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Pinot noir guide

Pinot noir, the most fickle of grapes, is the second most planted grape in New Zealand. This grape variety, originally from France, is the red grape of Burgundy and is one of the main components of Champagne.

We’re very lucky in New Zealand to have such delicious Pinot Noir. Whether you’re an everyday drinker or fancy yourself a connoisseur, this incredibly versatile wine deserves its place in our hearts - a kiwi favourite for any occasion.

Learn the fascinating history of Pinot Noir, what gives it its distinct palette-pleasing flavour, the best food to pair it with and so much more. So, pour yourself a glass and let’s dive in!

Jim Harre - about the author

After studying viticulture and winemaking at Hawkes Bay’s Eastern Institute of Technology, Jim worked several vintages, both in New Zealand and Internationally as a winemaker. 

Identified as having a very good palate for quality assessment of wine, Jim has been a major part of New Zealand’s Wine Judging competitions for over 25 years. Now a well respected International Judge, he works as a Chair of Judges in Wine Competitions in USA, Japan, China, Australia and, of course, New Zealand. 

He is also regarded as a world authority on the effect of how wine perception changes in aircraft, a panel chair at the world’s largest competition; the International Wine Challenge, held each year in London; as well as Wine Consultant to Air New Zealand.

It is Jim’s love of education and teaching people about wine that makes him one of New Zealand’s most recognised Wine professionals. 

What type of wine is pinot noir?

Pinot Noir is a red wine with medium body, softer tannins and a lovely ‘morish’ quality that will leave you wanting another glass before you’ve even finished the one you’re drinking.

"My love of Pinot Noir started in the mid 1990’s when  I attended a blind tasting (the labels were hidden from view until after the wine was tasted and discussed) of a selection of great wines as chosen by a group of wine enthusiasts from both within the wine trade and passionate amateurs. 

"My memory of the wines were they were good to very good up until the last wine was presented which was extraordinary. Rich and velvety, with perfume notes of flowers; fresh crushed violets and roses and flavours of very rich red plums with a mushroom component and a lingering smokeyness. 

"It was and is to this day the only wine I’ve ever tasted that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, and when you swallowed the wine (no way I was spitting that out) the flavour seemed to grow 10 fold. 

"I was in awe and have been mesmerised by Pinot Noir ever since. The wine was the 1985 Domaine De La Romanee-Conti La Tache and while I’m told there were much better years, it was truly outstanding and the standard I hold for the greatest Pinot Noir I have ever tasted." - Jim Harre

History of Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir is a very old variety of grape, thought to have been grown and enjoyed by the Gauls in 500 BC. It was first recorded  in a document dated 1395 written by Philip the Bold; 1st of the Valois Dukes  of Burgundy.

Philip the Bold was a great lover of Burgundy wines made from Pinot Noir grapes and expressed great distaste for the Gamay grape (the grape of the Beaujolais region and wines). He described the Gamay grape as  “vile and obnoxious” and ordered the removal of all vines in Burgundy so more Pinot Noir could be planted!


Where is Pinot Noir  grown?

The home of Pinot Noir is the Burgundy region of France, particularly the Cote-d’Or. However, Pinot Noir grapes are also one of the main components of the sparkling wine, Champagne, from the Champagne region of France. This area has had the biggest increase in planting of Pinot Noir in recent years.

Pinot Noir in New Zealand

Pinot Noir grapes were first planted in Hawkes Bay, New Zealand in 1889 at the Mission Vineyards and subsequently in the Wairarapa by William Beetham.

It wasn’t until the 1970’s that there was a resurgence of interest in the Pinot Noir grape. Nick Nobilo of Nobilo wines produced New Zealand’s first commercial Pinot Noir of the modern era in 1973.

As Pinot Noir has come of age in New Zealand; it is now the second most planted grape grape variety in New Zealand behind Sauvignon Blanc. There have been significant advances in the growing of the vines and making premium Pinot Noir wine. 

What does Pinot Noir taste like?

Pinot Noir’s taste is an unforgettable experience; rich and velvety, with perfume notes of flowers; fresh crushed violets and roses and flavours of very rich red plums with a mushroom component and a lingering smokeyness.

New Zealand Pinot Noir flavours range from strawberry and cherry to black plum and a savoury note of black olive, mushroom or just baked pie crust. Sometimes there will be a gentle fresh herb note, tannins will be soft and supple with a silkyness. The flavour often shows cedar oak character.

These are some Pinots that are full of flavour without being at all harsh, described by some as a “cuddle in a bottle”. The flavours after swallowing the wine should be long tasting and very moreish! As a generalisation, wines from the Central Otago region will have more black cherry notes and often a dry herb character, while those from further north are often more savoury.

