality, it can be a real crapshoot as far as what you get in a bottle. In addition, the finished wine is very expensive. More often than not, you pay quite substantial prices for a wine made from pinot (especially in Burgundy) and experience mediocrity at best.

It doesn’t get any easier from a production aspect either. It’s difficult to grow, depletes lots of nutrients from the soil, clonal selection is imperative, young vines don’t make great wine, it’s very susceptible to disease, frost and rot because it’s thin-skinned, it doesn’t like it too hot and is overall delicate and very finicky. This makes it expensive to produce and buy if you don’t grow your own. Not surprising, it’s known as the “heartbreak” grape.

Of all the noble grape varieties, it is probably one of the most affected by “terroir,” that all-encompassing term that includes climate, lay of the land, soil composition, sunlight, heat units, wind, proximity to water – that sense of place that gives a wine its unique character!

Generally speaking, pinot creates light- to medium-coloured red wine with garnet overtones. It smells of stewed red fruit, spice, sometimes pepper, earth, boiled beetroot and rhubarb, and possesses soft to medium tannins and light to medium body. It generally ages quite well. However, its flavour does not appeal to everyone.

The most noted place in the world that grows pinot noir is Burgundy, France. This ancestral home seems to be the most consistent origin. That said, there is a vast array of styles produced here and more so than any other region on earth, prices here are astronomical. There are occasional good ones from other European locales such as northern Italy, Germany and elsewhere.

There are various other places in the New World that do a decent job with Pinot sporadically.

Let’s talk North America for starters. Here in Ontario, Prince Edward County and the Niagara Peninsula do an admirable job. British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley seems to excel with pinot. In the US, Oregon’s Willamette Valley, California’s Sonoma Valley (specifically the Russian River Valley and Carneros) and a few other locales have a good handle on the heartbreak grape.

In South America, cooler growing regions of Chile (Casablanca Valley) and Argentina (Rio Negro Valley) produce some pretty decent examples. Australia’s cooler regions like the Mornington Peninsula and Tasmania don’t do a bad job and New Zealand’s Central Otego region produces some wonderful selections. Even South Africa’s Walker Bay area benefits from the cool breezes off the Atlantic Ocean and creates some fine examples.

The big question, then, in many consumers’ minds, is this: If the grape is so inconsistent, hard to grow and expensive, why do people long for it?

Plain and simple, once you taste a great pinot, you’re hooked. You can then spend lots of time (and money) searching for another that lives up to that benchmark, being disappointed much of the time. Then just as you’re ready to give up on it, Bacchus himself taps you on the shoulder and presents you with another stunner. Boom, you’re right back into it and hooked again. That, my friends, is the magic – or rather the black magic – of pinot noir.


Edward Finstein is a wine writer, award-winning author, TV and radio host, educator, judge

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