Father of Modern Wine?: Pinot Noir and its Extended Family Tree
Pinot Noir is one of the world’s most prized grape varietals. In the past twenty years it has experienced an unprecedented boom and is now widely planted across Burgundy in France, Sonoma and Napa Valley in California and is the dominant red wine varietal in countries like Germany and New Zealand, as well as emerging producers like Oregon. It has come a long way from the point at which Pinot Noir first emerged onto the historical record in Burgundy in the second half of the fourteenth century. But what is often not commented on is the degree to which Pinot has fathered a huge array of other popular grape varietals. This Pinot family tree is one of the surprising stories of viticultural history.
Pinot Spreads from France
When it first emerged fully into the historical record in the fourteenth century Pinot was largely confined to France and in particular to the Burgundy region in the east of the country. Beyond this, it most likely have a presence in adjoining parts of south-western Germany and Switzerland, but it did not have the Europe-wide and global presence which it does today.
That all began to change in the eighteenth century. At that time Pinot and its various offshoots began to appear more widely in Germany and Switzerland and further south in northern Italy. By the end of the century it was infiltrating much of the Balkans. Then in the nineteenth century, cuttings of Pinot were taken to places like California and South Africa and in more modern times Pinot varietals have even been smuggled into New Zealand to get around the tight bio-controls imposed there and in Australia. Thus, Pinot has spread worldwide and in the process hundreds of different varieties have stemmed from it.
The Clonal Diversity of Pinot
Pinot is an extraordinarily diverse grape varietal, one which has mutated into many other types of grape through vegetative reproduction over the course of several centuries. Today more than a thousand different clones of Pinot have been observed and recorded, though as we will see below, there are a handful of particular branches of the Pinot family tree which are most well-known, notably Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Meunier, Pinot Noir Précoce and Pinot Teinturier.
Given this high level of diversity, which can manifest as changes in the colour of the berries, berry yield, berry size, leaf shape and cluster size, as well as the all-important taste of the grapes, it is often claimed that Pinot has a particularly high mutation rate, yet to date there is no scientific evidence to prove that Pinot has a higher mutation rate than any other grape variety. In reality the clonal diversity is simply owing to the length of time that Pinot is believed to have existed – around 2,000 years – and also the abundance in which it has been grown in Burgundy and other regions for centuries. Simply put, the more grapes of a particular variety that are grown, the greater the possibility of mutation.
Until recently, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Meunier, Pinot Noir Précoce and Pinot Teinturier, were considered to be distinct varieties belonging to a Pinot family tree. However, black, pink, grey and white berries can sometimes be observed on the same Pinot vine, with flecks and stripes of different colours often even appearing on the same grape. Consequently, it has now been determined that all Pinot types effectively have the same genetic fingerprint when their DNA is analysed.
Until the twentieth century most mutations of Pinot which occurred did so naturally, but in the last hundred years, and in particular since the 1960s, concerted efforts have been made to selectively breed new types of Pinot such as Pinotage (on which more below). Often the goal has been to create disease-free clones which are more resistant to diseases like powdery mildew.
Although these clones have usually been selected for specific attributes, in general their small berries tend to produce more complex, but more reserved, wine than the Pinot Noir produced from the clones that were originally planted outside Europe, such as the widely planted clone called Pommard, which was distributed by the University of California at Davis. Nevertheless, the success of these clones aside, the wider world is still most familiar with the organic descendants of Pinot Noir which developed centuries ago in some case, of which Pinot Gris is one of the most well-known.
Pinot Gris is the oldest major descendant of Pinot Noir. This grape varietal, which is used to make white wine and sparkling wines, is the result of a natural mutation of Pinot Noir which resulted in grayish-blue grapes, though different varieties can lean towards being either brownish-pink or even white in appearance. Others are nearly as dark as Pinot Noir in colour. The berries are generally smaller than their parent, with a potential for high sugar levels and low acidity.