The depth and intensity of red colour in Pinot Noir is not so important as long as there are no oxidised browning notes; it can be pale through to very dark brick red.

Pinot Noir prices

Great wine, high prestige and very small volumes account for the extraordinary cost of some of these wines, but fortunately for us all, Pinot Noir is now becoming a very affordable wine to buy.

We are lucky in New Zealand as there are great examples for well under $100 (great examples of Red Burgundy can cost well into 4 figures) and very well made good quality wines are in the market for less than $25 a bottle.

See a great range of New Zealand’s best Pinot Noirs, as selected by a group of New Zealand Masters of Wines.

Pinot Noir compared to other wines

Pinot Noir wine is a lighter bodied red wine often with aromas of strawberry and cherry through to black plum and a savoury note of mushroom or just baked pie crust. New Zealand Pinot Noir, can have  a gentle fresh herb note, tannins will be soft and supple, the flavour will fill your whole mouth be mouth filling with a textural silkyness.

Most Pinot Noir will have had oak maturation so aromas may include cedar oak or even fresh pencil shaving notes. The flavour will always have a long pleasant aftertaste.

  • Pinot Noir versus Pinot Gris

    Pinot Noir is a very old red grape variety and, over time, has  mutated with Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris. While genetically they are very similar, the flavours are quite different. 

    Pinot Gris is a white wine that has white peach, almond and pear flavours and no tannins, and little or no oak compared. 

  • Pinot Noir versus Malbec
    Malbec has a very dark colour, in some cases almost black/purple. Aromas of red plums, mocha and blackberry with high alcohol and big tannins.
  • Pinot Noir versus Cabernet Sauvignon
    Cabernet Sauvignon is a thick skin variety giving bigger tannin and colour to the wine, flavours of black currant and cedar oak producing a very dry wine.
  • Pinot Noir versus Shiraz and Syrah

    Shiraz and Syrah are the same grape but produced in different styles with Shiraz being very ripe blueberry and plum flavours, big ripe tannins and high alcohol often with hints of chocolate. 

    Syrah is produced in cooler areas and tends to show plum notes, tobacco leaf and black pepper spice, slightly lower in alcohol and body but still with big tannin structure.

  • Pinot Noir versus Chardonnay

    Chardonnay a white wine has a lot of similarities to Pinot Noir, both have oak influence, the weight and tannin structure is often similar. 

    In New Zealand Chardonnay has aromas of white peach, melon, nectarine and from further south citrus flavours of fresh grapefruit. The acid is usually softer and often there is a lovely creamy texture.

Pinot Noir nutrition per 150ml glass (1 serving)

Calories Carbohydrates
120 cal per serving 3.4 grams per serving
Alcohol Sugar
on 13% Alc bottle 1.25 standard drinks per serving 0.5 grams per serving

Storing Pinot Noir


Wine bottles

A bottle of New Zealand Pinot Noir will keep for between 3 to 6 years. The quality of the harvest year will have a strong influence - good years tend to last and improve longer.

Store bottles lying on their side, in a dark cool place, try and select a position that is away from fluctuating temperatures.

Once opened, reseal and store upright in a fridge. Depending on the volume of wine in the bottle (more volume will last longer), it should last 3 to 5 days without noticeable deterioration.

Pinot Noir that has become oxidised will have changed to a more brown colour and lost the bright, vibrant fruit aromas. The palate will become flat, dull and tired.

Serving Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir should be served at a ‘cool’ room temperature of about 15 degrees C. Most times, these wines are served too warm which makes the wine taste hot and the alcohol more apparent.

Store for 15 minutes in the fridge on a hot day to drop the temperature before serving.

Always serve in a glass that has a slightly narrower opening than bowl size and never fill the glass more than half full.

All wines can benefit from decanting although it isn’t necessary with Pinot Noir unless it contains sediment.

Pinot Noir pairing

Pinot Noir is one of the most food-friendly wine varietals. Pinot enhances the totality of the flavours and enjoyment of the food.

Pairing Pinot Noir with cheese

Pinot Noir also works with a broad range of cheeses, particularly hard slightly nutty flavoured cheeses and wash rind cheese.

Cooking with Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir is a great wine to cook with. It has good acid balance and ripe red fruits give a nice backdrop to food, especially casseroles.

Remember to always use good wine when cooking, if you wouldn’t drink a glass of the wine yourself, then don’t add it to food.

Pinot Noir - a wine for all occasions

Pinot Noir is definitely a wine for all occasions. Its ripe fruity characters are a great match to a wide range of foods (try it with dark chocolate) and the label appeal is outstanding.

With a bottle of Pinot Noir in hand, you’ll have no trouble satisfying the guest to any social occasion whether it’s a barbeque or dinner with the new in-laws!