Ah, pinot — my favorite grape. And not because I’m hopping on the “Sideways” it’s-so-temperamental-so-you-have-to-love-it bandwagon, but because I love the light, fruity taste and the transparent, crimson-violet color. Plus, it can pair with just about any main, be it meat, chicken, fish, veggie or cheese.
Most of my gratitude applies to pinot noir — the red- or dark purple-skinned grape of the family — but the other two key siblings are also worth trumpeting: pinot gris (or pinot grigio if you find yourself in northeast Italy) and pinot blanc. As colors are the going descriptors for the pinot grape, gris implies gray or opaque pinkish-brown skins while blanc denotes, well, white or pale yellow varietals.
This trio de pinot represents quite a diverse collection of wines both Old and New World, and thus deserving of their own post. For starters, “pinot” stems from the French for “pine,” so called because the grapes bundle in such a way as to look like pine cones. Next, pinot wines get their clear hues from the slenderness of the fruit’s skins as well as the lower skin anthocyanin (a powerful antioxidant) and phenol concentration. Their thin-skinned and tight-packed nature is what makes them more prone to rot and disease over other grapes.
If the French in the name is any hint, the pinot family originates in France — specifically, my favorite region, Burgundy — where it has been cultivated since Roman times. Fast forward to the modern era, and pinot noir is one of the “international grapes,” finding homes in vineyards from Italy to Germany (where it is named after its source region — Frühburgunder and Spätburgunder) to New Zealand, California and just outside of my hometown of Toronto in Niagara, Ontario.
Through decades of experimentation (that is, drinking), I’ve grown particularly fond of the Burgundy and California appellations. The former uses pinot noir almost exclusively for its red wine production (grand cru, please!) while a few degrees north this dark grape is blended in as a key contributor to champagne, and a few degrees east — in Alsace — the pinot gris and pinot blanc are crowning achievements. The latter (including the famous Napa and Sonoma valleys as well as the Central Coast) makes good use of pinot noir and pinot gris — both possessing a quintessential New World taste. Either way, these are two regions for which you are all but guaranteed a smooth-drinking pinot.
Interestingly, all pinot grapes are sub-varietals of the same species. Although nowadays the growing and grafting is a rigorously controlled process, mutations of the skin have resulted in many obscure pedigrees like pinot rouge, pinot meunier, pinot moure and pinot teinturier. Together though, whether it’s a red or a white, a pinot drop will be light-bodied with heavy tastes and aromas of fruit (red berries in the case of reds, spicy tropical fruit for whites).
This gives them versatility, but it also opens the doors to some rather peculiar pairings. Pinot noir can match with light red meals like snapper, chicken parmesan, veal medallions or just about anything using tomato sauce as a base. Due to the spicy, smoky flavor of pinot gris, in addition to its darker-than-usual, golden-copper color, it is ripe for some bizarre pairings where you’d typically advocate a red — roasted pork, turkey, lean meats like venison and dishes with mushroom-based sauces. Pinot blanc is the odd one out of the three, and it could be added to the menu exclusively for that purpose. It has a very soft drop missing the strong acidity of other whites, making it suitable for salads, creamy pastas or flaky white fish.
P.S. My wife and I celebrated our 33rd wedding anniversary with a 2000 Chevalier-Montrachet Grand Cru by Louis Jadot, a wine we had purchased in Beaune several years earlier. It was perfect.
As pinot is my preferred grape, I’m curious: what’s your favorite grape?