Class Recap: “Pinot”

Pinot is ancient. It’s morphologically close enough to wild vines to be one step out of the forest. It’s old enough that it has no parentage, none that we can reconstruct; but cross-pollinated with gouais blanc in the vineyard, it birthed an entire universe of varieties in northern France: chardonnay, melon de bourgogne, romorantin, aligoté, gamay—this is just to name the best-known. Pinot is a great-grandparent of syrah, and a grandfather to chenin. Follow its family tree and you’ll find everything from refosco to rotgipfler. It’s older than all of them.

Pinot was once considered unusually prone to mutation, but the truth is its spectrum of diversity is really just a function of how long it’s been around, and how much it’s been loved. It’s been vegetatively propagated (which is to say: cuttings named, carried, placed in the ground to grow again in the spitting image of their parent) for a long, long time.

When that happens, a little gene will occasionally toggle. One of the simplest is for the color of the grape skins on the fruit of the vine itself: you see it all the time in older, well-travelled varieties (grenache, carignan, picpoul). And so there are pink- and gold-skinned versions of the blue-black pinot noir that crop up in different places, and in different languages. Ruby-pink often rendered as ‘grey,’ grau or gris or grigio; gold as ‘white,’ weiss or blanc or bianco.

There are qualitative differences, too, in some of these mutations: clusters tighter or looser, bunches bigger or smaller. Sometimes they get chosen, in a specific place, and given special names. Pinot has a lot of these. One that’s mentioned frequently enough it’s often treated as its own variety: meunier, literally “miller’s pinot”, for the fuzzy white hairs on the underside of its leaves that look like dustings of flour.

These days, now that plantings are by clonal selection from nurseries grafted onto rootstock rather than cuttings plugged into the ground, pinot attracts a lot of conversation about those clones (Dijon 113-15 or 777? Wädenswil G5V15?), which is tedious but a reflection of that ancient diversity. Plants epigenetically adapt to their environment, which is to say that DNA is not destiny; another question a person might ask is, ‘how genetically diverse was your plant material to begin with?’

I come back again and again to this grape, for different reasons. On the one hand, it’s responsible for some of the best classic wines in the world, and it’s a widely recognized brand. On the other hand, its widely recognized brands are incoherent—genetically, it is both red Burgundy and industrial pinot grigio—and even if you try to confine yourself only to classic wine regions you’ll still run out of places and producers long before class is over: not just in Burgundy but in the eastern Loire and in Champagne, in the Jura and in Switzerland, in northeastern Italy, in Alsace and across the Rhine in Baden, in Otago and the Willamette, Niagara Escarpment and Adelaide Hills—and I haven’t even mentioned the entire state of California yet, deserving of an entire essay thanks to that one movie.

Which is to say: pinot is wonderful. It’s thin-skinned and early budding, with naturally high acidity, susceptible to frost and vulnerable to disease. It’s a testament to how beautiful wines made from this grape can be that it’s been taken to so many places, despite the difficulty.

But also, it raises the question: if it can be this many different things, what was the use of grape variety as brand name in the first place?

Class was on Sunday, March 5. Here are some other questions to ask while you taste:

1. Pinot has global brand recognition. Would these wines make you happy if you ordered ‘a pinot’ at a bar? Why or why not?

2. Burgundy is one of the most celebrated wines in the world, a celebration of place so profound it’s often forgotten which grapes it’s made out of. How does our red Burgundy feel different from the other wines in the lineup? Are there any ways it feels similar?

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How it might look on a wine list

In one sentence
Infusion-style red Burgundy from a quiet icon off the beaten path.

Who made it? Sylvain Pataille began his domaine in 1999 with a single hectare and has grown to 15, farms biodynamically, and makes more than 20 different bottlings that explore the terroirs of his home village.
From where? Marsannay, a village outside of Dijon at the very tippy-top of the Côte d’Or, the eroded limestone escarpment that is home to Burgundy’s fanciest real estate and ground zero for the cult of pinot noir.
Out of what? If I’m reading the Becky Wasserman tech sheet right, a single plot of just over an acre, planted in 1956, almost entirely destemmed, in a set of barrels that includes a couple of new ones Sylvain is breaking in.

How it might look on a wine list
ENDERLE & MOLL, Grauburgunder, BADEN

In one sentence
Chameleon pinot gris from one of Baden’s leading natural lights.

Who made it? Sven Enderle & Florian Moll: two guys, a basket press, 2 hectares they farm themselves plus a few plots they’ve recently taken over, and a little bit of purchased fruit, in a region where 90% of growers sell to the cooperatives.
From where? Baden, in Germany’s south, with the Black Forest to its back, the Alps to the south, and Alsace across the Rhine
Out of what? Grauburgunder, literally grey Burgundy, is the same variety as pinot grigio. Just as in northern Italy, it can do some really surprising things fermented with skin contact, without all of what it is stripped out with sterile filtration or cold-settled. The spectrum ranges from copper to electric pink, and is endlessly fascinating to me; Alsace is a big place to find it, but other examples range from Mick Craven in Stellenbosch to Jerome Bretaudeau in Pays Nantais.

How it might look on a wine list
MARGINS, pinot noir, “Makjevich Vineyard”, Santa Cruz Mountains

In one sentence
Human-sized coastal California pinot noir farmed with care and made with an attention to place.

Who made it? Megan Bell (first vintage 2016) is a one-woman operation; her winery is in the Santa Cruz mountains, and she purchases from 8-10 vineyards in a given year, as well as farming a small 2-acre plot herself under a lease agreement. (In her words: “obviously i do not own any land (lol) because this is California, i’m 30ish years old, and my family isn’t $$$.” Same.)
From where? Remember that small 2-acre plot she farms herself? This is it! It’s her and one other dude named Larry. The pinot vines are in full flower right now (ETA: this was back in March), a little worryingly early to be honest. It’s lost in the hills near the coast above Santa Cruz. I talked with her about this wine at Wild World last fall, since it had been really reduced in barrel and was finally resolving itself. If our conversation is anything to go by, it’s still pretty reduced for a lot of you!—but that savory-smoky beet mushroom smoky forest set of aromas is one of the things I love about it.

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