from the CellarGet to know the grapes–PINOT NOIR and PINOT GRIS/GRIGIO

The March CORNERS COLLECTION has been specially selected to complement our Sunday School lessons.

This article begins an exploration of the family of grapes related to pinot noir.  Where most grape varietals develop through crossings of one varietal with another (sexual reproduction), pinot noir is able to produce new varietals on its own due to its genetic instability and its propensity to produce genetic mutations.  We’ll focus on the two most famous members of the family (pinot noir and pinot gris/grigio) and some of their key appellations and growing regions, but we’ll also get to know some of the lesser known members of the family (pinot blanc/bianco, pinot meunier, and pinotage).  We’ll also explore a few stylistic variations that you might encounter with these grapes (“blanc de noir” and “ramato”).

Pinot noir is often described as a “sexy grape.”  Don’t worry if you are puzzled by this — so was I. . .  at least until I encountered my first pinot noir that truly lived up to this description.  I realized quickly that there are two kinds of “sexy” — Charo sexy (loud, boisterous, and energetic — kind of “party” sexy) and Veronica Lake sexy (quiet, subdued, and beguiling — more “come-hither” sexy).  Good pinot noir is Veronica Lake sexy. . .  It is gentle, delicate, and restrained. It is also generally pale in color and light in tannic structure, leading many to believe that it will be feeble and limpid, but within its restrained, meek presentation is a whirlwind of sensual delights:  silky and soft in texture; simultaneously bright and dark on the palate; not only fruity, but also earthy.  Pinot noir is also quite demanding and temperamental.  It is very thin-skinned, very sensitive to climate, and highly affected by soil.  In short, pinot noir can be an expensive proposition for both the wine grower and the wine drinker — but it doesn’t have to be. . .  Originally from Burgundy, pinot noir is now grown quite well in a number of areas (mostly cool climate), including the French regions of Champagne and the Loire Valley, areas of California (particularly cooler parts of the North Coast counties of Mendocino, Sonoma, and Napa and the Central Coast counties of San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara ), Oregon, New Zealand, and even Italy (where it is known as pinot nero) and Germany (where it is known as spätburgunder).  In general, pinot noir tends to display:

  • Fruit notes of red fruit (cherry and strawberry) and black fruit (black cherry and plum) which may be ripe and tart in European wines and jammy or confected in American and New Zealand wines; additionally notes of orange in European wines and blueberry in American and New Zealand wines

  • Floral notes of lavender

  • Herbal notes of  tea, tarragon, and thyme

  • Vegetal notes of beet, tomato leaf, and (especially in European wines) rhubarb and fennel

  • Spice notes of licorice/anise in European wines or allspice/cola and/or sassafras in American wines

  • Earthy notes of mushroom, forest floor, and dead leaves/compost

  • Oak influenced notes of smoke, baking spices, vanilla, and sometimes (from newer oak) coffee.

Considering the general components of wine (alcohol, sugar, acid, and tannin (the component in oversteeped tea that cause the inside of your mouth to feel rough and dry), pinot noir tends to be:

  • Moderate to high in alcohol

  • Dry, meaning that is has little residual sugar (sugar remaining after fermentation), although fruit character may certainly be present

  • Moderate to high in acidity

  • Moderate in tannin.

Like pinot noir, pinot gris/grigio originated in Burgundy — but as a natural genetic mutation of pinot noir.  Today, pinot gris (known locally as pinot beurot) is rather uncommon in Burgundy, although there are still plantings of the grape in the region.  As the grape is not allowed to be appellated as Bourgogne/Burgundy, most pinot beurot is bottled varietally; the rest is (illegally) blended with pinot noir.  Today, pinot gris is most commonly associated with the French region of Alsace and, as pinot grigio, with the Italian regions of the Tre-Venezie (Trentino-Alto Adige, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, and the Veneto).  French pinot gris tends to have a rich, spice driven character.  Italian pinot grigio, on the other hand, tends to be lighter and crisper.  The wines are produced from the same grape with the variations born from terroir (natural influences) and from winemaking methods.  The grape is also grown in Germany (where it is known as grauburgunder or ruländer), the United States (in Oregon and California), and New Zealand.  The name (gris or grigio) in American and New Zealand wines generally indicates either a French or Italian style of production.  In general, pinot gris/grigio tends to display:

  • Fruit notes of apple, pear, peach, apricot, lemon, orange, and/or melon which may be heightened in American versions

  • Floral notes of yellow and white flowers like honeysuckle

  • Spicy notes of ginger, clove, or vanilla

  • Earthy notes of mushroom, minerals, and stones

  • Production influenced notes of (in French versions) hazelnuts, wax, wool, and/or honey (the latter from botrytis — more on that later) or (in Italian versions) almonds and/or yeast.

Considering the general components of wine (alcohol, sugar, acid, and tannin (the component in oversteeped tea that cause the inside of your mouth to feel rough and dry), pinot gris/grigio tends to be:

  • Moderate in alcohol

  • Dry to off-dry, meaning that is has little to slight residual sugar (sugar remaining after fermentation)

  • Moderate to high in acidity, with American version showing (generally) less acidity

  • Low in tannin (generally referred to as “phenolic bitterness” in white wines).

While we are most familiar with pinot gris/grigio as a white wine, the truth of the matter is that the grape is grayish-blue (hence the name “gris/grigio”) when ripe.  The color of the grape might be described more evocatively as “bruise colored”.  This skin coloration combined with the fact that (with VERY few exceptions) grape juice is relatively clear and almost colorless, leads to the development of some interesting oenological (wine-making) variations, namely “blanc-de-noirs” (white wines from the “black” grape(s) pinot noir and/or pinot meunier) and “ramato”  (copper colored wines from the “grey” grape pinot grigio).

In upcoming articles of the series, we will explore several key growing areas for pinot noir (Burgundy, Champagne, Oregon, California, and New Zealand) and pinot gris/grigio (Alsace and the Tre Venezie).  Along the way, we will see how geography, climate and tradition (among other factors), influence the final bottled product that we know as wine.  We’ll also get to know a few other grapes related to pinot noir, like pinot meunier and pinot blanc/bianco, as well as pinotage, a varietal created by a crossing of pinot noir and another varietal (cinsault).

Sláinte! (To your health!)

Terrell Abney, Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW), Society of Wine Educators and

Wine Buyer at Corners Fine Wine & Spirits in Peachtree Corners, GA

The March CORNERS COLLECTION has been specially selected to complement our Sunday School lessons.