The Color Palette of Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir Grapes at Pisoni Vineyards in the Santa Lucia Highlands.

Color, like many facets of winemaking, is complicated. When it comes to Pinot Noir, discussions are so complex they’ll probably go on in perpetuity. A thin-skinned, delicate grape, Pinot Noir is notorious for being difficult to grow. But while this elusive grape can be challenging, it also adapts to where it’s planted and how it’s farmed.

To start with, clones are critical. Pinot Noir has a variety of clones. In the 1970s, my father Gary tasted a great many California clones before he decided to plant his proprietary suitcase clone to achieve more complexity in our wines.

Terroir (the way soil, geography, and weather act upon each other in any given place) makes the decision-making process vintners wrestle with each year even more intricate. Just as people react to stresses in their environment, so do grapes and vines. A friend once posited that the best way to figure out what a vine will deliver is to look closely at the surrounding agriculture and plant life. In the Santa Lucia Highlands where my family farms, live oak trees grow sparsely among lots of Monterey chapparal and brush. The hard-scrabble soils here are stressful for all plants. Place a grapevine in the decomposed granite mountains above the Salinas Valley where it gets very little water because of low rainfall and then send in cold winds from Monterey Bay. What do you get? A vine under stress that produces small berries with concentrated fruit profiles.

Now let me add science to the mix winemakers work with. In vines, stress creates more anthocyanins in grape skins. Anthocyanin creates strong, rich color in the young wine. But how do you encourage anthocyanin to be long-lived enough to stand up to the cellaring and aging of wine? You need tannin, which bonds with anthocyanin. Much Pinot Noir is lacking in tannin. But not at our vineyard sites in the Santa Lucia Highlands. Here, tannin is abundant in the grapes we coax from the wine, which allows us to craft Pinot Noir with deep color and complex flavors year after year.