As a grape, Pinot Noir is among the most difficult to grow well. It’s highly acidic, and needs a long time to mature both its acid and sugar content in order to reach full phenolic complexity and deliver the wines we know and love. This variety is also extremely sensitive to its environment, especially the soil, and thrives in cooler climates.
As a wine, this sensitivity to the soil, climate, and other growing conditions is also Pinot Noir’s greatest strength. It very keenly expresses the terroir in which it grows, translating to extremely distinct wines with singular tasting profiles.
The most iconic Pinot Noirs from the Old World – Specifically, Burgundy – or the New World – Such as California’s Sonoma AVAs or Oregon’s Willamette Valley – are otherworldly for their singular ability to express terroir , complex fruit, earth tones, and elegant complexity.
What makes these regions both new and old standouts for bespoke Pinot Noir?
With a focus on Burgundy in the Old World and California’s Sonoma AVAs, among others in the New World, we will showcase the uniqueness of each, and why you may choose one over the other for different occasions.
Old World Pinot Noir: Pinot Noir from France
Photo Credit: Jonathan Caves, July 2007
Though several Old World countries produce Pinot Noir, France is the most prolific for this varietal.
France’s regions of Champagne and Burgundy are two of the most northbound appellations, resulting in cooler climates perfectly suited for Pinot.
Champagne focuses on a more crisp style of Pinot Noir, well-suited for its famous sparkling wine, and often makes a white wine from the grape that is incorporated into the master blend of a house’s Champagne. The region produces still Pinot Noir as well, but it is scarce and only comes from the best houses in vintages with higher yields, or is produced purposefully, meaning the grapes were never intended for Champagne production.
Burgundy, on the other hand, cultivates Pinot Noir of rarity because a balance is achieved between pointed acidity and phenolic ripeness, full of delicate red fruit and rare, tertiary forest notes.
France: Pinot Noir from Burgundy
Photo Credit: © Guilhem Alandry/In Pictures/Corbis
Burgundy is known for its ever-changing climatic conditions (global climate change aside). Because of this, vintages can vary in quality. Some years are just average due to rains or other issues – the best years are truly special and have the potential to age gracefully in proper conditions for years to come.
Aside from vintage variation, which even under perfect conditions is expected each year, Burgundy is also known for its historic and complex system of quality classification. Here, the classes are based on individual vineyards – even individual parts of vineyards – at the highest levels (Premier and Grand Cru).
Pinot Noir here is the benchmark example of “terroir” – in short, a wine’s distinct expression of the place it is from; a wine that translates the lay of the land so well that it transports you to the vines or cellar from which it hails. A singular expression that could only be from one place.
Wine enthusiasts flock to Burgundy for its scarcity, age-worthiness, and expression. For this reason, the best wines from this region – classified “Grand Cru” – can be astronomical in price and difficult to access, akin to buying a one-of-a-kind painting. If you’re looking to collect or procure a bottle for a very special occasion, then look no further.
But fret not, there are also so many excellent wines for the price among the Premier Cru, Village, and even regional bottles. So if you are leaning toward Old World Pinot, you’ve come to the right place to explore the many producers Burgundy has to offer.
The Burgundy Classification System
Although the lowest amount of regulations for the production of wines from Burgundy, this designation of “Red Burgundy” or “Bourgogne” red wine is a treasure trove of value.
This classification makes up about half of all wines produced in the region, and can be the best place to look for a hidden gem from some of the best producers.
At this level, and with Burgundian wine in general, wines made from an individual estate (or “Domaine”) are of better quality since they craft smaller batches with greater care, quality sourcing, and with their own fruit. Wine from larger houses, which buy fruit from growers en masse or work with negociants, are often of lesser quality.
Some Great Bourgogne Red Wines:
The next quality level is the “Village” level, where wines are distinguished by individual villages.
Many wonderful value wines are among the Village designation, though quality can vary widely, especially with each new vintage. You can usually tell this class of wine by their names hyphenated and appended with “-villages.”
A Great Bourgogne-Village Red Wine:
Premier Cru ($$$)
A “cru” simply means “growth,” underlining that specific vineyard quality is the determining factor at this level.
Premier Cru (“first growth”) wines are from excellent quality vineyards determined in Burgundy’s 1861 Classification that showcases singular fruit quality year after year, and will typically have the village name followed by the vineyard name on the label.
A Select Premier Cru Example:
Grand Cru ($$$$+)
The Grand Cru (“great growth”) class is made up of the very best vineyards in Burgundy as ranked in the 1881 Classification system.
These rare wines make up only 2% of all Burgundian wine. They are found mostly in the Cote d”Or region (with 32 of the 33 Grand Cru vineyards), situated at an optimal distance and aspect to the river, at the most northern end of the long limestone ridge that is the Burgundian region.
A Grand Cru wine will have the renowned vineyard name along with “Grand Cru” on the label.
Of the Excellent Grand Cru Vineyards in Burgundy:
Other Old World Regions for Pinot Noir
France: Pinot Noir from Champagne
Photo Credit: Through Eternity Tours
Pinot Noir is the leading grape grown in this very cool region alongside Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier, and is the mainstay of the region’s great sparkling wines. In sparkling wine production, all grapes tend to be harvested earlier to retain acidity and keep sugar content low, resulting in lower alcohol and Champagne’s crisp mouthfeel.
Pinot Noir’s expression in this climate provides body, structure, and unique complexity and fruit characteristics to the base wines used to make Champagne.
The varietal is also crafted as a single-varietal, still, red wine by some houses. This happens either when a vintage is particularly abundant, or intentionally, by a select few. The best standalone Pinot Noirs from the region are both stunningly elegant and complex.
