Meet the Pinots –
It is Not Just a Noir or a Grigio!
By Don Clemens
In the beginning, wa-a-a-a-y back in the 1960’s, most California wineries had finally started to label the wines they were selling with the major grape variety that made up the bulk of the wine residing in that particular bottle. In the Dark Ages of the 1940’s—1950’s, a wine was usually simply called “Rosé” if it was pink, or “Burgundy” if it was dark red. If it was a sort of yellow/green-tinged white wine, it was called “Chablis,” unless it was a little sweet. Then it was called “Rhine Wine.” And anything with bubbles was called “Champagne” … Those ‘foreign’ wines that came from Europe all had weird names that usually had nothing to do with the color of the wine; the names almost always had something to do with somebody’s name, or a place. NOT the name of a grape! And those German wines! What the heck is a Bernkasteler Doktor Trockenbeerenauslese?
Over time, as the American public became increasingly aware of the pleasure of a glass (or three) of fine wine, and the public’s impression grew that there was some greater sophistication that wine drinkers seemed to possess (thanks, Hollywood!). American wine labels began to reflect that desire for more specific information. The first big step was to name the wine by the variety. By the end of the 1970’s, the rule was well established: to be called by the dominant variety’s name, it had to contain at least 75% of that variety, and if the producer wants to highlight the growing area (American Viticultural Area), the percentage rose to 85%.
In the decades that followed, Americans became very familiar with a selection of grape varieties: red wines grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Merlot, Sangiovese, and Pinot Noir; white wine grapes like Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc.
So now we come to the lead-off question: What is with all those Pinots? Let’s start with a statement from Dr. Ron Jackson, a noted professor of Botany from Brandon University, in Brandon, Manitoba, Canada. “‘Pinot Noir’ is the famous, but variable, red grape of Burgundy. It appears to be one of the most environmentally sensitive of varieties and consists of a large number of distinctive clones. Fruit-color mutants have given rise to ‘Pinot Gris’ and ‘Pinot Blanc.’” But we don’t have to stop there: Pinot is the first word of many a French vine variety name and is thought to refer to the shape of Pinot grape bunches, in the form of a pine (pin) cone. Pinot is considered one of the most ancient grape varieties, and Galet (the father of modern wine grape identification) cites no fewer than 100 different sorts of Pinots, although most of them are clones or seedlings. Among the better known, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Meunier and Pinot Noir are all clones of Pinot. We’ve gone back and forth on Chardonnay – it was called Pinot Chardonnay well into the 1980’s by many wineries; Galet insisted that it was not a member of the Pinot family and had apparently won the argument. That is, until a DNA profiling analysis in 1999 showed that the following are progenies of Pinot and the obscure and rather ordinary variety Gouais Blanc: Aligoté, Aubin Vert, Auxerrois, Bachet Noir, Beaunoir, CHARDONNAY (!), Franc Noir de La Haute-Saône, Gamay Blanc Gloriod, Gamay Noir, Knipperlé, Melon, Peurion, Roublot, and Sacy. There is even an Austrian study showing DNA evidence of a parent-offspring relationship between Pinot and Traminer, and between Pinot and the Austrian red grape St-Laurent. Phew!
So – let us approach the more important of the Pinots alphabetically, beginning with Auxerrois. Auxerrois is a mainstay of Alsace’s vineyards, especially in the region’s heartland, the Haut-Rhin. Plantings of this variety have been on the increase, covering considerably more Alsace vineyards than any one of the other three pinots planted there. Interestingly, an Alsace wine labeled “Pinot Blanc” could legally be sold which might contain no grapes other than Auxerrois. Wines made from this grape, because of its fuller body and generally lower acidity, can add substance to under-ripened Pinot Blanc. It is also a major ingredient in Edelzwicker, which, translated from German, is “Noble Mixture.” These wines are generally among the least expensive of a winery’s offerings.
Pinot Blanc is widely planted in Alsace, Germany, Italy, and Eastern Europe, and is present in California, Oregon, and Washington State. It has quite a history in Alsace of being planted with, blended with, and sometimes sold as Chardonnay. It is treated with a bit more respect in Germany and Austria, where it is known as Weissburgunder, and makes everything from a workhorse white wine to a luxurious dessert wine by blending a botrytised Trockenbeerenauslese-style wine with (usually) Welschriesling, making a sort of Germanic Sauternes.
