from the CellarGet to know the grapes–PINOT NOIR

The March CORNERS COLLECTION has been specially selected to complement our Sunday School lessons.

Join us each Sunday for an ongoing series of articles exploring the world of wine.  This week’s article explores a few key growing regions for PINOT NOIR.


This week, we explore a few key growing regions for pinot noir — the French region of Burgundy (pinot noir’s ancestral home) and the California counties of Sonoma and Napa as well as the American Viticultural Area (AVA) of Central Coast (also in California).

No conversation about pinot noir would be complete without discussing Burgundy.  The region of Burgundy extends south-southeast from the city of Dijon for about 80 kilometers, generally on hillsides and slopes along or near the west side of the Saône River.  The region (at least in terms of wine) is rather narrow — about 15 kilometers wide at its widest point.  Without a doubt, this is a very small region that produces a relatively small amount of wine — but what it produces can be truly amazing!  There is an outlying area to the northwest known as Chablis (discussed in a previous article), but only chardonnay is grown in Chablis.  There is also, at least administratively, an area further south known as Beaujolais, but Beaujolais features a very different geology than the remainder of the governmental area of Burgundy — and grows a different grape (known as gamay noir or gamay) — as such most wine professionals consider Beaujolais a different region altogether.  Our area of concern for this article will be the upper three-quarters of the contiguous area of Burgundy proper– moving north to south, the Côte de Nuits and the Côte de Beaune (known collectively as the Côte d’Or), followed by the Côte Chalonnaise.

Before we explore Burgundy’s major pinot noir appellations, however, we should have a brief introduction to the classification system that applies to Burgundy.  The classification of Burgundy dates to monastic control of vineyards starting in the early 10th century CE.  The notion of terroir (a “sense of place” is at the very heart of Burgundy’s classification system. 

  • Bourgogne — Wines carrying the Bourgogne (French for Burgundy) appellation account for just over half of the wine produced in the region.  The appellation can be used for most wines from Burgundy, provided they are made from pinot noir or chardonnay.  These wines can be produced from grapes sourced throughout the region.  Somewhat confusingly, wines made from the grape aligote may be labeled “Bourgogne Aligote,” but never simply “Bourgogne.”  A few other “Bourgogne” prefixed appellations (as well as one “Bourgogne” suffixed appellation) exist for other lesser known grapes/blends.   Most winemakers will opt to use a more specific (and prestigious) appellation if their wine qualifies to use such an appellation.  Be forewarned, Burgundy is a MINEFIELD of appellations.  Of the 360 legally recognized appellations (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée or AOC) in France, almost a quarter are in the region of Burgundy!  Needless to say, we will not be exploring all of these appellations, many of which are nestled one inside another like matryoshka dolls.  For simplicity’s sake, we will explore the major appellations that apply to pinot noir.  

  • Village — Village level wines are the next “inner circle” of the concentric appellations of Burgundy.  In truth, there is an intermediate classification defined by the sub-region, which we will address leading into the major villages.  There are forty-four village appellations in Burgundy — twenty-nine of the village appellations (mostly in the Côte d’Or) are applicable to pinot noir.  The name of the village will appear on the wine label, but, as the labels for village wines seldom indicate Burgundy or Bourgogne, it is essential to know the villages and the sub-regions in which they are found for this listing to be of any use.  Confusingly, some villages have appended the name of their most famous vineyard (more on that below) to the name of the village itself.  Most village vineyards are located in the flatlands below the hillsides throughout Burgundy.  Village wines account for about one-third of Burgundy’s wine production and many are blended from several vineyards.

  • Premier Cru — In Burgundy, the word “cru” indicates a named vineyard that is a very specific area defined by small variations in terroir as observed under centuries of monastic care.  The Premier Cru level is the first vineyard classification above village vineyards.  The name of the Premier Cru vineyard will be listed following the name of the village (which can be a bit confusing in the instances in which the village already has a hyphenated name).  To make matters more complicated, there are 629 Premier Crus!  Fortunately, Premier Cru wines will clearly indicate “Premier Cru” on their labels.  Most Premier Cru vineyards are located on the crests of the hills of Burgundy.  Premier Cru Burgundies account for about one-tenth of wine production in Burgundy.  One caveat — Premier Cru Burgundies are almost always expensive!

  • Grand Cru — Sensibly, the Grand Cru designation is reserved for the very best vineyard sites.  These vineyards sites are generally mid-slope on the Burgundy hillsides — and all are in the northern sub-regions of Burgundy.  There are 33 Grand Crus in Burgundy.  Only the name of the vineyard will appear on the label — but the label will clearly indicate that the wine is “Grand Cru.”  Grand Cru wines account for only two percent of Burgundy’s wine production.  As might be expected, they are quite costly.

