The Origins of the World’s Most Prized Grape: A History of Pinot Noir
The Origins of the World’s Most Prized Grape: A History of Pinot Noir
Introduction: The World’s Most Prized Grape?
There are few grape varietals which are more prized in the world today than Pinot Noir. While Cabernets, Syrah and many other types of common wines certainly make for fine wines, Pinot has a unique position amongst grape varietals. It is a complex grape, one which is used on the one hand to make the finest of Burgundies and strong New World wines, while somewhat contradictorily also being used to make some of the world’s best champagnes and sparkling wines. But it is not an easy task.
Pinot is a notoriously difficult grape to cultivate, being prone to hazard when growing and an unpredictable aging process following fermentation. But there is no doubt that it is regarded amongst the best types of Vitis vinifera and has been for many centuries. The following explores the origins and history of the world’s most prized grape.
The Origins of Vitis Vinifera in France
The Origins of Vitis Vinifera
In order to understand the history of Pinot Noir and where it came from, or at least attempt to, we need to go back thousands of years to query the origins of Vitis vinifera in its entirety. While archaeologists have been able to assemble many facts about wine fermentation and consumption five to seven thousand years ago, how grapes were first grown or produced remains unclear. For instance, while the paraphernalia of prehistoric wine production has been unearthed in the shape of wine jars and drinking vessels and grape remains have been found at Neolithic sites around the Eastern Mediterranean and into the Middle East, the growing of grapes has left very few traces.
Equally, while Egyptian hieroglyphics from the third millennium give us and insight into the fact that vineyards of a kind were being planted along the course of the River Nile nearly 5,000 years ago, we have little direct written information about wine and the growing of grapes until the Greeks and the Romans began writing about the subject during the second half of the first millennium BC.
Despite this lack of written records, it is clear that wild grapes of Vitis vinifera were first domesticated during the Neolithic Period in Transcaucasia, between the Black and Caspian Seas, where modern Turkey, Iraq, and Iran share borders. However, what is unclear is whether vinifera was domesticated once and then the domesticated versions were disseminated far and wide across the known world, or whether an ubiquitous wild vinifera species which might have been widely distributed throughout Europe and western Asia 10,000 years or more ago was subject to multiple domestications.
The Migration Theory
So this begs the question, how did Pinot Noir or its distant cousin find its way to France? The principle theory is the migration theory. This view originates with the work of Russian botanists at the end of the nineteenth century and was embraced by French viticulturists and ampelographers such as Pierre Viala in the early twentieth century. Viala believed that Vitis vinifera had been transported from Transcaucasia and Mesopotamia across the ancient Near East to Egypt, the Levant and Greece. From there the Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans gradually introduced the vine to Western Europe.
The picture of Greek and Roman settlements along the western Mediterranean coastline by the second century BC, with the well-known legacy of ceramic wine jars found at these settlements, is consistent with this scenario and with much of what is known about the spread of both wine and culture into Western Europe. The migration theory holds that the ancestor of Pinot Noir, whatever that might have been, was introduced into France in this way and gradually spread north from the coast to the Burgundy region in the first century BC and first century AD following the Roman conquest of what was then known as Gaul.
The French Origins Theory
However, there is a contrasting view to this, one which is based on some contradictions in the migration theory. There is, for instance, some evidence to indicate that grapes were already being cultivated and wine made in some parts of France before the first Greek settlements could have had any impact from the sixth century BC onwards. Moreover, several varieties of Vitis vinifera grown in northern Europe during the Middle Ages, including Pinot Noir, do not seem to resemble the grapes grown in the southern parts of Europe.
Finally, there is the inconvenient fact that as late as the mid-nineteenth century Vitis vinifera grew wild throughout the Mediterranean basin, as far north as Belgium and Luxembourg and east into Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania before the phylloxera epidemic destroyed Europe’s wild grapes.
All of these issues have led some scholars of wine history to speculate that many of the grape varietals which have been used in Western and Northern Europe for millennia, Pinot Noir being among them, are not descendants at all of the types of Vitis vinifera which were domesticated in the Caucasus region and Mesopotamia seven or eight millennia ago, but rather are types of grape which are native to regions like France.