Roger Dion, the great geographical viticulturist of the mid-twentieth century, noted that mention of ‘vin fourmental’ as early as 1283 in the region centred on Beauvais, north of Paris, may have been a reference to Pinot Gris, as Fourmenteau and Fromenteau are known early synonyms of this varietal. However, this is highly debateable as these are also synonyms which were used for Sauvignon.
The earliest reliable mention of Pinot Gris is from Baden-Württemberg in 1711, when it was discovered growing wild in a garden in Speyer by Johann Seger Ruland, after whom the variety was then named Ruländer in this area. In France, this colour mutation was mentioned one year later in the region of Orléans under the name Auvernat Gris, Auvernat being a very old medieval synonym for Pinot. The modern name Pinot Gris did not appear until 1783–4, when it was first used in Flavigny in the Côte d’Or in Burgundy.
Some theories have hypothesised that Pinot Gris is also the parent of Hungary’s Tokay wines. Legend has it that in 1375 the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles IV, who was also the King of Bohemia (modern-day Czech Republic) brought Pinot Gris from France to his domains and that these subsequently ended up being planted in Hungary by some Cistercian monks on the Badacsony hills near Lake Balaton. This early introduction supposedly explains why Pinot Gris in Hungary is called Szürkebarát, meaning ‘grey monk’.
The theory continues that in 1568 Pinot Gris was brought back from Hungary to Kientzheim in the French region of Alsace by Lazarus von Schwendi, a general who took possession of the Hungarian city of Tokay in the reign of Charles V and who owned a castle in Kientzheim, northwest of Colmar. This also supposedly explains why Pinot Gris is called Tokay in Alsace, a synonym first cited in 1750 in a manuscript at Domaine Weinbach in Alsace.
However, there is no historical evidence to document these hypotheses, and it is more likely that Pinot Gris, often used to make sweet wines in Alsace, was intentionally given the name Tokay to benefit from the fame already achieved throughout Europe by the Tokaji wines from Hungary, which were and still are mainly made from Furmint and Hárslevelu, two local varieties that are unrelated to Pinot Gris.
In response to the continuing belief that Hungary’s Tokay wines were somehow indebted to the importation of Pinot Gris from France in the fourteenth century, the Hungarian government lodged a complaint with what was then the European Economic Community in 1984 in which they requested that Alsatian wine producers would stop using the name Tokay on their labels. Since 2007 the name Tokay has been banned from Alsace wine labels and only Pinot Gris may be mentioned.
Pinot Gris or Pinot Grigio is said to have been introduced to Italy at the beginning of the nineteenth century by a producer who cultivated it in the provinces of Alessandria and Cuneo in the Piedmont region of north-western Italy, but its presence in the Valle d’Aosta under the name Malvoisie was already attested by Gatta and its cultivation there might well predate Pinot Gris’ introduction to the Piedmont.
Perhaps the most famous of all Pinots, other than Pinot Noir, is its direct opposite colour-wise, Pinot Blanc. Blanc also emerged from a genetic mutation of Pinot Noir, a development which led to some confusion concerning this varietal for many, many years. In the eighteenth century and for much of the nineteenth it was believed that Pinot Blanc was actually a strand of Chardonnay and was often termed Charonnet Pinot Blanc or Pinot Blanc Chardonnet.
It was not until 1868 when the French ampelographer, Victor Pulliat, distinguished between the two varieties that it was finally realised that Pinot Blanc was a distinct branch of the Pinot family tree. As Pulliat noted, “the true Pineau blanc is an irreversible mutation of a Pineau noir that became white; it differs only by the colour of its cluster, which is yellowy white.”
Pulliat’s findings were officially accepted by the French viticultural community in 1872 following demonstrations and talks at the Lyon viticultural exhibition held that year. However, because of the confusion which reigned prior to this, every reference to Pinot Blanc which was made prior to 1868 has to be treated with some circumspection and may have actually been a reference to wines made from Chardonnay.
In the decades that followed Pulliat and others confirmed the hypothesis he had put forward in 1868 when they actually witnessed a colour mutation occurring whereby Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris grapes gradually lightened in tone into Pinot Blanc. This is observable today in many vineyards where black, grey and white Pinot Noir grapes can be seen growing on the same vine, with some even have different coloured stripes on a single grape, a testament to the mutation in progress.