With this classification framework in mind, we can explore the major appellations of the legendary region of Burgundy.

  • Côte d’Or — Directly translated, Côte d’Or means “hills of gold” — and that would  be a perfectly logical name for this northern half of the contiguous appellations of Burgundy as wines from this area can be among the most costly in the world.  In truth, Côte d’Or is a truncation of Côte d’Orient (hillsides facing east) — and most of the hillsides vineyards do exactly that.  The Côte d’Or is composed of two areas:

    • Côte de Nuits —  The lion’s share of Grand Cru vineyards lie within this northern half of the Côte d’Or and northernmost quarter of Burgundy’s contiguous appellations.  The Côte de Nuits is planted almost exclusively to pinot noir.  It’s primary villages (followed by Grand Cru appellations) are:

      • Marsannay

      • Fixin

      • Gevrey-Chambertin

        • Chambertin Grand Cru

        • Chambertin-Clos de Bѐze Grand Cru

        • Chapelle-Chambertin Grand Cru

        • Charmes-Chambertin Grand Cru

        • Griotte-Chambertin Grand Cru 

        • Latricières-Chambertin Grand Cru

        • Mazis-Chambertin Grand Cru

        • Mazoyères-Chambertin Grand Cru

        • Ruchottes-Chambertin Grand Cru

      • Morey-Saint Denis

        • Clos Saint Denis Grand Cru

        • Clos de la Roche Grand Cru

        • Clos des Lambrays Grand Cru

        • Clos de Tart Grand Cru

        • a portion of Bonnes Mares Grand Cru

      • Chambolle-Musigny

        • the larger portion of Bonnes Mares Grand Cru

        • Musigny Grand Cru

      • Vougeot

        • Echézeaux Grand Cru

        • Grand-Echézeaux Grand Cru

        • La Grande Rue Grand Cru

        • Richebourg Grand Cru

        • La Romanée Grand Cru

        • Romanée-Conti Grand Cru

        • Romanée-Saint Vivant Grand Cru

        • La Tâche Grand Cru

      • Vosne-Romanée

      • Nuits-Saint Georges 

    • Côte de Beaune — The Côte de Beaune is planted with both chardonnay and pinot noir.  While chardonnay is widely regarded as the star of the show in the Côte de Beaune, the pinot noir (which accounts for a bit more than half of production) can be quite good, especially in the northern portion.  There are eight Grand Cru vineyards in the Côte de Beaune, but seven of them produce only chardonnay.  The villages of note (followed by Grand Cru appellation where appropriate — note that the Grand Cru vineyard of Corton is shared by THREE villages) for pinot noir production within the Côte de Beaune are:

      • Ladoix-Serrigny

        • Corton Grand Cru 

      • Aloxe-Corton

        • Corton Grand Cru 

      • Pernand-Vergelesses

        • Corton Grand Cru 

      • Chorey-lès-Beaune

      • Savigny-lès-Beaune

      • Beaune

      • Pommard

      • Volnay

      • Monthélie

      • Auxey-Duresses

      • Saint Romain

      • Meursault

      • Blagny

      • Puligny-Montrachet

      • Chassagne-Montrachet

      • Saint Aubin

      • Santenay

      • Maranges

Note that several of the villages are hyphenated (e.g. Aloxe-Corton).  As previously mentioned, this generally indicates that the village (Aloxe) has appended the name of its most famous vineyard (Corton) to the original name of the village (perhaps for greater recognition).  This can easily be confused with the listing of a vineyard for a Premier Cru wine in which the vineyard also follows the name of the village, sometimes as a hyphenated addendum, sometimes as a separate listing.  “Premier Cru” will be indicated on the label for applicable wines.  

  • Côte Chalonnaise — The Côte Chalonnaise makes up roughly the next quarter of Burgundy.  Both pinot noir and chardonnay are planted in the Côte Chalonnaise, but chardonnay becomes increasingly dominant as we move further south.  There are no Grand Cru vineyards in the Côte Chalonnaise, but there are numerous Premier Cru vineyards.  The villages of note for pinot noir production are:

    • Rully

    • Mercurey 

    • Givry 

As with our first “Get to know the Grapes” series (cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay), we will now end the French leg of our journey and resume our travels in California.  Our area of focus will be within the North Coast American Viticultural Area (AVA) counties of Sonoma and Napa as well as the Central Coast AVA (which includes Santa Cruz, Santa Clara, Monterey, San Benito, San Luis Obispo, and Santa Barbara counties)  