“It is not unthinkable,” writes Raymond Bernard, the long-time chief of the Office Interprofessionnel des Vins in Dijon in Burgundy, “that wild vines could have existed in the vast forest of Gaul” long before the Greeks or Romans arrived, and that local wild Vitis vinifera could have been domesticated by the Celts and other peoples who lived here in pre-Greek and pre-Roman times. If this is true, then the history of Pinot Noir is that it is a likely candidate for a grape varietal of indigenous European origin, and perhaps even Burgundian origin.
The Possible Early History of Pinot Noir
Possible Roman References to Pinot Noir Wine
Searching for the first traces of modern grape varieties is treacherous business, given the imprecision of textual descriptions and the lack of detailed drawings. There are indications that vineyards may have flourished in what is now the Côte d’Or in Burgundy as early as the second century BC. The earliest surviving description of the vines planted here comes from the writings of Lucilus Junius Moderatus Columella, a farmer’s son from the area around modern Cadiz in Spain who composed De Re Rustica (On Rural Affairs) in the first century AD.
Columella, who was very knowledgeable about viticulture, describes “the smallest and best” of three grapes types found in Burgundy in terms that are not inconsistent with the properties of Pinot Noir. This type, according to Columella, had “the roundest leaf of all”, was “tolerant of drought and cold” and produced an age-worthy wine.
Some, such as the mid-nineteenth century scholar of viticulture, Jacques Lavalle, deemed this as sufficient evidence to suggest that Pinot or a near ancestor was being cultivated in France north of the Alps by the time of the early Roman Empire. Yet vastly greater evidence would be needed to prove this theory.
Another element of Roman literature which has been noted is the reference to the Allobrogica grape varietal by writers such as Columella, his contemporary, the encyclopaedist, Pliny the Elder, and the second century AD Greek philosopher, Celsus. This was cultivated in the lands of the Allobroges, a Celtic tribe living in the region between the River Rhone and the Alps. Some commentators have argued that Allobrogica was effectively the Roman name for Pinot, but again there seems little to uphold this theory other than mere wishful thinking and a geographical connection with the Burgundy region.
Pinot Noir in Early Medieval France
The possible history of Pinot in medieval France in the centuries between the collapse of Roman rule here in the fifth century down to the first verifiable references to Pinot in the fourteenth century are limited. For instance, a legend has emerged over the years that Charles III, the Carolingian Emperor and King of the Franks between 881 and 887, had Pinot cuttings planted in the Königsweingarten (‘King’s vineyard’) which he had built in 884 at Bodman in the Alpine region near where Switzerland, Austria and Germany meet today. The cuttings were said to have been introduced from Burgundy, but there is really no evidence to substantiate this theory.
Other evidence which has been martialled in support of the idea that Pinot was being cultivated in France much earlier than the fourteenth century has been assembled from place-names. For instance, the first references to Plantes de Pinaud in Mennetou-sur-Cher date to 1183, but it is far from proven that the ‘Pinaud’ in this name is a reference to this being somewhere Pinot was being grown. Yet, all of this aside, as we will see below, it is entirely likely that Pinot was being widely cultivated in France prior to the fourteenth century, but simply under different names.
The Emergence of Pinot Noir
Philip the Bold and his Wine
The first concrete mention of Pinot Noir in history by name comes from 1375 in an act issued by Philip II, Duke of Burgundy, better known as Philip the Bold. In this Philip ordered the shipment to Flanders, the western region of what is now Belgium which Philip had recently acquired through a marriage alliance, of ‘six queues and one poinçon’ (about 11 modern barrels) of ‘vermilion Pinot wine’. It is not the only reference to Philip the Bold and his liking for Pinot. Twenty years later, in 1395, he order Gamay vines, which were described in this record as ‘vile and noxious’, to be uprooted from the Côte d’Or region of Burgundy and replaced with Pinot.
