Cheers to seductive and challenging Pinot Noir

Four bottles of wine

Times’ Drinks Editor James Viner picks four cracking bottles of this very old, beguiling red burgundy grape to celebrate International Pinot Noir day Day this August 18th…

Much like the wine-obsessed protaganist Miles Raymond in the movie Sideways (2004), I’ve always been a fan of Pinot Noir – the famously finicky, early budding, thin-skinned, low tannin, high acid, mildew- and virus-prone black grape, which is an everlasting source of enthralment for many red wine aficionados.

Hard to cultivate and oftentimes overcropped, it produces a notoriously wildly changeable, comparatively delicate, and occasionally haunting liquid quintessence of place. The seductive, but fussy and challenging ‘heartbreak’ grape – the ultimate test and Holy Grail of winemaking – is moving north and in warm, sunny years it can ripen fully in formerly marginal vineyards to produce classy still reds. Indeed, a study just published in the viticulture science journal OENO One compellingly claims that much of southern England could become the perfect place for making more quality still red wines from Pinot Noir.

At present Pinot Noir is (narrowly behind Chardonnay) the most planted grape variety in England and Wales. Like 2018’s miracle vintage, could this year be a standout one for the increasingly storied still Pinot Noirs of Kent and Sussex? Much will depend on the whims of Mother Nature. Seek out examples in the next year or two from star local producers Balfour Hush Heath Estate and Gusbourne. Additionally, it’s a versatile, catch-all food pairing wine, complementing, for example, both meaty fish (such as seared salmon or tuna), game birds and duck.

You don’t need to break the bank to find a decent bottle but you must be wary, since it’s an extremely unforgiving and oft-infuriating grape to grow, even in the world’s greatest terroirs. The name, by the way, is generally believed to derive from pin, denoting pine, since the small clusters look like pine cones. Here are four charming chillable sub-£20 summery Pinot Noirs (PN) – including a velvet-smooth sub £20 red Burgundy – worth celebrating today and beyond…

1) A striking terroir-focused, high-altitude PN from cool northwestern Greece – yes, a PN from Greece!

Alpha Estate Pinot Noir 2018, Amynteo, Greece (Aldi, £14.99)

Bored with the same old summer red wines? Then nab this fine bottle – so heavy it could serve as a dumbbell – from a northwestern Greek wine estate with vineyards located at around 690 metres on a plateau facing Lake Petron and the Voras Mountains. Alpha Estate is in windy Amynteo (Amyndeon), Greece’s highest, chilliest, and smallest appellation (and the only Protected Destination of Origin where rosé is important). A beaut of a richly-textured, off-piste, single-vineyard PN with a riffle of wild cherries and a jolt of spice, black plums and cocoa, the oak slick, but integrated. Tangy, spritely acidity and fine tannins add to the pleasure of drinking. A whizz with feathered game and roast pork. Unfiltered and unfined. Alc 13.5%


2) High-street New Zealand choice

Te Pā Signature Series Marlborough Pinot Noir 2020, New Zealand (Tesco, £16)

New Zealand shines at fine still PN. Marlborough is famous for its piercing Sauvignon Blanc but it also makes characterful, high-toned, tangy Pinot Noirs. This one from a family-owned domaine has lots going on: notes of redcurrants, plums, warm baked red cherries and raspberries, even suggestions of chocolate, coffee and spice. The oak is largely invisible, serving only to frame the fruit and shepherd it through the long, unwavering finish. Feels quite graceful as the ripple, plush tannins and fine, refreshing acidity work towards a protracted finish. Give it a swish and watch it unfurl. One for early-season grouse now the ‘Glorious Twelfth’ has passed. A delight! Alc 13.5%


Did you know?

There is more PN grown in Champagne than in its reputed birthplace in greater Burgundy


3) A charming, silky ‘bargain-basement’ red Burgundy

2020 Berry Bros. & Rudd Bourgogne Côte d’Or Pinot Noir by Benjamin Leroux, Burgundy,    France (, £18.95)

Burgundy is the spiritual home of the enormously pernickety Pinot Noir grape. Made with Burgundian savoir-faire and sourced from the best parcels in Chorey-lès-Beaune, this subtly sensual, silky red ‘bargaindy’ leaps out of the glass and has generosity, a velvety mouthfeel, finesse and a refined, complex bouquet of hibiscus, damson, cranberry, wild strawberry and autumnal leaves, sending the nasal receptors darting in all directions. Ripe fruit, tons of atmosphere and fine, willowy tannins. Excellent bang for your buck here and a great introduction to red burgundy from a high-calibre (micro) Beaune-based négociant run by terroir-bewitched Benjamin Leroux, ex regisseur/GM of all-star Pommard estate Domaine Comte Armand. Lovely drinking and very approachable now. Chill slightly and go. Perhaps with Magret de Canard with peas cooked in lettuce with pancetta or roast chicken/pork. Alc 13.5%


4) German gem from a vineyard located in southern Pfalz, on the Alsace border, in western Germany

Schweigener Spätburgunder, Weingut Friedrich Becker 2018, Pfalz, Germany (The Wine Society, £26)

Germany is the world’s third-largest Pinot Noir producer and increasingly a top source of this seductive but risky black grape which is here known as Spätburgunder – late (spät) ripening pinot (burgunder). This delectable example has the X-factor and comes from the country’s second-largest region, the Pfalz, home to the planet’s largest wine festival in Bad Dürkheim, which – unusually for Germany – is not centred along a river valley.

From an estate run by the seventh generation of winegrowers with vineyards planted on both German and French soil, it’s a Spätburgunder of true sophistication, perfumed and judiciously oaked with notes of red fruits, damp earth/rotting leaves (dubbed ‘sous bois,’ or forest floor, by the French), tobacco leaf, pepper, beetroot, herbs, and fine, sinewy, mineral tannins. The length, finish and aftertaste sing in picture-perfect harmony. Spicy kick to close. Leaves a great stamp on the palate. The impulse to have another glass will be omnipresent. Complex and dazzlingly delicious drinking. Ideal with grilled fish and smoked meats. What a treat! One for a special occasion. Alc 13.5%


Follow James on Twitter @QuixoticWine

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