With very diverse geography and climate, Sonoma County is an excellent growing area for many wine grapes, but to be successful, each grape must be paired with the most suitable climate and terrain for that particular grapes needs.  The cooler areas in the south of the county are ideal for pinot noir.  Moving north to south and west to east, the primary Sonoma appellations for pinot noir are:

  • Sonoma Coast — As the name suggests, Sonoma Coast is along the Pacific coast of Sonoma county.  Directly influenced by the cold Pacific Ocean, the area is quite cool and is a perfect home to cool-loving grapes like chardonnay and pinot noir (both of which originated in Burgundy).  Sonoma Coast is also blessed with enough warmth to allow grapes to ripen fully. 

    • Fort Ross-Seaview — Tucked within Sonoma Coast, Fort Ross-Seaview is even cooler than most of the Sonoma Coast, making a great climate for chardonnay and pinot noir.

  • Russian River Valley — Another cool climate area (thanks to the influence of the Pacific Ocean and the channelling effect of the Russian River), Russian River Valley sees afternoon sunlight and warmth followed by dramatic drops in nighttime temperatures (35-40℉), producing excellent pinot noir.

    • Green Valley — Within Russian River Valley, Green Valley is a bit cooler, producing pinot noir with a bit more acidity.  Look to this area not only for excellent still pinot noir, but also for exciting sparkling wines produced from pinot noir and/or chardonnay.

  • Carneros (or Los Carneros) — Within the Sonoma Valley AVA,  Carneros is partially in Sonoma county and partially in Napa county.  The already cool Sonoma Valley climate is amplified by cool breezes from the San Pablo Bay, producing excellent pinot noir.  Both still and sparkling wines produced from Carneros pinot noir and/or chardonnay are excellent bets

Napa Valley

Moving east, we next visit Napa County and its primary appellation, Napa Valley.  Napa Valley is defined by the Mayacamas Mountains (roughly parallel to the coast) on the west and the Vaca Mountains on the east.  The valley is protected from Pacific Ocean air, and most of the area is simply too warm for pinot noir.  However, the valley also acts as a sort of conduit for cool air coming off of San Pablo Bay (directly south of the valley).  As a result, the southernmost end of the valley can be quite cool and is very suitable for growing quality pinot noir.  Key appellations (west to east) include:

  • Carneros (or Los Carneros) — At the southern end of the Mayacamas Mountains and straddling Sonoma and Napa counties, Carneros is kept quite cool by the breezes from the San Pablo Bay north of San Francisco and from the Pacific Ocean via the Petaluma Gap.  Daytime temperatures rarely exceed 80° Fahrenheit.  Again, both still and sparkling wines produced from Carneros pinot noir and/or chardonnay are excellent bets.

  • Coombsville — Near the southern end of the Vaca Mountains and close to the cooling influence of San Pablo Bay, the valley floor in Coombsville is cooler than the hillsides making it a very good location for growing pinot noir. 

Central Coast AVA

Moving south, we next visit the Central Coast AVA, which includes the counties of Santa Cruz, Santa Clara, Monterey, San Benito, San Luis Obispo, and Santa Barbara. The areas along the coast are cooled by cold Pacific current and fog and are great growing grounds for pinot noir.  In particular, the stretch of coast running west to east on the southern end of Santa Barbara county is VERY cool and is an EXCELLENT area for the cool loving grape pinot noir.  Further inland, the large Central Coast AVA can be far too warm to produce quality pinot noir.  Key Central Coast appellations (north to south, west to east) for pinot noir include:

  • Monterey — Most pinot noir from Monterey will carry one of the following cool-climate sub-appellations:

    • Santa Lucia Highlands

    • Chalone

    • Arroyo Secco

  • San Luis Obispo — Much of San Luis Obispo is too hot for quality pinot noir, but the following cool-climate sub-appellations are quite well suited to the grape:

    • Edna Valley

    • Arroyo Grande

  • Santa Barbara — At the southern end of Santa Barbara county, both the Pacific coast and the mountains run west to east.  The result is a corridor of very cool air that is ideal for pinot noir.  Notable appellations for pinot noir within Santa Barbara include:

    • Santa Maria Valley

    • Santa Rita Hills

Next week we will explore some key appellations for pinot noir’s off-spring, pinot gris/grigio.  We’ll focus on the French region of Alsace and the Italian regions of Friuli-Venezia-Giulia and Trentino-Alto Adige–with a little side trip to Oregon’s Willamette Valley.   


The March CORNERS COLLECTION has been specially selected to complement our Sunday School lessons.