Many popular varieties of wine grapes have the word “Pinot” in their name, including Pinot Noir, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Blanc, and Pinot Meunier. Are these grapes connected somehow? Understanding the relationship between these grapes will enhance your knowledge, appreciation, and enjoyment of all the Pinots you drink.
Varieties vs. Clones
In order to get to the bottom of the question, we’ll need to be a little technical, but hang in there – you’ll see why soon. When one grapevine pollinates another, the seeds that result have DNA mixed from the two parent plants. So, anytime a grape seed is planted, a new variety is born. As discussed in a previous post, vine growers who wish to avoid this genetic mixing and propagate a single variety use a technique called “grafting” – essentially, taking cuttings from a vine to produce a new plant rather than using seeds. Vines grown from cuttings are called “clones,” because they came from the same plant and are therefore genetically identical.
If a variety is cloned over and over for centuries, mutations can cause significant variation among examples of the same variety. The older a variety, the more mutations can occur – and Pinot is a very old variety. So, Pinot Noir, Grigio, Blanc, and Meunier are all the same variety, but different clones expressing various mutations. In fact, there are many more clones of Pinot, but they’re too obscure to worry about here.
Experts believe the name “Pinot” may be derived from the fact that its grape clusters have visual similarities to pine cones. Pinot is mentioned in the historical record as early as the fourteenth century, where it was already considered important in eastern France and southern Germany to both the nobility and the church. In addition to the large number of Pinot clones, it is also genetically related through a parent/offspring relationship to grapes like Chardonnay, Gamay, and Melon de Bourgogne. The Germans recognize Pinot’s historical link to France’s Burgundy region in the names for their Pinot clones: Spätburgunder, Weissburgunder, and Grauburgunder for Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, and Pinot Grigio respectively.
Perhaps the most famous of the clones, Pinot Noir is a light-bodied red grape with low to moderate tannins and bright berry flavors. It still finds its fullest expression in its home region of Burgundy, where it is the only red grape grown in any quantity and can command prices in excess of $10,000 per bottle. Fortunately, you can find Pinot Noir to fit almost any budget. For advice on buying Pinot Noir, see my previous post on the subject.
Known as “Pinot Gris” in France, Pinot Grigio is among the most popular white wines in the world – bottles hailing from Italy’s Veneto region are especially well known in America. Pinot Grigio has a clean profile of apple and pear with a very slightly bitter finish. Its somewhat neutral aromatics make it a wonderful pairing with delicate foods that might be overwhelmed by more aggressive wines.
Pinot Blanc is a particularly underappreciated white grape found mainly in France and Italy with similarities to Pinot Grigio, but with generally more acidity, citrus notes, and lean mineral character. I especially love Pinot Blanc from the Alsace region but more great example from the New World become available all the time. Try Pinot Blanc with seafood that contains a citrus element in its preparation, like halibut in lemon sauce.
Would it surprise you to learn that most of us have had this grape without even realizing it? It’s one of the unsung heroes of the Champagne region with a name translating roughly to “miller’s Pinot” because its leaves are speckled as though dusted with flour. Although it is a red grape, Pinot Meunier can be made into red, rosé, and white wines. Its very rare to find a Pinot Meunier made into a still, varietal wine despite the fact that it’s the second most planted variety in Champagne.
Now that you understand the difference – or more importantly, similarity – between the Pinot wines, you’ll be prepared to amaze your friends with both knowledge and great wines.