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Pinot in the Spotlight

The Pinot Family is much in the spotlight these days. No, its members aren’t characters in another violent videogame. They haven’t engaged in public infidelity or banking fraud, and they’re not attempting health care reform or plotting a terrorist attack. Instead, the Pinot Family is a collection of ancient grape varietals that mutated from a single, wild plant, growing in dirt two thousand years ago somewhere in Burgundy, France. As science informs us, its fruit fell off a ragged vine into the hollow of a rock and fermented into a gooey liquid that caught the happy attention of some lucky guy passing through. We have no idea who the guy was, but he spread the word, and the vine prospered because of the care and attention it got subsequently. We do know, though, that the fruit was Pinot Noir, or Pino Nero to you Italiphiles.

All of the Pinots that we have come to love, no matter their diverse colors and flavors, are related and so named because the grape bunches suggest the form of a pine cone, pin in French. But their more important relationship is that they all mutated from the ancient Pinot Noir grape, which over millennia has morphed into 1000 different clones and grape varieties, most of which we ignore in favor of 46 clones and a handful of different varieties.

Along with Pinot Bianco and Pinot Grigio, which today are household words, Pinot Meunier and Auxerrois are other important Pinot grapes. The red Meunier is cultivated in Champagne, France and blended into the region’s sparkling wines, while Auxerrois Blanc is cultivated in Alsace and used in still blends with other grapes. Red Pinotage is another interesting variant that is common in South Africa, but unlike the others, which naturally mutated, Pinotage was a deliberate cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsaut. Chardonnay is sometimes referred to as Pinot Chardonnay, but the name is misleading. Chardonnay has no relationship to any of the Pinot varieties, except that it is the principal white grape of Burgundy, France and at one time was incorrectly thought to be a white mutation of Pinot Noir, which is the noble red grape of Burgundy.

While Pinot varieties are indigenous to France, and specifically Burgundy, where Pinot Noir, French for “black,” achieves its greatest expression, the Pinot varieties are widely planted in many other parts of the world. Pinot Noir requires a cool climate so is very much at home in northern Italy, especially in Trentino-Alto Adige. And just as it is cultivated in Champagne, France for the great sparkling wines of the area, it is also cultivated in Italy for the same purpose in Lombardia, Friuli, and the Veneto.

California is also in love with the Pinot Family as is Oregon, and viticulturists have planted it in the cooler appellations of these states for both still and sparkling wines. California’s best Pinot Noir comes from cool appellations, such as Carneros, Russian River Valley, parts of Monterey, San Luis Obispo, and Santa Barbara counties.

Generally not as complex as Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, French for “white,” is considered to be a more substantial wine than Pinot Gris. Pinot Blanc’s principal growing region in France is Alsace, where it makes pleasant, dry wines. Pinot Bianco in Italy makes an even finer still wine in Alto-Adige but is mostly cultivated for sparkling wines in Lombardia, especially Franciacorta, where it can make sparkling wine that rivals Champagne. Pinot Bianco is also cultivated in the Veneto and Friuli, as well as Trentino-Alto Adige.

Pinot Gris, French for “gray,” or in Italian Pinot Grigio, refers to the grayish color of the grape. The color of the finest Pinot Grigio is slightly orange, unlike Pinot Bianco, which is a pale straw color. In the last ten years here in the U.S., Pinot Grigio, both home grown and imported, has become the second most popular white wine after Chardonnay because it offers a contrast to heavier California Chardonnay. In France, most Pinot Gris, like Pinot Blanc, is cultivated in Alsace, and while Pinot Gris tends to be lighter than Pinot Blanc, it can also have rich, honeyed expressions there and in Friuli and Alto-Adige, where it is mostly cultivated in Italy. In a word, the Pinot family of wines, whether red, white, or gray, is a remarkably ancient one that has continued to offer us much enjoyment.

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