Pinot's long, varied family tree continues to evolve

Good Wine

Posted8/25/2010 12:01 AM

People ask me all the time to recommend a Pinot.

My inner wine geek wants to say, "Would that be Pinot Burot or Pinot Tordu? Or maybe Pinot Teinturier, Cioutat or Tete de Negre?"

But I generally just ask, "White or red?"

Pinot is the family name of a sprawling clan of grapes, some considered noble, some not so much.

The scion - Pinot Noir, named "black" but really red-skinned - is a most-ancient grape, considered the link between wild and cultivated varieties, but is still untamed. Unstable genetically, it mutates easily; more than 1,000 clones crowd tiny Burgundy and 15 distinct varieties populate the global Pinotscape.

The closest mutation is Pinot Gris - "gray" but really pinkish, yielding white or delicately amber wine. In France's Alsace, Gris is long-ripened and revered for unctuous texture, stone fruit flavor and mineral accents, from producers including Helfrich ($20). Serve with flavorful Alsace cuisine (like the traditional onion tart) or rich seafood (lobster Thermidor.) Wait for the superior 2009 vintage.

Gris' famous translation is Grigio, the by-the-glass sensation from Italy, where it is picked early to retain lemony acidity. The finest, such as Russiz Superiore with mouth-coating apple-lemon flavors and white pepper accents (about $25), grow in northeast Friuli. Serve this Grigio with antipasti (typically prosciutto), light seafood (crayfish) and light pasta (orzo). I hesitate to recommend any good values in this overworked, overpriced style.

The "white" Pinot Blanc (Bianco in Italy) was once confused with Chardonnay both for vineyard characteristics and for the appley notes in its wine. A great value (under $10) is Delibori Pinot Bianco/Pinot Grigio, combining yellow apple flavor and lemony refreshment. See Ross' Choice for another recommendation.

The newest member, Pinotage, joined the family in 1925. South Africa's genetic cross between Pinot Noir and Hermitage (synonymous with France's Cinsault grape) has Noir's silkiness and the plum-pepper heft of Hermitage. Pinotage ranges from soft and fruity for barbecue, grilled mushrooms and other flavory dishes (Ken Forrester, $10-ish) to rich and complex (Kanonkop "Simonsberg-Stellenbosch," $35) for roasts and game meats.

And undoubtedly, somewhere in some vineyard, empty lot or backyard, a new member of the Pinot family is being born. I'll be able to recommend a bottle in 20 years or so.

• Advanced Sommelier and Certified Wine Educator Mary Ross writes Good Wine. Contact her at