The Pinot Noir grape is largely considered to produce some of the best wines in the world. Yet the fickle nature of this cool-weather preferring varietal means that great vintages are uncommon and subsequently expensive. This, combined with the complex tasting notes of the lighter-bodied wine it produces, undoubtedly endear the grape to wine enthusiasts and serious oenologists alike.
Vintage yields are comparatively small, owing to the tight knit formation in which grapes grow. It is this structure that gives the grape its name - black pine is the literal translation from french - describing the closed pinecone-like clusters in which grapes are found on the vine.
Pinot Noir Around the world
The inherent difficulty associated with producing a good pinot noir vintage can be attributed to its preference for relatively cool climates. There are two latitudinal "belts" in which the grapes develop best, but their position means that the late, sustained, pre-harvest warm bursts that characterize memorable vintages are uncommon. Without this late surge of warmer weather, resulting pinot noir wine is often acidic and rich in green tasting notes.
Located on these two belts are the world’s most renowned and best locations for growing pinot noir grapes. Historically associated with the iconic Burgundy region in France, the grape can also be found on the French/German border in the Ahr region as well as across the north of Italy. Moving into the new world, great expressions of the wine are produced in Oregon and Sonoma in the US, as well as northern New Zealand, Chile and finally Argentina.
While Pinot Noir grapes are grown in Mendoza, Argentina’s best-known wine region, it is in Patagonia that the variety truly thrives. To be more specific (because Patagonia itself is nearly twice the size of France), it is the northern part of Patagonia where Pinot Noir is most successful, along the valleys of the Río Neuquén and Río Negro.
Why Patagonia is Perfect for Pinot Noir?
Patagonia is a largely arid region. The cultivation of vines here is only made possible by a vast series of canals built by British settlers in the 1800s. This network of canals harnesses the pure rainwater that runs off the nearby Andes, providing vineyards with much needed irrigation.
The low annual rainfall, and subsequent low humidity, provide the perfect conditions for Pinot Noir to succeed. While irrigation provides water through the roots, the lack of moisture in the air makes it virtually impossible for pests and diseases such as phylloxera to thrive. Consequently, grapes can still be grown on the original french pinot noir vine roots, unlike Europe where North American hybrids are necessary.
Patagonia’s position in the south of Argentina gives the region the advantage of extra sunlight during summer months. Increased sunlight and consistently fair summer temperatures are what characterize Patagonian Pinot Noirs. The great burgundian vintages are defined by earthy, forest floor aromas, with light hints of tart fruits such as cherry. Yet it is a softer, rounder aroma of raspberries and roses that distinguishes a good Patagonian vintage.
Situated some 900 miles south of Mendoza, Patagonian grapes experience more wind in their lifetime. This is a big advantage in the production of Pinot Noir as the wind helps prevent rot - a common problem in the compact clusters in which the grapes grow. Furthermore, the wind encourages grapes to grow thicker skins, which in turn produces wines of deeper color and better structure.
History of Pinot Noir in Patagonia
Though the history of pinot noir cultivation in the area dates back almost 100 years, it is only in the past decade that wine producers have started producing serious, respectable vintages.
One such example of this is the Chacra winery. When Italian Piero Incisa della Rocchetta acquired the land and founded the winery in 2004, he gained ownership of vines ranging between 50 and 80 years old. The application of biodynamic farming techniques has since produced what is widely recognized as the area’s best Pinot Noir, certainly its most expensive. Bottles of the Cincuenta y Cinco (55) and Treinta y Dos (32) offerings fetch upwards of $100 in the US market.
The consistency of the Patagonian climate makes the region a truly exciting prospect for producing this capricious, though revered grape. As with the rest of Argentina, the rewards of the introduction of modern european wine making techniques over the past two decades are now beginning to show.
It might then come as somewhat of a surprise to discover that the region remains relatively untouched in terms of planted vines. While up to date statistics are not available, figures published in 2003 showed that vineyards in Patagonia covered just 1.4% of the area of those in Mendoza. Even if we were to assume an increased rate of planting in Patagonia over the past decade, this remains a staggering difference and highlights just how much the area still has to offer.