Pinot Blanc differs from Pinot Noir in some respects. It buds earlier and ripens faster. It is fond of deep, warmer soils and can be more productive that Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir. The berries are also generally smaller and they are more resistant to cold weather, although more susceptible to fungal disease.
Pinot Meunier, Pinot Noir Précoce and Pinot Teinturier
While Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc might be the most widely known direct offshoots of Pinot, there are a number of substantial other ones. Pinot Meunier is prominent. This black-berried varietal is characterized by a layer of white hairs on the underside of the leaves that look like a dusting of flour, hence the name Meunier, meaning ‘miller’ in French. This mutation was first mentioned in France in 1690 and subsequently appeared at Heilbronn in Germany north of Stuttgart. It generally buds late, but ripens earlier than Pinot Noir. It is therefore prone to winter frosts and coulure, but more reliably productive.
For many years it was believed that no information was available about where and when Pinot Noir Précoce emerged, but in recent times it has been determined that a synonym, ‘raisin de la madeleine’ was in use for it as early as the late seventeenth century and extensively during the eighteenth century. The modern name, Pinot Noir Précoce, appeared in France in 1877, while the modern German name for the varietal, Frühburgunder, was first mentioned in 1824. It ripens fourteen days earlier than Pinot Noir but is susceptible to coulure and has small yields. The thickish skins provide good protection against botrytis bunch rot.
Finally, Pinot Teinturier is the result of a natural mutation of Pinot Noir, which has red-juiced berries that lie somewhere between Gamay and Teinturier in terms of colour intensity. It was first selectively identified in the late nineteenth century in a vineyard in Nuits-Saint-Georges in the Côte d’Or in Burgundy. The same mutation was then also observed in Morey and in Vosne-Romanée in 1901. Pinot Teinturier is very similar to Pinot Noir in the vineyard, but the grape juice is red.
While Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Meunier and others are notable as major varietals which emerged as a result of the natural mutation of Pinot Noir, in more recent times new varietals have emerged as a result of selective breeding of Pinot. Pinotage is perhaps the most famous of these. It was bred in 1925 by Abraham Izak Perold (1880–1941), the first professor of viticulture at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa. In the garden of his official residence at the Welgevallen experimental farm belonging to the University of Stellenbosch, Perold pollinated a Pinot Noir plant with Cinsault, the latter of which was known as Hermitage at the time in South Africa. Interestingly, Perold planted the four resulting seeds in the same garden and then completely forgot about them when he left University of Stellenbosch to go work at a winery in Paarl in 1927.
Perold’s seedlings were rescued by Charlie Niehaus, who transported them to CJ Theron’s nursery at Elsenburg Agricultural College, where they were simply labelled Perold’s Hermitage/Pinot. Niehaus then grafted material from the Pinotage seedlings onto rootstocks at Welgevallen and later showed them to Perold, who urged him to propagate them. The pair are said to have come up with the name Pinotage as a portmanteau of Pinot and Hermitage. The best of the four plants was then selected to become the mother material of all Pinotage vines.
The first commercial planting of Pinotage occurred in 1943 when they were planted at Myrtle Grove farm near Sir Lowry’s Pass in the Western Cape. Pinotage’s cross-breeding with Hermitage has resulted in a dark grape which is hardier and more vigorous than Pinot Noir. Reds produced from it are quite dense in colour, with plum, tobacco, blackberry and liquorice flavours.
One further descendant of Pinot which merits attention for the manner in which it highlights how modern science is transforming the development of grape varietals is Pinotin. This is a disease-resistant grape varietal which was bred in 1991 in Switzerland by Valentin Blattner, a celebrated grape geneticist who is most famous for having bred Cabernet Blanc in the early 1990s.
