wine features Which Particular Pinot Would you Prefer?
Which Particular Pinot Would you Prefer?
August 2009

The guest says, “I’ll have a glass of Pinot,” and moves on to pick out an entrée until you fire back: “Pinot Noir? Gris? Blanc? Meunier?” – Okay, that last one is pretty unlikely, but it is possible. All of the above are members of the Pinot family, and seeing as they include red, white, rosé, and even sparkling wines, it’s best to be specific.

Pinot Noir, thought to be original, is notoriously neurotic: difficult to grow, tricky in the winery, and often inconsistent in the bottle. Nonetheless, it has an addictive appeal to winemakers and drinkers alike; the cliché among the former labels it the “Holy Grail” of winemaking. The grape and its relations prefer a cool climate like that of its homeland, Burgundy; on our West Coast it prospers in valleys or coastal areas that suck up fog from the Pacific Ocean to counter the heat of the sun. New Zealand’s Pinots also profit from the ocean’s cooling influence, except in Central Otago, which is inland, but quite far south.). Thin-skinned, it’s therefore low in tannins, but is more susceptible to rot, especially in humid conditions.

Pinot Gris is more forgiving and can make wines in a range of styles. Whereas “Noir” means “black” in French, “Gris” means “grey,” and on the vine the grapes have a pinkish tinge, which occasionally shows in the wine as well. “Grigio” means the same in Italian, and how a producer labels the wine is often a clue to the wine’s style; the Italian model prefers fresher fruit aromas and a crisper, lighter-bodied character. The Alsatian model dominates Pinot Gris, meaning it’s usually rich, honeyed, and round.

In some cases the mushroomy earthiness that characterizes Pinot Noir makes an appearance in Pinot Gris, an unusual note in a white wine. Pinot Gris has made in-roads in California and especially New Zealand and Oregon; generally the wines are labeled with the Italian or French grape name to clarify the wine’s style. For a lighter-style wine, turn instead to Pinot Blanc, which is reliably fresh and crisp; Alsatians, who grow a lot of it, often serve it as an aperitif.

But Pinot isn’t just black and white and grey. Pinot Meunier, for example, plays an important role in Champagne, and more obscure relations like Pinot Auxerrois, Pinot Teinturier, or Pinot Gouges do appear, if very occasionally. The last is unique to a few vineyards in Nuits-St.-Georges, Burgundy, where some vines in Henri Gouges’ vineyards began, somewhat mysteriously, to produce white grapes where before they had made red. Richard Grant Peterson, formerly Wine Master at Beaulieu Vineyards and Atlas Peak in Napa Valley, found a Pinot variety in Wrotham, England, and brought plantings back to Napa with him; now known as Wrotham Pinot, it’s believed to date back to the Roman occupation of England 2,000 years ago.

All of these different Pinots are mutations, not crosses, so there is no other “parent grape.” Not that breeders haven’t tried to cross Pinot Noir with something a little easier to grow; South Africa’s earthy and powerful Pinotage is a deliberate cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault, a grape from southern France. Ampelographers, who study and identify grapevines, also say that Chardonnay is in fact an ancient, wild cross between one of the Pinot grapes and an almost extinct grape called Gouais Blanc. Given Pinot Noir’s difficult nature, Chardonnay’s easy-going ability to grow just about anywhere must come from this other, obscure parent.

Pinot Noir and Chardonnay have remained close as the two dominant grapes of Burgundy, and, along with Pinot Meunier, as traditional partners in Champagne blends. Even “white” Champagne is made from the red Pinot varieties; winemakers quickly press the grapes to separate the juice from the skins, where the color lies. In fact, a Blanc de Noir (“white from black”) is made from 100% red grapes (outside Champagne, however, some producers use this term for rosé wines). Elsewhere, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris play a part in sparkling wines; Richard Grant Peterson even makes a sparkling wine with his Wrotham Pinot. For some producers, especially in the New World, the sparkling option helps make growing Pinot Noir more viable; in a riper vintage, they use the grapes for red wine; in a cooler or shorter growing season, the less ripe, higher-acid grapes are great for sparkling wine. With such a difficult grape, what a relief that even a bad vintage can give you something to celebrate with.