Pinot primer: A look at varieties reveals surprising family history

Like many people, I had long thought that the various varieties of pinot grapes (and their wines), such as pinot grigio or pinot blanc, were mutations of a parent grape, pinot noir.

They are not; all pinots, including pinot noir, are clonal offspring of a vine called simply “pinot,” as Jancis Robinson points out in her extraordinary tome, “Wine Grapes.”

There are more than 1,000 registered clones of pinot, according to Robinson. Why so many pinots? Clonal diversity is always explained by time; pinot has been with us for more than 2,000 years.

The “black, white, gray” declension of pinot into, respectively, pinot noir, pinot blanc, pinot gris (to use just the French; the names appear of course in other languages) is helpful, but it is possible to find all three colors on a single vine. Striped grapes have been observed!

Funny, pinot blanc isn’t actually white when ripe (it’s a golden green); pinot gris isn’t gray at all (but decidedly pink); and pinot noir isn’t black but rather resolutely blue-black. Why use “black” at all? Because winemakers all over the world call dark grapes “black” and lighter grapes “white.” Grapes that are neither very dark nor quite light-colored, be they orangish, coppery or pink, such as pinot gris or sauvignon gris, get called “gray.”

Even given pinot’s clonal diversity, individual pinots nonetheless mutate.

For example, pinot blanc is a mutation of pinot gris; pinot gris itself a mutation of pinot noir. Pinot meunier, famed in Champagne, apparently is a free-standing clone, which may explain why the French often call it simply “meunier.”

It gets its cool name from the French word for “miller,” the person who grinds grain, because of the way the underside of its leaves looks dusted with flour when the grapes are ripe. (When you cook sole a la meuniere, you cook it as would the miller’s wife, dredged in flour before sauteing it in butter.)

I decided to compound all these oddities by finding for you some even odder pinots to recommend as well-made and delicious wines. We know pinot blanc, for example, as a still wine, but there are fine examples of sparkling pinot blanc too. Pinot meunier rarely shows up outside of Champagne, and even more rarely as a nonsparkling, or still, red wine. But California has some winemakers doing well by it in that fashion.

Pinot grigio (the Italian for “pinot gris”) has been bastardized so badly by Italian winemakers that it’s odd to find actually good examples of it from there; they happily happen. And pinot noir exists without the “noir,” when made as a white wine. All the winemakers had to do was quickly remove the grape skins on crushing them. Some wonderful white pinot noir is being made.

And as for fine European pinot noir, it need not come from only the Cote d’Or of Burgundy nor always cost in the three digits. Southern Burgundy makes some delicious red pinot, as do, oddly enough, other places in Europe.

So, some pinot blanc first; good Italian pinot grigio second; then some white pinot noir; and finally a couple of delish pinot noirs and fine red pinot meunier.


NV Helfrich Cremant d’Alsace, Alsace, France: All pinot blanc, from superior vineyards in Alsace’s north; traditional method for a fine mousse. $22

2012 Wagner Stempel Weissburgunder, Siefersheim, Rhinehessen, Germany: The Germans revere pinot blanc; here’s all that almond-and-apple deliciousness juicily rendered. $28-$30

2011 Alois Lageder Pinot Blanc Haberle, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy: From Lageder’s best vineyard; cooked pear, super-soft texture; zesty yet opulent. $20-$25

2013 Cantina Tramin Pinot Grigio Unterebner, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy: For the same price as some PGs from a blend of vineyards, you can have this single-vineyard version that’s way more delicious; different fermentation techniques and less stirring give it real character. $30

2012 Elena Walch Pinot Grigio Castel Ringberg, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy: Again, another single vineyard PG and from one of northern Italy’s great winemakers; ripe pear and apple flavors, creamy texture and true pinot gris spice. $26

2013 Attems Pinot Grigio, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Italy: Here’s a PG at a great price with memorable earthy/minerally tones and good flesh. $20

2013 Angel Camp Vineyard Pinot Noir Blanc, Anderson Valley, Mendocino, Calif.: What a delicious white wine for the table! Stone fruit aromas and flavors with fun notes of citrus and minerals, sleekly delivered. $35

2013 Tolosa Winery Pinot Noir Blanc, Edna Valley, Calif.: Particularly plush for a white wine (lots of lees aging) but with some spring to its step aroma- and flavor-wise. $28

2012 Podere Monastero La Pineta Pinot Nero, Tuscany, Italy: I know, a Tuscan pinot noir? ‘Twill blow your mind, this one ‘twill: like a villages-level Gevrey, pitch perfect pinot. $60

2012 Domaine Faiveley Mercurey Clos des Myglands, Burgundy, France: The great vintage helps turn this best-buy Burg into a richly layered (aroma, texture, flavor — all three) red from a place to find good value Burgundy. $45

2013 Domaine Chandon Pinot Meunier, Carneros, Calif.: Bright, open, generous in aromas and flavors of red fruits, red apple skin and spice; a terrific table topper and talk-about wine. $35

If your wine store does not carry these wines, ask for one similar in style and price.