(Pinot) Chardonnay is a world-wide phenomenon, loved by virtually all wine-lovers. It is fairly easy to grow in a wide range of soils and climates, which certainly has helped to enhance its universal appeaI. It can range from tasting vaguely fruity, like apples or melons, but at its best, Chardonnay, like Pinot Noir, is merely a vehicle for the character of the vineyard in which it is grown. The right site, modest yields, ripe acids, and good winemaking can produce remarkably exciting, dry, full-bodied wines that are capable of improving over one or two – and possibly several – decades.
Pinot Gris is also a world-wide phenomenon, being marketed under different names, depending on the country of origin, or, in the case of American versions, the whim of the winemaker. In France, it is generally thought to be from Alsace, although there are plantings in Burgundy (where it is known as Pinot Beurot) and is allowed to be blended in with Pinot Noir. However, it is more widely planted in Germany and In Italy. In Germany, it is known as Grauburgunder (occasionally as Ruländer), and is usually fermented dry. In Italy, it is known as Pinot Grigio, truly a category unto itself, and is planted from Friuli-Alto Adige to Emilia-Romagna. It is also widely planted in Hungary and Moldova. Some excellent results have been obtained in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, with vineyard acreage now surpassing that of Chardonnay. It is being increasingly planted in California, now becoming the second most planted variety of white wine grapes in that state – with the increases mainly in Monterey and Napa Counties.
Pinot Meunier is rarely seen anywhere outside of the Champagne region of France. A key component of Champagne, along with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier it is reliably used to add youthful fruitiness to balance the weight of the Pinot Noir and the finesse of the Chardonnay. It is also grown in California, mainly by French Champagne houses who are making many excellent sparkling wines there. It also has a long history in Australia, where it once was sold as Miller’s Burgundy by Great Western (now called Grampians). As an aside, “Meunier” translates to “miller” in French.
Pinot Noir – at last! Red Burgundy would be NOTHING without Pinot Noir! Well, of course, if Pinot Noir didn’t exist, there would likely be some other grape making some other “Bourgogne Rouge” for us to enjoy, but it most likely wouldn’t be the great red wines of legendary stature that we have come to know over the last few centuries. Its importance can be verified, one supposes, by the fact that finding the “right” location for new vineyard plantings of Pinot Noir has become a sort of search for the “Holy Grail” of perfect acreage. Today, Pinot Noir is found in virtually every country that has a passionate winemaker and some arable landscape. Of course, some are more successful than others… Places other than France that have had clear success with this finicky grape are: Germany; Austria; Switzerland; Croatia; Serbia; northern Italy (Lombardia, Trentino, Alto Adige); cooler climates in California; Oregon; New York’s Niagara Escarpment and Long Island; Canada’s British Columbia and Ontario provinces; Chile (Casablanca and other cooler zones); Argentina (especially in Tupungato); South Africa (in a cool southerly spot ); New Zealand (Martinborough, Canterbury and Central Otago); and Australia (mainly in Victoria and Tasmania).
Pinot Noir, unlike many other red wines, is not known for being “powerful”; it is, rather, a seductive, subtle beverage, more reflective of where it is grown than any other factor. It can be said that Pinot Noirs of the world share a sort of sweet fruitiness and are generally lower in tannins and pigments than some other “great” red wines such as Syrah or Cabernet Sauvignon and are often gentler in their youth.
In France, the birthplace of what we have come to know as Pinot Noir, it has become clear that this vine likes to mutate! There are more than 50 clones officially recognized in France and able to be legally sold as “Pinot Noir”. So today, all the talk is about which clones are planted in one’s vineyards. “Clone 777”, “Pommard” (a dominant clone first identified in the Pommard vineyards in the Côte de Beaune), “Wädenswil” (named after a viticultural station in Switzerland), and “Dijon” have all taken on special meaning among the wine-loving cognoscenti.
While we wait to learn the name of the “next new clone,” take some time to become familiar with the Pinot Family. There are so many delicious examples to savor!