Pinotin, which has loose bunches that increase its resistance to downy and powdery mildew, buds early into black grapes and produces reds which are similar to Pinot Noir, with a dense forest fruit aroma. However, there is a possibility that it is not actually a descendant of Pinot at all. Blattner revealed some years ago that the grape was actually a cross between Cabernet and Regent, yet when the strand was developed there was also a row of Pinot Noir in close proximity which may have crossed over the vines and become a parent to Pinotin. Thus, without further DNA analysis it remains to be seen whether Pinotin is related to Pinot at all.
Pinot’s Massive Family Tree: Grandparent of Chardonnay, Syrah and Savagnin?
It is not simply the case that Pinot has spawned very closely related grape varietals such as Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc. It is a grandparent of many other varietals. The extent of this has been demonstrated in recent years in research undertaken jointly by the University of California at Davis and the Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique in Montpellier. This research has established that Pinot has given birth to at least twenty-one grape varieties through spontaneous crosses that occurred at different times and in different places in north-east France. These include Aligoté, Auxerrois, Bachet Noir, Beaunoir, Gamay Noir, François Noir Femelle, Gamay Blanc Gloriod, Gros Bec, Melon, Mézy, Peurion, Romaine and Sacy. It is also widely believed by many ampelographers that Chardonnay is a descendant of Pinot.
Most of these progenies belong, with Pinot, to the Noirien ampelographic group, named after one of Pinot’s most ancient synonyms. Since Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc are colour mutations of Pinot Noir and show the same DNA profile, the berry colour of the parent of these offspring cannot be determined by DNA parentage analysis. However, it can be assumed that Pinot Noir is the parent of all black-berried progenies.
Extending the pedigree further, Jose Vouillamoz and M. S. Grando have shown in recent years that Pinot is a likely grandparent of Teroldego, Marzemino and Lagrein from northern Italy and of Dureza from the Ardèche in France. Since Dureza is a parent of Syrah, Pinot is therefore a likely great-grandparent of Syrah, which challenges the common assumption that they have distinct origins.
Most interestingly, a study carried out at the Klosterneuburg research centre has discovered a parent-offspring relationship between two of the oldest grape varieties from Western Europe: Pinot and Savagnin. This explains why Pinot has been called Savagnin or Salvagnin Noir in the Jura and in western Switzerland for centuries, and why both varieties share the name Clevner (with various spellings) in Baden-Württemberg in Germany.
Since the other parent is unknown, it is not possible to tell whether Pinot is a parent or a progeny of Savagnin, and Pinot may therefore be either a grandparent or a half-sibling of all the varieties that also have a spontaneous parent-offspring relationship with Savagnin. These include Aubin Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Petit Meslier, Rotgipfler, Sauvignon Blanc and Silvaner.
Given the equal validity of the two possibilities in such parentages, there are several ways of reconstructing the most complete pedigree for Pinot. In the one proposed here, Pinot is considered to be a parent of Savagnin, so that it most surprisingly turns out to be a grandparent of Rotgipfler, Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc, as well as a great-grandparent of Balzac Blanc, Colombard, Meslier Saintfrancois and, most unexpectedly, of Cabernet Sauvignon, once again challenging the assumption that these varieties have distinct origins.
Pinot in California and Oregon
While Pinot is synonymous with France, it, and its descendants, have become just as associated with California today. Pinot Noir and many other Pinot varietals were first introduced to the West Coast state in 1861 when Agoston Haraszthy, a Hungarian-American nobleman and adventurer, brought thousands of vine cuttings to the state from Europe. It gradually became a favoured grape, but the desire to plant Pinot has exploded over the last quarter of a century.
North America is now home to more Pinot Noir than Burgundy. There is some 47,000 acres of land devoted to Pinot Noir cultivation across California. With nearly 13,000 acres alone in Sonoma it has more land devoted to producing Pinot than the Côte d’Or in Burgundy. Monterey is a close second with 11,000 acres devoted to Pinot, while half that amount is under cultivation in Santa Barbara. Thus, California has become a major rival to Burgundy in the production of Pinot wines in recent decades.
Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris are the two predominant grapes grown in Oregon to the north of California, an emerging powerhouse of North American wine. Pinot Noir was championed by Richard Sommers of the Hill Crest Vineyard in the state from the late 1950s onwards, having brought cuttings from Napa Valley. With commercial vintages of a high quality emerging as a result by the late 1960s several other Oregon wineries followed his lead in the 1970s. Thus, as the Oregon wine industry blossomed in the 1980s it did so with Pinot being central to it.
Also read: The History of Pinot Noir
Synonyms for Pinot Today
As a result of the spread of Pinot Noir over the centuries and the multi-faceted history of it, dozens of synonyms or alternate names for the grape and its offshoots have emerged in various locations all over the world. Even in France in the late medieval period when it first emerged there were already several names for Pinot, notably Auvernat, a name given to it in the Auvergne region of central France, Morillon in northern France, and Noirien or Noirin in Burgundy.
In Germany, where Pinot was established as a major grape in the Rheingau and other wine-producing regions by the early modern period, it was variously known as Clevner, Klavner, Spätburgunder and Blayburgunder. When it crossed into Italy it was referred to as Pinot Nero for obvious reasons, while in Switzerland Pinot is often referred to as Burgunder, Cortaillod or Salvagnin Noir.
As Pinot has been disseminated around Europe and then the wider world in more modern times it has acquired various names. In the US it is often called Black Burgundy. The Slovaks call Pinot Rulandské Modré, while their near neighbours in Hungary know Pinot as Kék Burgundi and Kisburgundi in recognition of its supposed origins in eastern France. Even in Moldova there are numerous synonyms for Pinot, including Cerna, Pino Fran and Pino Ceren. Thus, the Pinot family tree and the expansion of Pinot around the world in the past two centuries have led to as many names for the grape as varieties.
Kym Anderson and Nanda R. Aryal, Which Winegrape Varieties are Grown Where? A Global Empirical Picture (Adelaide, 2020).
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).
John Winthrop Haeger, North American Pinot Noir (Berkeley, California, 2004).
Jose F. Vouillamoz and M. S. Grando, ‘Genealogy of wine grape cultivars: “Pinot” is related to “Syrah”’, in Heredity, Vol. 97, No. 2 (August, 2006), pp. 102–110.
On this Day
14 July 1880 – On in this day in 1880 Adam Uhlinger died in Amador County in California. Uhlinger was born on the other side of the world sixty years earlier, specifically in Schaffhausen in Switzerland. As a young man he moved to the United States, bringing with him some grape vine cuttings from Europe. Then in the early 1850s he joined the mass migration to California following the gold rush which started there in 1848. In 1856 Uhlinger became the first individual to establish a winery in Sonoma County. It is still functioning today, though it is known as the D’Agostini Winery after Enrico D’Agostini who purchased the winery in 1911. Over a century and a half after Uhlinger first established his winery, Sonoma has become home to one of the greatest concentrations of Pinot Noir vineyards anywhere in the world, with 13,000 acres of land devoted to growing the grape, and is famed for its high quality Pinots.
11 December 1941 – On this day in 1941 Abraham Izak Perold (1880–1941), the first professor of viticulture at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa, died. Back in 1925 Perold had created the grape varietal known today as Pinotage in the garden of his official residence at the Welgevallen experimental farm belonging to the University of Stellenbosch. Perold pollinated a Pinot Noir plant with Cinsault, the latter of which was known as Hermitage at the time in South Africa. However, having planted the resulting seeds Perold completely forgot about them and then left Stellenbosch to go work at a winery in Paarl in 1927. Perold’s seedlings were rescued some time later by Charlie Niehaus, who transported them to CJ Theron’s nursery at Elsenburg Agricultural College, where they were simply labelled ‘Perold’s Hermitage/Pinot’. Niehaus then grafted material from the Pinotage seedlings onto rootstocks at Welgevallen. He later showed them to Perold and the pair came up with the name Pinotage for the varietal as a portmanteau of Pinot and Hermitage. The best of the four plants was then selected to become the mother material of all Pinotage vines.