From Morillon to Pinot Noir
While there is a clear consensus that Pinot emerged as the designated name for this prized grape varietal in the second half of the fourteenth century, this is not to suggest that scholars of French viticulture believe that the varietal itself appeared from nowhere at this time. Rather the broad consensus is that Pinot Noir had been grown and used for wine production for a long time, but was typically referred to as ‘Morillon’ or ‘Moreillon’, while other synonyms which were used to describe it in the medieval period included ‘Noirien’ and ‘Auvernat’.
These synonyms were typically used to refer to a black-berried grape variety and the fact that they were synonymous with the Pinot Noir of the fourteenth century has been well established. The earliest mention of Morillon is found in 1283 in a legal text entitled Les Coutumes de Beauvaisis by the jurist Philippe de Beaumanoir (1246/7–96), a collection of laws prevailing in the Beauvais region north of Paris. Here it is stated that:
“The right to wines as income, according to the custom, must be priced in three different types of wine, that is to say: fourmentel wine, moreillons wine and gros noirs wine. Wine of fourmentel, using the Clermont [Clermont-Ferrand] measure, must be paid 12 sols each for income, and the wine of moreillons 9 sols each for income every year, and the wine of gros noirs or goet 6 sols each for income.”
The name Noirien (from noir, meaning ‘black’) was used contemporaneously with Morillon and appears to date back even earlier to the mid-thirteenth century. Morillon was the more common term around Paris and northern France, while Noirien was common to certain parts of the Burgundy region. Finally, in 1302 we find reference to the same grape varietal as Auvernat in an act passed in Beaugency in the Loiret département, a synonym which would suggest that the varietal was believed to have come from the Auvergne region of France to the west of Burgundy.
The etymology of the term Morillon is not clear. Many authors have suggested that the term could be derived from the Moors (Maures in French) from North Africa, the Western European name for the Muslim people who controlled much of Spain during the medieval period, on account of the grapes’ dark-skinned berries resembling the Moors’ skin colour. A theory put forward in the mid-nineteenth century suggested that the name Morillon came from mour or mouret, the local name for ‘blackberry’, because of the shape and colour of the berries. However, a more plausible hypothesis is that Morillon comes from La Morée, a river in the Île-de-France region where the variety was historically widely planted.
While the origins of the word Morillion might be unclear, there is no doubt that it was understood to be a broad umbrella term for different types of Pinot Noir by the late medieval period. Thus, in the first quarter of the fifteenth century, just a few decades after the first mentions of Pinot during the reign of Philip the Bold, we find references to ‘Morillon dit Pinot’ and ‘Morillon appelé Pinot’, as if Pinot were being used to denote a subset of some larger type or class of red grapes.
Some of these references imply that Pinot vines were newly planted in the early fifteenth century. As a result, the great viticulturist and geographer, Roger Dion, hypothesized that Pinot was used to denote a grape variety or sub-variety of Morillon somehow superior to other related cultivars and one for which Philip the Bold may have coined the new name personally.
Other Theories Concerning the Origins of Pinot Noir
The origin of Pinot Noir has been the subject of much speculation, as is the case with many other very old and highly regarded grape varieties. Accordingly, a number of alternative theories have emerged over the years concerning its possible origin. Some of them are more far-fetched than others.
Writing in 1939 the Russian ampelographer A.M. Negrul, who was the first scholar of wine to classify Vitis vinifera L varieties into three large groups, suggested that Pinot Noir originated from the River Nile Valley in Egypt in ancient times, then spread to Greece and later from the Greeks to the Romans, who brought it to France around the fourth century AD. However, there is absolutely no historical, morphological or genetic evidence supporting this hypothesis which Negrul seems to have simply picked out thin air.
A slightly more plausible theory is that Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc originated in Valtellina in the Lombardy region of northern Italy. The basis for this is that Clevner is an old synonym for Pinot Noir in the Alsace region of eastern France and the Baden-Württemberg region of western Germany. Some have argued that Clevner is derived from Kleven or Kläven, the German name for Chiavenna, a city near Sondrio in Valtellina in Lombardy. As such, it has been suggested that Pinot originated in Italy, was brought north to Germany where it became known as Clevner owing to its origins around Chiavenna and then subsequently began to be used in Burgundy slightly to the west.
