A Primer on Pinot Noir in the Vineyard

In the wine industry Pinot Noir is called the “heartbreak” grape, and for good reason. From grape to glass Pinot Noir’s complexity, delicate skin, and finicky demeanor make it seem near untamable at times.  But, when the challenge is met and it is done right, it produces one of the best wines in the world.

Before we even get to the vineyard, one of the first challenges in dealing with Pinot Noir is one of vocabulary. After a while you just start saying “Pinot” around the vineyard and winery. But once outside the confines of our estate, “Pinot” can be confusing. There is Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris (Grigio), and the lesser known (but delicious) Pinot Blanc. So, what’s the difference? They are actually the same grape. I know, crazy! Most wine grapes are the same species, Vitis Vinerfera. And the differences between a Chardonnay grape and a Merlot grape are genetically the same as the differences between someone with brown hair/brown eyes and someone with blonde hair/blue eyes (allele variation for you biology fans). All Pinots have the same genetic makeup and the difference between Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Blanc is just a mutation. Over centuries that mutation has been harnessed and now you can be sure your Pinot Noir vines will grow Pinot Noir. However, in a row of Pinot Noir vines it is not uncommon for one grape, one cluster, or even one vine to mutate and grow as Pinot Gris or Pinot Blanc.

Bayernmoor Grapes During Harvest
Bayernmoor grapes during harvest.

Pinot translates to “pine” and is named after the resemblance the grape cluster has to a pine cone. On the vine it is very thin skinned and more sensitive than other varietals to disease, frost, moisture, temperature, and soil types. Basically, if you look at it wrong it will die on the vine. Keeping it happy and thriving requires the grower to keep it well pruned (while leaving enough canopy to protect from too much sun), keep the soil healthy (while preventing too much water from getting to the vines), and making sure the tight clusters have enough airflow to prevent rot. There are a few ways to accomplish these tasks and keep the grapes healthy. Some are more, let’s say, indiscriminate than others. At Bayernmoor we approach the vineyard with a view towards sustainability. As a rule, we practice organic viticulture and tend the vines so 30 years from now they will still be thriving. A little hard work is always better than something that may damage the land.

It takes immense dedication and a small amount of insanity to grow Pinot Noir. And, in the case of Bayernmoor, a dash of rebellion. Because it is so sensitive, Pinot Noir historically grows in only a few places worldwide. Most famously the Burgundy region in France. Other regions include California, the Willamette valley in Oregon, and on the south island of New Zealand. For those non-Pacific Northwest readers, no, just because something grows in Oregon doesn’t mean it will grow in Washington. As a general rule, wine grapes grow west of the Cascade mountain range in Oregon and east of the Cascades in Washington. Which brings us back to our dash of rebellion. Pinot Noir loves a cooler climate, but it also hates frost. While the west side of Washington state is famous for its rain, it also has perfect summers. Guess what? That is when grapes grow. The site where our estate vineyard is located rarely gets above 90 degrees in summer and rarely gets too cold in the winter to freeze. That, combined with our rich soil and the gradual slope of our south facing vineyard make this an ideal place to grow Pinot Noir.

Keep your eyes peeled for the next blog entry where we talk about how to tame this grape in the winery…

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