Pinot by any other name

What does Pinot Mean

The restaurant is heaving, but it’s all white noise – you have important things on your mind. Like whether to have the heavenly sounding pappardelle with duck ragu beckoning from the menu.

There’s a voice at your shoulder – it’s the waiter, asking for your drinks order. A Pinot, you say (naturally).

A Pinot what? He says – and everything skids to a halt, because, that’s a great question!

Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris – and about a thousand others.

How did we get here? Why are there so many delicious choices?

Back to basics

We know we love it, but what does Pinot mean, anyway? The word comes from the French for “pine cone”, which is just what the bunches look like on the vine: small, black-blue berries tightly packed together. Pinot Noir: the black pine cone.

Given the names, you would be forgiven for thinking that Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris are related to their Noir friend, but they’re not just related. In fact, DNA testing has proved that they’re all identical – except for a tiny little mutation that has changed their colour.

In fact, every Pinot variety is a clonal offspring of the Pinot vine – and there are a lot. Besides the three primary varieties (Noir, Blanc, and Gris), more than one thousand Pinot varieties are officially registered – all the same but for the tiniest of differences. Why does Pinot have so many – compared with other popular grapes, like Cabernet Sauvignon?

Pinot-ledge is power

Don’t be hard on the poor Pinot grape for being such a mutant – it isn’t her fault. She’s thousands of years old, described in detail by the ancient Romans – and certainly predating them. Even our obsession with Pinot wines dates back to the 1300s! Next to her, Cab Sav looks like a toddler, born in the 17th Century.

The Pinot vine’s incredible diversity is a result of her long, long life. That incredible diversity produces such a range of bouquets that any palate can surely be satisfied. As we know, Pinot grapes produce some of the most wonderful wines in the world – it was not without reason that the master sommelier Madeline Triffon called Pinot “sex in a glass”.

If you’re drinking Champagne, for example, you’re almost certainly drinking Pinot Meunier. Apart from being criminally fun to say (pee-no moon-yay, with extra French), Pinot Meunier makes up a third of all grapes grown in the Champagne region, and Pinot Noir another third.

Other varieties are beneficial in more obvious ways; Pinot Noir Précoce, for example, is indistinguishable from Pinot Noir… but it ripens earlier, meaning colder climates (like Germany and the UK) can still produce splendid wines.

Parlez-vous Pinot?

Even if your Pinot game is on-point, language can still be a trip hazard. Pinot Gris, Pinot Grigio, and Grauburgunder are all the same – but are French, Italian, and German respectively. Even within a region, the differences can be marked – Tasmanian Pinots are quite distinct from those grown in South Australia’s Adelaide Hills Wine Region, for example.

However, getting lost in translation can be a wonderful, poetic experience – especially discovering where the names of varieties came from. Pinot Meunier’s excellent name comes from the French for “miller” – one who grinds grain. When the grapes are ripe, the leaves take on a dusty look – as if they’ve been dipped in flour.

Back to the restaurant – the waiter is still waiting for your drinks order. You order with confidence, because you know all Pinots are almost identical – but they are all very, very different.