Finally, some studies have claimed that various alternative names for Pinot appear in documentary records dating to the early fourteenth century in the Baden-Wurttemberg region of Germany and the Jura region straddling the border between France and Switzerland. These references pre-date the appearance of Pinot in the Burgundy records in the second half of the fourteenth century and would suggest an alternative origin if proved correct, however such arguments are based on speculative interpretations of medieval grape varietal names.
A Grape Abroad: The Historical Spread of Pinot Noir
The Popularity of Pinot Noir in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe
No sooner has Pinot emerged fully into the historical record in the middle of the fourteenth century then there is evidence of its popularity. Indeed there are extreme examples of it. A letter of dismissal which was issued in 1394 by King Charles VI of France reported that a fifteen-year-old boy, who had been hired for the harvest in Saint-Bris-le-Vineux, had been beaten so badly by the owner of the vineyard that he had died. The boy’s error was that he had infringed an order given to the harvesters to set aside the Pinot Noir grapes to prevent them from being mixed with other kinds of grapes.
In the same year, an entry in Les ordonnances du Louvre (a collection of French royal ordinances) highlights the high value placed on wines made from Pinot. Many other documents later testified that Pinot Noir was already considered to be a variety of utmost quality in the late medieval period.
At the same time Pinot was clearly being exported to other parts of Europe, albeit while appearing under different regional names. Thus, we find it mentioned (under the synonym Klebroth) as being cultivated at Hattenheim in the Rheingau region of western Germany in 1470. In Switzerland, Pinot Noir was first mentioned in the towns of Cortaillod in 1766 and in Auvernier in 1775 under the local synonym Salvagnin. After the eighteenth century we find Pinot Noir mentioned as being cultivated in many other European countries such as Austria, Italy and Hungary.
Pinot’s Exportation Abroad
In the nineteenth century and with some gusto in the twentieth, thanks to immigrants, plant collectors and a growing number of serious vintners, Pinot was also transplanted to various parts of the world outside Europe, including South Africa, California, Chile, Australia, and New Zealand. For instance, it was Agoston Haraszthy, a Hungarian-American nobleman and adventurer, who first brought Pinot to California in 1861 when he arrived there with cuttings from thousands of different European vines. North America is now home to more Pinot Noir than Burgundy.
The Scale of Pinot Noir Production Today
Today there are about 11,000 acres of Pinot Noir in the Côte d’Or, the celebrated strip of east-facing slope between Dijon and Chalon-sur-Saône that is home to Burgundy’s finest wines. There are another 10,000 acres in southern Burgundy, in the districts called the Côte Chalonnaise and the Mâconnais, where no small quantity of Pinot is blended with Gamay to make Bourgogne Passetoutgrains. But some may be surprised to learn that Champagne is home today to more Pinot Noir than the Côte d’Or, and more Pinot is crushed for champagne than is made into still red Burgundies.
Pinot Noir is also grown and made as a varietal wine in Alsace and Sancerre, and grown primarily for blending in Lorraine, the Jura, Savoie, Menetou-Salon, and St.-Pourçain. It is the fourth most planted grape varietal in Germany, surpassed only by Riesling, Müller-Thurgau and Sylvaner. It is Germany’s only significant red variety.
In Switzerland, 1,500 acres of Pinot are grown in the Valais, where it used to be blended with Gamay to make Dole, but now stands increasingly on its own. There are also significant centres of Pinot Noir cultivation near Neuchâtel, where it accounts for half of total vineyard surface and makes mostly a pale red wine known as Oeil de Perdrix, and around the lakes southeast of Zurich.
In 2000, Austria accounted for just over 1,000 acres of Pinot Noir, about evenly divided between Niederösterreich and Burgenland. In Italy, there is Pinot in Breganze, the Alto Adige, and Friuli, as well as in isolated vineyards throughout the country’s northern half, notably in Oltrepo Pavese and the Arno Valley, downstream from Florence. Finally, Pinot is being grown in Macedonia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Romania and has profoundly infiltrated the wine trade in the Balkans.