Germany: Ahr Valley Pinot Noir (Spätburgunder)
Photo Credit: WineTourism.com
The Ahr Valley, situated in the northern part of the German wine region, is another secret corner of the wine world creating a name for its red wines, primarily Pinot Noir.
The steep, terraced vineyards along the Ahr River benefit from the river's heat-retaining properties, creating a microclimate that allows Pinot, here known as Spätburgunder, to ripen slowly. This results in wines that often showcase a delicate balance of vibrant acidity, bright red fruit flavors, and a pronounced mineral character, generally with a lighter body and color than other European Pinot Noirs.
The Ahr is lesser-known than other renowned Old World Pinot regions, such as Burgundy, but benefits from similar conditions of some of the best – a cool climate and gentle warming effect of the soil that lend to a beautiful expression of the grape. As a result, the region is steadily becoming a quality producing area closely watched by enthusiasts.
New World: Pinot Noir from California and the Pacific Northwest
Photo Credit: Hanzell Vineyards
Some of the best New World Pinot Noir comes from California’s Sonoma wine region, as well as Oregon’s Willamette Valley, in the cool Pacific Northwest region of the country.
Sonoma’s acreage under vine is vast , encompassing various smaller AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) with hundreds of unique wineries and varieties planted.
Pinot Noir in the New World, especially in prime regions like Sonoma, can be just as expressive as some of its counterparts overseas. The climates here are a bit more stable and warmer overall, yet still remain cool enough to ripen Pinot Noir fully from the exceptional cooling effects of a wide diurnal shift. This preserves Pinot Noir’s acidity, while bringing out more ripe fruit and localized earth characteristics in the wine.
Sonoma is home to numerous soil types, terrains, and elevations, from rolling hillsides to coastal cliffs, even within the same viticultural areas. This gives winemakers varying expressions of the same varietal to craft extraordinary wines.
The best examples express a more fruit-forward, fuller-bodied Pinot with great acidic balance, and ripe red and black fruit notes, as well as ethereal, terroir-driven aspects unique to each specific AVA, from the Russian River Valley to the coastal AVAs.
Here are some of our favorites in Sonoma:
United States: California’s Sonoma Wine Country
Russian River Valley AVA
Photo Credit: Kosta Browne Wine
The Russian River Valley AVA, in the heart of Sonoma County, is renowned for producing exceptional cool-climate wines, including elegant Pinot Noir. This picturesque AVA is characterized by its fog-kissed vineyards and diverse terroir among rolling hills.
Sonoma Coast AVA
Photo Credit: Hirsch Vineyards
This AVA spans approximately 750 square miles and is one of the largest in California. It is influenced by the cool Pacific Ocean breezes and fog, is home to vineyards that thrive in the unique maritime climate, resulting in exceptional expressions of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
Fort Ross-Seaview AVA
Photo Credit: Red Car Wine Co.
The Fort Ross-Seaview AVA, situated along the rugged Sonoma Coast, is a lesser-known subregion characterized by its dramatic landscapes and maritime influence. The AVA has many high-elevation vineyards, producing exceptional cool-climate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, reflecting a unique terroir shaped by close proximity to the Pacific Ocean.
Other New World Pinot Noir Regions
Oregon: Willamette Valley Pinot Noir
The Willamette Valley stretches from Portland in the North to Eugene in the South along the Willamette river, and is home to similar climatic and topographical characteristics as Burgundy.
Pinot Noir grows well here, and there are many high quality, small quantity producers that make up the vanguard of the region – so much so that the area is seeing growing interest and investment by Burgundian and Napa winemakers alike, among many that are seeking the ever-rarer cool climate expression of Pinot Noir (as temperatures rise yearly in Napa, Sonoma, and Burgundy).
Many wineries are dedicated to organic and sustainable vineyard farming practices as well, focused on protecting both the land and the art of winemaking for years to come.
California: Mendocino County – Anderson Valley Pinot Noir
Photo Credit: Kosta Browne Wine
Nestled in the rolling hills of Mendocino County, California, the Anderson Valley AVA is an underrated, cool-climate haven known for its exceptional Pinot Noir and other varietals.The wines here are of exceptional value and quality when in the hands of the right winemaker
Influenced by the Pacific Ocean, this wine region is more and more being celebrated for producing Pinot with vibrant acidity, nuanced flavors, and a distinct sense of place, making it an interesting destination for wine enthusiasts seeking unique expressions of the grape.
Chile: Casablanca Valley Pinot Noir
Photo Credit: Casas del Bosque Vineyard
Chile’s Casablanca Valley boasts a cool, maritime climate, influenced by the nearby Pacific Ocean, creating favorable conditions for the production of white wine grapes and cool-climate red varieties like Pinot Noir.
Diverse soils, including alluvial deposits, clay-loam, and decomposed granite, contribute to the complexity of wines from the region.
New Zealand: Central Otago Pinot Noir
Photo Credit: Cloudy Bay Winery
This area in New Zealand is famous as the southernmost wine region in the world, and is mostly known for its Sauvignon Blanc. However, as consumer tastes change, the region is becoming known for exceptional Pinot Noir as well, which often carries a unique herbal note, like thyme, along with a silky mouthfeel that could rival the best of New or Old World Pinots.
Try the Best Pinot Noir from Around the World
Photo Credit: Steve Proehl/Getty Images
Whether you want to try New or Old World Pinot Noir (or both!) our selection at Single Thread Wines is curated with unique and optimally priced premium wines from the best regions and classifications from around the world.
We have Old and New World Cabernet Sauvignon, a wide selection of popular and off-the-beaten path wines, saké, and many more best-in-class wines from prime regions – all shipped directly to you.
And as for Pinot Noir, be sure to take a look at a few of our uncommon offerings - expressions of this noble grape from three distinct, underrated regions: