Pinot. The word keeps popping up like Paris Hilton in your spam box. Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Grigio. What’s up with that?
Welcome to this brilliant, dysfunctional family of grapes, whose ancestral vault was recently pillaged by DNA-crazed scientists, to reveal some shocking skeletons.
Named for the pinecone that its clusters resemble, Pinot is one of the oldest cultivated wine grapes. 1st century Romans were crazy for it and carried around little papyrus vintage charts only they kept drinking too early because the years went backward.
Not long after, a Pinot forefather went slumming, crossing paths with a deadbeat floozy named Gouais Blanc. This grape is so awful that the French won’t grow it and it was outlawed thrice in the Middle Ages. That didn’t keep it from reproducing heedlessly, generating oceans of dreadful wine.
From this sordid union of outcast and aristocrat sprung sixteen of the world’s greatest grapes; four of them Pinots: Gris, Blanc, Meunier and Noir.
Pinot Blanc, kind of a low fat Chardonnay, is charming and affordable. Lithe, crisp, and flowery when young, she develops complex honey tones with age. She shines in cool regions like Alsace and Italy’s Alto Adige and the New World has not been blind to her charms.
But she’s a scammer. Like Andy Warhol, signing art made by his staff, she gets credit for work she hasn’t done. In Alsace, a wine labeled Pinot Blanc can contain other family grapes and even outsiders. In fact, it doesn’t require her presence at all.
Pinot Gris is a grape with identity issues. One day she’s flabby and bland, the next thin and astringent, or all oaked up like a Chardonnay impersonator. Add to the confusion her split personality: one clone, Tokay à petits grains(italics), makes noble, complex wines. But you’re much more likely to run into the dull, but prolific gros grain(Italics), key player in far too many Italian Pinot Grigios.
Aromatically challenged, she makes it up in texture. The best Pinot Gris is dense and sleek like a sea lion, and rarely clashes with food. She, too, excels in Alsace, where they sometimes call her Tokay. Germany and Oregon also transcend her neuroses and coax her to perform.
Pinot Meunier is not the brightest crayon in the box. With low tannin and color he’s useless for aging. But he’s found his niche in the family business as a supporting player in Champagne, where he adds acid and bright, fruity notes to the mix.
Then there’s Pinot Noir, the heartbreaker. Dashing, full flavored, with mesmerizing earthiness, his perfume and silky texture seduce with poetry when other reds would drag you to their cave. A high-maintenance romancer, he’s prone to every grape affliction known. He’s temperamental, unstable, a grape of 1000 clones (versus Cabernet’s 12.) Which explains his little perversion: cross-dressing. One day he’s a vineyard of red grapes; next he’s wearing his sisters’ underwear – becoming gris or even blanc. Hungry for attention, he’ll wear red and white berries on the same vine, even in the same bunch of grapes.
Despite this, he keeps company with that gorgeous, well-bred star, Chardonnay. They share vineyards in Burgundy and sometimes the same bottle in Champagne. Yet a shadow hangs over this union. To her intense embarrassment, though she’s denied it for centuries, Chardonnay turns out to be a not-so-distant cousin, descended from the same, shameful mating that produced the Pinots. Any offspring these two produced would be plagued with the inbred feebleness endemic in royal families. The robust Gouais Blanc was just the dose needed, it seems, to turn a weary aristocrat into a patriarch of noble wine.
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