The Pinot Family: Progenitors Par Excellence

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Issue 000 | pp 10-14 | 01.04.2019

The Pinot Family: Progenitors Par Excellence

An old cliché in the wine trade says that all roads for wine lovers lead to Burgundy, but an awful lot of wine roads wouldn’t exist at all if it weren’t for Burgundy’s primary grapes of fame, the Pinot family. If not for this single, sprawling family of cultivars, we’d be forced to do without many of the most beloved wines in the world, especially ones we now enjoy from France, Oregon and much of California.

The somewhat extended Cabernet family, whose most famous member, Cabernet Sauvignon, was conceived when Cabernet Franc (a.k.a. Bréton) hooked up with Sauvignon Blanc in France’s Loire Valley, has entrenched itself across the globe. Nevertheless, it can’t hold a candle to the extended reach of the Pinot clan. Indeed, no grape family can rival it—at least when it comes to what most wine lovers consider to be serious grape varieties.

The Pinot family’s origins stem from the fruit of a wild Alpine vine, which at some point was tamed and became what’s now known as Pinot Noir. At some point, Pinot Noir mutated to create Pinot Meunier (now heavily planted and growing in popularity in Champagne). Additionally, Pinot Noir gave rise to Pinot Gris, which is also called Pinot Beurot in Burgundy. Most recently, an albino mutation has arisen. It is different from Pinot Gris, and is famously grown by Burgundy’s Gouges family at Nuits-Saint-Georges, and slowly finding its way to other countries via the tried-and-true (if also illegal) suitcase method.

Things really turned interesting after Pinot Noir had a number of encounters with the lowly, high yielding Gouais variety. Their random hook-ups over the centuries produced—among others—the Gamay family, Auxerrois (more widely known as Pinot Blanc and, in Alsace, as Klevener), Aligoté, Melon de Bourgogne (a.k.a. Muscadet), and, most important of all, Chardonnay. The impact of Gouais cannot be underestimated here, as all of those varieties are prized, or in some cases cursed for their tendency to throw off large crops if left to their own devices. Contrast that to the meager yields of Pinot Noir in most regions and it becomes clear that Pinot’s choice of Gouais as a booty call variety has been an enormous help in extending its bloodline across the globe.

Gouais, whose origins are in Austria or Croatia (depending on who’s telling the tale), has gotten around quite a bit on its own. It crossed with a cousin of Pinot Noir called Pinot Fin Teinturier, which has a red pulp, to create Romorantin, which is rare and highly prized in the Loire Valley, and also with another red-pulp variety, Trousseau, to produce the now almost extinct Sacy of Burgundy. And in a feat that matches its Chardonnay accomplishment with Pinot Noir, it also created—with the help of an unknown wild grape and Traminer—Riesling. Although Pinot Noir gets all the glory, it’s fitting to pay homage to Gouais also, which is virtually never bottled on its own or even planted now. Where would the fine wine world be without it?

Further reinforcing the primacy of the Pinot family outside the sordid, rambling Gouais affair, recent evidence suggests that Pinot Noir might be at least partially responsible for creating Viognier and Syrah, which isn’t all that surprising given those varieties’ ancient origins in the Alps. Various members of the Mondeuse family no doubt played a role in those Rhône varieties’ conception, as evidence on the origin of Serine (the proto-Syrah) has proven. Indeed, many of the finest examples of Condrieu and Côte-Rôtie (from producers such as Vernay, Gentaz-Dervieux, Dervieux-Thaize, Rostaing, Jamet, Clusel-Roch and Ogier) are prized for their “Burgundi- an” character, especially with age, and their emphasis on finesse over weight and brute force even when young.

Broadly speaking, wines made from the Pinot family’s grapes are, at their core, perfumed, delicate and precise, with excellent food-matching capacity thanks to their high natural acidity. While some success has been attained from plantings of the various Pinot varieties in warm climates, by far the highest-quality renditions have emanated from cool climates and limestone-rich soils similar to the progenitor’s homeland in the Swiss and French Alps and, especially, Burgundy. The various offspring generally take well to wood, and even to new wood, as in the examples of Pinot Gris, Auxerrois, Gamay, Pinot Meunier and, of course, Chardonnay. While there are a number of successful encounters of Melon with wood, it’s almost always of the large, used variety, as anybody who has tasted a new-oaked Muscadet will attest.

