Meet the Pinots –
It is Not Just a Noir or a Grigio!
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.
The Wine Grapes of
the Rhone Valley
OK, so you know that most of the grapes being grown in what we call “Wine Country” on America’s West Coast had their origins in Europe, and especially in France. You’ve heard about Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Merlot, and maybe even Pinot Noir, Gamay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chenin Blanc. And (hopefully) the more wines that you see on that highly rated restaurant’s wine list or that very well-stocked liquor store that AREN’T those previously named varieties have piqued your curiosity. You’ve been asking yourself, “What the heck is a Cinsault, or Mourvèdre, or Roussanne?” Bordeaux and Burgundy have long dominated the market for France’s exported wines, and those varieties justifiably have legions of supporters. But it doesn’t take long to realize that France has several other outstanding wine growing regions. For example, there is Alsace, which shares most of its eastern border with Germany, and is home to several grape varieties that are equally at home in Germany such as Riesling, Gewurztraminer, and Pinot Gris. The Loire Valley, home of France’s longest river and multiple wine growing regions, also is home to many grape varieties that are almost exclusive to its wine appellations, such as Muscadet (also known as Melon de Bourgogne), Cabernet Franc, Chenin Blanc, and Sauvignon Blanc.
But – it is the Rhône Valley, followed closely by Languedoc-Roussillon and “The Rest” of France (its immediate southern neighbors) that take the prize for the most grape varieties that are officially sanctioned to produce wine. I will confine this article to the Rhone Valley’s appellations and grapes; you’ll thank me later.
What's that Big Bottle
The overwhelming majority of the world production of wine is sold in 750 ml bottles. However, in the United States, France (Champagne, Burgundy, Bordeaux and, to a lesser extent, other French regions), Germany, Italy, and some other countries, wineries may offer a small portion of a vintage (particularly, excellent ones) in non-standard sized bottles. These impressively larger bottles typically cost more than the equivalent amount of wine in 750 ml bottles. Is paying the premium worth it?