We love Pinot Noir for a variety of reasons: its elegance and finesse that stand out amidst the bold, rich red wines; its versatility of styles and food pairing abilities; and its potential to craft the world’s finest, most complex wines despite being high maintenance in the vineyards and in the cellar.

In the world of Pinot Noir, Burgundy is its spiritual home without doubt. But it's gaining popularity all over the world. In past articles, we discovered Pinot Noir from the main old world countries like France, Germany and Italy. As a grape beloved by wine enthusiasts and winemakers, Pinot Noir has found its home in many New World wine regions. First, let's explore American Pinot Noir.

California and Oregon are famous for their Pinot Noir offerings (Photo: Lefteris Kallergis, Unsplash)


The Judgment of Paris event propelled Napa onto the global stage of fine wine. Though renowned for its bold Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa's climate tends to be too warm for Pinot Noir. Most Napa Pinots originate from Carneros, situated at the southern end of Napa and Sonoma counties. Carneros benefits from a cooler climate and maritime influence from the nearby San Pablo Bay, creating an optimal environment for Pinot Noir cultivation.

The cool breezes and fog from the bay preserve acidity and slow ripening, allowing the grapes to develop complex flavors while maintaining freshness. Carneros' unique climate and terroir contribute to the production of elegant Pinot Noirs characterized by bright acidity, vibrant red fruit flavors, a silky mouthfeel, and refined tannins, distinguishing them from other Californian Pinot Noir regions. However, beyond Carneros, a few other vineyards with favorable microclimates also grow Pinot Noir.


Compared to Napa, Sonoma may seem more down-to-earth. Without the extravagance of cult wines, Sonoma is the true home to Pinot Noir in California. Sonoma's Pinot Noir journey traces back to the early 19th century when Russian settlers planted the first vines in Fort Ross. However, it wasn't until the 1970s that Pinot Noir gained traction, thanks to visionaries like Joseph Swan and Rodney Strong, who recognized Sonoma's potential for producing world-class Pinot Noir.

Sonoma's climate varies from the cooler coastal regions to the warmer inland valleys, offering a spectrum of terroirs for Pinot Noir cultivation. Russian River Valley, renowned for its foggy mornings and cool evenings, provides ideal conditions for slow ripening and flavor development in Pinot Noir grapes. The Sonoma Coast AVA, with its maritime influence and rugged terrain, produces wines with intense aromatics and vibrant acidity, while the Sonoma Valley AVA, sheltered by surrounding mountains, yields robust and structured Pinot Noirs. The finest Sonoma Pinot Noirs can rival the top Burgundies.

Compared to Burgundy, Sonoma's Pinot Noirs are generally more distinctive for their ripe fruit flavors of cherry, blackberry, and raspberry, with balanced acidity, silky texture, and a touch of smoky earthiness. Several Sonoma boutique wineries are famous for their mailing list-only Pinot Noir releases.


Oregon, particularly the Willamette Valley, has emerged as a prominent player in the world of Pinot Noir. The Willamette Valley, particularly its subregions such as Dundee Hills, Ribbon Ridge, and Yamhill-Carlton, has become synonymous with exceptional Pinot Noir. David Lett, aka "Papa Pinot," planted the first Pinot Noir vines in the Willamette Valley in the 1960s. His Eyrie Vineyards' success in the 1979 Gault-Millau French Wine Olympiades brought international attention to Oregon's potential for Pinot Noir.

Vineyard in Willamette Valley, Oregon (Photo: Dan Meyers, Unsplash)

The climate and terroir of the Willamette Valley are ideal for Pinot Noir. The valley's cool, maritime climate moderated by the Pacific Ocean and the Cascade Mountains creates long, mild growing seasons, allowing grapes to ripen slowly and develop complex flavors while retaining acidity.

The diverse soils, predominantly volcanic and marine sedimentary, impart distinct characteristics to the wines, ranging from earthy to fruity. Winemaking in Oregon focuses on showcasing the purity of the fruit. Oregon Pinots are usually lighter, more acidic, and more subtle than their Californian counterparts. They are often seen as the New World style of Burgundy Pinot.

Other California Pinot Noir

California boasts several regions producing outstanding Pinot Noir besides Napa and Sonoma. One such region is the Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey County, known for its cool climate and well-drained soils. Further south, the Sta. Rita Hills AVA in Santa Barbara County has gained recognition for its exceptional Pinot Noir, influenced by the Pacific Ocean and unique valley orientation. In Mendocino County, the Anderson Valley has emerged as another hotspot for Pinot Noir production, known for its varied microclimates and diverse soils.

Pinot Lovers: Team Californian/Oregon or Team Burgundy?

As the two most representative styles of Pinot Noir in the Old World and the New World, it's a debate that has captivated wine enthusiasts. In California and Oregon, winemakers meticulously select clones that best express their vineyard's terroir, experimenting with various clones like the numbered Dijon clones and classic old-world clones such as Pommard or Martin Ray. They craft single-vineyard wines, blending different clones and parcels to create complex, elegant expressions of Pinot Noir.

On the other hand, in the revered vineyards of Burgundy, tradition reigns supreme. Winemakers, honing their craft for centuries, emphasize terroir and finesse, with each vineyard plot possessing its own unique microclimate and soil composition.

Interestingly, there's an exchange occurring between these approaches. Californian and Oregonian winemakers are learning from Burgundy's emphasis on terroir and finesse, aiming to make their wines more refined and age-worthy. Meanwhile, Burgundy is taking cues from the New World to enhance the drinkability of the wines without sacrificing complexity.

As we finish the journey of the finest American Pinots, here are some of the Pinot Noir from California and Oregon that are worth trying, before our next journey which takes you to the southern hemisphere.








Sylvia Ba

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