Chardonnay’s story is well known, as it has become at once the most loved and reviled variety in the world of fine white wine. While most Chardonnays are either innocuous or, in many cases, jacked up with oak (and in the worst cases, oak flavorings), it’s also the variety responsible for white Burgundy, which seemingly commands as much attention from the high-end market as all other white wine regions combined. Cropped carefully, Chardonnay can produce unctuous, deeply textured and aromatically complex wines that rival most reds. But growers, especially in Burgundy, will tell you that Chardon- nay can achieve great results without draconically low yields and, of equal importance, without coming from old vines, as is necessary to make great Pinot Noir.

That’s a major factor explaining Chardonnay’s current dominance of the Côte-de-Beaune, which was planted predominantly to Pinot Noir through the late 20th century, even in Chassagne-Montrachet, a village directly associated with Chardonnay. While some will say that changing tastes were responsible for the widespread shift from Pinot Noir to Chardonnay in Burgundy, my own talks with growers suggest that the reason is more about ease of farming, larger crops and earlier harvests—in other words, not about the market, but about facilitating the work lives of the vignerons.

Sharing a DNA makeup that is identical to Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris (which is also called Pinot  Grigio in Italy, where it makes light-bodied wines bearing little resemblance to their French cousins) can occasionally produce wines—especially in Alsace—that rival top-end white Burgundy for power and aromatic complexity. There’s often a tell-tale smokiness to the wines, a trait that’s often enhanced by many producers’ use of small and sometimes new oak casks for the wines’ aging regimen. Pinot Gris is capable of reaching high sugar levels in the dry Alsace climate, and is a favorite of many producers for late harvest, sweet Vendange Tardive and even Sélection de Grains Nobles bottlings. In Burgundy, its homeland, Pinot Gris (or Beurot) is almost extinct. There are scattered plantings in the northern Côte-de-Beaune and in the Hautes-Côtes, but the fruit is almost always blended into oblivion.

First recognized in vineyards near the northern Burgundy village of Auxerre, the Auxerrois variety, which is now almost always called Pinot Blanc, can also produce wines that rival Chardonnay for heft but rarely, if ever, for complexity. In generations past it was a reliable blending grape, as it could achieve high alcohol levels and bring weight and power to the game. After Riesling, it’s the most widely planted variety in Alsace and the workhorse for virtually every winery there. Like Pinot Gris, it has become a footnote in its native Burgundy, where it can occasionally be found, mostly in the form of old vines residing in the same places as Beurot. It also shares with Beurot the fate of being blended and usually hidden away in more noble white Burgundy bottlings.

Aligoté’s circumstances have been quite a bit more favorable than those of Pinot Beurot and Pinot Blanc in Burgundy, at least when it comes to survival. The vast majority of Aligoté is pretty forgettable. Indeed, the variety would likely be little talked about by high-end wine fans if not for a single wine, the Bouzeron (formerly called Aligoté de Bouzeron, so you know that it’s getting respect) of Aubert and Patricia de Villaine, best known for Aubert’s co-ownership and oversight of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti in Burgundy’s Côte-de-Nuits. It’s an outstanding wine in its own right, and, increasingly, priced to reflect it.

While Aligoté is still widely planted up and down the Côte d’Or and bottled with a varietal designation (it’s also blended into fancier wines, but that’s not talked about too much) it is not given sustained attention by more than a few growers, notably Domaine Ponsot, where it’s now the single variety used in the estate’s rare Morey-Saint-Denis Monts Luisants Blanc (which comes from vines that are over 100 years old and is entitled to be labeled as a Premier Cru, a unique and lofty designation for the variety). Evidence of the wine-growing world’s lack of interest in Aligoté is provided by the fact that it is so rarely planted outside Burgundy. In California, Calera Wine Company bottles a varietal rendition, and Jim Clendenen gives it some serious attention at Au Bon Climat, where it is occasionally bottled as a stand-alone (and always plays a big part in his high-end Hildegard wine, which is a blend of Aligoté, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris, making it a quite unique beast).

