"Working the Land" (Viticulture)

Viticulture: Pinot Noir-At-A-Glance
Vigor (low/high)
Relatively easy to grow Moderately vigorous and managed by rootstock selection, crop thinning, spacing and clone matching, as well as, where legal, managed irrigation
Adaptability
High quality in shallow, well-drained and lower fertility terroirs; thrives in calcium-rich and limestone soils Can withstand cold to an extent
Yield (potential
Relatively low, depending on vigor and winemaker intent; green harvesting for concentration of flavor is a common practice
Growth cycle
Early budding (prone to spring frost) – early ripening
Diseases
In addition to leaf roll, it is prone to rot and other issues, as a thin-skinned, tightly clustered grape, including, for example, powdery mildew, coulure, millerandage, grey rot, botrytis

Growing and Making Pinot Noir (in California)

As with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir is challenging in terms of determining the proper balance between “hand” and “land.” And again, like Chardonnay, Pinot Noir is often referred to as a “winemaker’s wine,” with the winemaker playing the role of deliberate artist, using her/his “hand’ through the implementation of all the tools available, including pre-fermentation cold soaking, use of native yeasts, higher fermentation temperatures, oak choice, etc. Too much “hand” can result in wines that are over the top -- extracted, too dense and frequently oak bombs, or overly generous bottles that are more like Syrah or Grenache. But when deftly made, they are among the world’s most mind-numbingly complex dry red wines. Many of the best winemakers adhere to the philosophy of growing the best Pinot Noir grapes they can and then getting out of the way—taking a minimalist approach towards winemaking to achieve the most honest and pure wines.

Working the Land

Does soil influence the flavor of the final wine?

Traditionalists answer unequivocally “Yes!” Soil is a key element of “terroir” -- the natural environment in which the vines grow, along with climate (temperature, rainfall), topography (altitude, drainage, slope, aspect) and sunlight.

A more unorthodox view holds that the influence of soil on what you taste in the glass is a myth. Maynard Amerine and Ann Noble, two famous names at UC Davis, California’s premier wine school and research facility, conducted a study on the topic. Though the study is based on Chardonnay grapes, they concluded that the following holds true for all winegrapes: “no outstanding sensory differences were observed in wines produced from different soil type locations.” The key word is “sensory” (sight, smell, taste): They are not saying that the soil doesn’t affect vine behavior (yield, growth cycle, etc.). 

The subject is most certainly up for further debate. That said, here is a brief review of how Pinot Noir, according to the classic view, expresses itself in the glass based on the type of soil in which it is grown.

Limestone/calcareous soils: For Pinot Noir, limestone provides tension, minerality and freshness. Limestone increases acidity in grapes, and grapes like Pinot Noir, that rely on high acidity do particularly well when grown in limestone soils. Tufa is a very porous type of limestone and is why one finds Pinot in spots, such as the Loire Valley in France.

  • CA locations: Central Coast between the Santa Cruz Mountains to the north and Lompoc to the south, just north of Santa Cruz, the Gavilan Mountain Ranges, Mt. Harlan, Chalone.

Chalky soils: Varieties grown in chalky soils are valued for their acidity. Because chalk is alkaline, it increases acidity in grapes. With Pinot Noir, this is most noteworthy in France’s Champagne region.

  • CA locations: There are no specific regions to call out.

Loam soils: Shallow and minimally fertile clay loams are best for Pinot. Being a crumbly mix of sand, silt, and clay, when blended with other soils in the right amounts, loams offer an ideal soil type for grape growing. These soils contain a moderate amount of water and nutrients and generally fall within the preferred pH range. As with Chardonnay, clay elicits creaminess in Pinot Noir.

  • CA locations: Clay-based soils exist in many locations. 

For a deep dive into Pinot Noir viticulture, visit the Pinot Noir chapters of Winegrape Varieties in California by UC Davis’ Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Beyond being part of a sparkling wine cuvée, Pinot Noir is generally not blended with other grape varieties; complexity is achieved through blending Pinot Noirs from different vineyards, choosing smaller lots within vineyards, and using various clones.  It is said that there are thousands of selections of Pinot in the world, given the variety’s genetic instability and proclivity to mutate. There are more clones of Pinot Noir than of any other winegrape variety. Not surprisingly, most are from France. Though it is challenging to identify the number precisely, there are about 100 clones officially authorized by UC Davis. Noteworthy “born-in-California” clones include the “heirloom” Martini (aka FPS13 and FPS15), Mount Eden clone (FPS 37), Carneros Creek clones (FPS 66 and FPS90), and Hanzell clone (FPS 108). The revered Pommard clone (UC Davis 4 and heat-treated 5 and 6) is also the source as well of at least one of the Swan clones (UCD97). Specific to bubbly, Roederer clones (UCD 32,33,41) were introduced in 1984 after importation from Champagne. More recent arrivals from Burgundy in France include the sexily named 115, 165, 236, 375, 459, 667, 743, 777, and 943. Finally, higher-producing clones, including FPS selections 31 (French 236), 32 (French 386), and 33 (French 388) are commonly used for sparkling wine production since they are harvested at lower sugar maturity. And then there are suitcase (Samsonite) clones, brought in illegally and not quarantined/heat-treated for virus… but we will not talk about those publicly!  

For more on Dijon clones in Pinot Noir check out The Prince of Pinot’s “Romancing the Dijon Clones”. For more on California’s ‘heirloom clones” read Wine Enthusiast’s “A Wine Geek’s Guide to Pinot Noir Clones Around the World” and The Prince of Pinot’s “Understanding Pinot Noir Clonal Diversity.” 

The lion’s share of premium Pinot Noir is planted in cooler areas and as a rule is trellised in VSP (vertical shoot position) to maximize sun, minimize rot, and allow for canopy management (leaf plucking, etc.).

One of the most significant choices for the vintner is whether to make still or sparkling wine. Pinot Noir for sparkling wine is always picked at lower sugar levels and pressed quickly, but gently, while grapes for still wines are left on the vine longer to ripen and develop more mature flavors. 

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Sustainability and California

As an agricultural industry, the California wine community has a long history of adapting to change and demonstrating its commitment to sound environmental practices and social responsibility. Building on these efforts are the educational and certification programs of the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA). Established by Wine Institute and the California Association of Winegrape Growers, CSWA is the most comprehensive and widely adopted wine sustainability program in the world and -– together with other important sustainability programs in regions throughout the state -– has made California wine a leader in sustainable winegrowing practices and in addressing climate change.