The Sideways Effect on the History of Pinot Noir
The early twenty-first century has seen extraordinary commercial demand for Pinot Noir, particularly in the US, but also further afield. This is a direct result of the so-called Sideways Effect, the impact of the successful 2004 Hollywood film about two friends on a tour through California’s wine country and in which the lead character discusses the unique qualities of Pinot, juxtaposed with his aversion to Merlot.
The result was a particularly enthusiastic planting of Pinot in most suitable spots and some unsuitable in Sonoma, Carneros and all points south from Monterey in California. In parallel, warmer summers in some parts of the world have seen the variety, as Spätburgunder, blossom in Germany, where it is hugely popular and where total plantings are surpassed only by those in France and California. Oregon and New Zealand have also staked much of their red wine future cultivating Pinot.
Overall, Pinot Noir has never been as a popular and more in demand than it is in the 2020s. While the origins of this particular varietal of Vitis vinifera might be unclear, there is no disputing that it was intrinsically associated with France and the Burgundy region in particular, where it was already acknowledged as the most-prized grape varietal available by the late fourteenth century. From there it has gone on to conquer much of the world. Whether it be the sweet wines of Germany, the sparkling wines of Champagne in north-eastern France or the high quality Pinots of California, Oregon, South Africa or several Balkan states today, Pinot has never been held in higher esteem than in the early twenty-first century.
The Duchy of Burgundy
The Duchy of Burgundy is one of Europe’s great forgotten states. Its ultimate origins lie in the settlement of what are now eastern France and the north-western edges of the Alps by the Burgundians, a Germanic people who invaded the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century AD. Later it became a constituent part of the Carolingian Empire and subsequently the kingdom of France. The Duchy fell to Philip I in 1349 who gradually removed it from under the rule of the weakened French crown during the Hundred Years War with England.
His successors, notably Philip II, who ruled the Duchy from 1363 to 1404, expanded the Duchy’s territories through a series of shrewd marriage alliances and military campaigns to conquer much of the region around north-eastern France, Belgium, Luxembourg and parts of the present-day Netherlands. Thus, by the early fifteenth century the Duchy rivalled the French crown in its territorial empire. It also became a cultural centre, with Burgundian literature, art, sculpture and architecture of a sophistication being produced that has led some to speak of a Burgundian Renaissance which was happening parallel to the Italian Renaissance south of the Alps in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Evidently good wine was central to this heightened court culture and the records available for Philip II’s reign as Duke indicate that he prized Pinot above all other grape varietals.
On this Day
27 April 1404 – On in this day in 1404 Philip II, Duke of Burgundy, known as Philip the Bold, died at Halle in the County of Hainault in the region along the border between modern-day Belgium and France. Philip is primarily known as one of the most powerful rulers of Western Europe in the fourteenth century, one who built the Duchy of Burgundy into a great power on a par with the Kingdom of France itself. However, he also has a remarkable place in the history of viticulture, for it is to Philip’s reign that the first concrete references to ‘Pinot Noir’ being used to make wine in Burgundy date. Accordingly, historians of wine and ampelographers have long suggested that Philip played a role in the identification of Pinot as a grape of particular quality and that he was the first ruler of Burgundy to issue orders for wines to be made exclusively from the grape varietal and not sullied by other lesser grapes.
Want to read more? Try these books!
Kym Anderson and Nanda R. Aryal, Which Winegrape Varieties are Grown Where? A Global Empirical Picture (Adelaide, 2020).
Marina Belozerskaya, Rethinking the Renaissance: Burgundian Arts Across Europe (Cambridge, 2012).
Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006).
Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz, Wine Grapes: A Complete Guide to 1,368 Vine Varieties, including their Origins and Flavours (New York, 2012).
Bart Van Loo, The Burgundians: A Vanished Empire (London, 2021).
Richard Vaughan, Philip the Bold: The Formation of the Burgundian State (Woodbridge, 2009).
John Winthrop Haeger, North American Pinot Noir (Berkeley, California, 2004).