The Melon variety would probably never have found a home outside of Burgundy if it weren’t for one of the most brutal winters recorded in European history, in 1709, when the brackish water at the mouth of the Nantes river—near Muscadet—literally froze. The area’s vineyards (most of which were planted to red varieties whose fruit was used to make a bland wine destined to be distilled into brandy for the Dutch market) were decimated by the wicked winter of 1709, and the growers and authorities sought a more hardy, high-yielding variety to replace them. Melon de Bourgogne fit the bill. Planting took place in earnest through the middle of the 18th century, resulting in Muscadet as we know it today.

The best versions of Muscadet can give Chablis a run for its money, especially if the wines are sourced from soils rich in granite, schist and gneiss. Those aren’t easy to find in the region and, even then, most growers who own sites that have those soils are dissuaded from making serious wines by the world market’s ongoing disinterest (if not outright disdain) for Muscadet. A few dreamers in Oregon are taking a stab at producing serious Melon, with some promising results, and it can be found across California, where, ironically, it was originally thought to be Pinot Blanc (and many versions of the variety are still labeled as such).

Pinot Meunier now comprises almost a third of the vine plantings in Champagne, where it is prized for its ability to withstand early season frosts and its affinity for clay soils. But is very rarely bottled by itself, much less labeled as a varietal offering there. A notable exception is José Michel, in Moussy, who makes outstanding wines based heavily on Meunier and also bottles a non-vintage Champagne that’s made entirely from the variety. One bumps into varietal bottlings occasionally from California and Oregon (the version made by Amalie Robert is wonderful), but most Pinot specialists have opted to stick with Pinot Noir, which, broadly speaking, makes more aromatically complex wines than its mutant offspring.

Once conscripted to the ash heap of vinous history—at least as far as serious wine lovers were concerned—Gamay, especially and almost exclusively from Beaujolais, has mounted a stunning turnabout of fortune in the 21st century. Thanks to the efforts of a growing number of serious producers who are tapping into the impressive soil diversity and landscapes of their hilly region, Beaujolais is now one of the hottest categories of French wine for sommeliers, retailers and drinkers around the world. Anyone lucky enough to have experienced a Beaujolais from a great vintage like 1945, 1947, 1949 or 1959 alongside a Burgundy from the same year knows just how great these wines can be. As more recent and down-to-earth examples, many Beaujolais wines from 1985, 1989, 1990, 1999, 2005, 2009 and 2010 can put on a show far more impressive than many suppose is possible for Gamay.

Gamay, when it’s well made, will always be emphatically fruity, floral and spicy, often with a touch of herbacity and even more often with a bright mineral underpinning. Most Beaujolais proves underwhelming on account of being made via carbonic maceration, and many producers still crop too high and resort to commercial yeasts, followed by early bottling. Nevertheless, every vintage brings with it the appearance of wines made by an increasing number of men and women who eschew convenience and take the tougher road of attentive growing and cellar work, often with outstanding results. The market has yet to really catch up to the Beaujolais renaissance, and prices for all but a few objects of desire continue to be very low for the quality delivered, with a vast number of excellent wines from the best villages of the region selling for $25 or less—sometimes much less.

It’s impossible, from the viewpoint of a wine consumer or merchant in 2015, to imagine a world without these varieties, which all came about through freak accidents of nature that occurred ages ago. Much credit for what we know about the lineage of the grapes that make the wines that we all love and—in the case of the trade, live by—must go to Carole Meredith, a now-retired geneticist at the University of California, Davis and its famed Department of Viticulture and Enology. She retired in 2003 to start her own winery, the highly regarded Lagier-Meredith, with her husband Stephen Lagier. Despite her retirement from research, her influence is actually still expanding as interest in wine and its origins continues to rise around the world. We’re all indebted to her work for our increased knowledge of the origins of the wine we’re drinking, and for helping us to avoid forgetting (if you’ll permit the paraphrase) that it isn’t just grape juice.

Reprint from TEXSOM presents SOMMELIER Volume 000, pages 10–14