Pinot Noir is 'the' red grape of the Burgundy region and primarily responsible for the well-known epinoymous red wine of the region. It's likely one of the oldest wine grapes cultivated with some records claiming Pinot Noir growth in the early Roman Empire although the earliest reliable references come from the 1200's. It is extremely prone to mutation explaining the various types of it grown and the confusion of which is the true root strain and which are later mutations. The 'Pinot' in Pinot Noir refers to 'Pine' and is generally believed to be associated with the shape of the grape cluster resembling a pinecone.
Pinot Noir has spread to much of Europe and the new world but often with less than stellar results due to the finickyness of the vine about conditions. In the US, the demand for Pinot Noir has shot up significantly since the movie 'Sideways' came out which touted Pinot as the most noble of Reds. While often (and incorrectly) regarded as different grapes, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc are all variations of Pinot Noir with no clear indication of which color variety came first.
Pinot Noir vines that produce quality fruit are notoriously difficult to grow. The ideal climate has warm days with cooler nights. They don't tolerate wind, extreme heat or extreme cold. Ideal soils are clay with some chalk or limestone. Cooler soil temperature is also important. The name is often misleading for those who speak one of the Latin based languages because of the descriptor 'Noir' meaning black. This refers to the color of the grape rather than the wine produced from it, which is actually one of the lightest, most subtle of the Reds. The grape is thin skinned and susceptible to rot, frost and heat.
Pinot Noir is likely the most difficult mainstream red wine grape with which to produce a quality wine. Even a gifted winemaker with years of experience can miss the delicate balance required to make an exceptional Pinot Noir. In other words, no one in their right mind would try and make Pinot unless the conditions are ideal and you have a passion for the wine. The grape is thin skinned, has few tannins and the juice is delicate leaving no room to hide mistakes. A classic error (in our opinion) is to lose the subtlety of the Pinot Grape and try and make the typical bigger, bolder style wines in the 'typical' California style. Well known wine expert Oz Clark, goes so far as to call it the "Cabernesation" of Pinot Noir. As much as we'd love to argue that our California Pinots stand up to the best in the world, he's pretty much hit the nail on the head. Until more winemakers embrace the grace and balance possessed by an exceptional Pinot Noir, it's a case of caveat emptor.