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Part I: James Halliday on pinot noir

Publish Date: 06 Jan 2017

Authored by: James Halliday

In the first of two articles, James Halliday reflects on the history of pinot noir and how it has come to be.

The normally reserved writing and meticulous research of Jancis Robinson brings one up with a jolt when she writes, “The real reason for [pinot’s] clonal diversity is simply the length of time the variety is thought to have existed – around 2000 years.” Flip to the other end of the time tunnel with Dr Who and you find her recounting a congress in France in 1896 at which the leading ampelographers voted on the name pinot, relegating pineau to the cross-benches.

Before pineau/pinot appeared in print in monastic or secular records, morillon (itself spelt four different way), noirien and auvernat were synonyms for pinot in use in the 13th century. The earliest uses of pinot (spelt pinoz to denote the plural) were in 1375 and 1394 respectively.

However, winemaking goes back millennia before the Romans wrote their textbooks on the subject. So what other varieties were being used during and before Roman times? We don’t know and almost certainly will never know, even if DNA could be extracted from fossilised grape seeds and secondary evidence amassed to distinguish between grapes collected for eating and those used to make wine.

Charles Darwin’s survival of the fittest then comes into play. It is only in the past few centuries that new varieties have been deliberately created by crossing varieties. Durif is one such, flanked by many German white varieties. Most varieties were natural or spontaneous crosses, where the pollen from one variety fertilises another.

Read about the rise of pinot noir in recent times.

Enter Darwin. First, birds must eat the grapes from this and other vines that are growing in proximity. The seeds must germinate, some more successfully than others either by the way they grow and/or the number of bunches.

Enter man. To survive, the wine must be significantly superior to that made from other grapes, arguably the most difficult stage of all. Nature’s bounty is indiscriminate and with the close interplanting of green, yellow, white, pink, grey, red, black and other grapes, the wine will be a heroic blend – the Englishman’s clairette of the 16th century. But over time, the poor-performing vines will be removed, the better vines deliberately propagated, not by seed (as in stage one), but by cuttings.

These, in turn, may produce superior breeding stock, and so it is that in Western Europe, three varieties have given birth to 136 offspring that are, or were until recently, still in propagation today. The three are pinot, gouais blanc and savagnin. Pinot’s place is particularly important, for it is a great grandparent of shiraz, and also a great grandparent of cabernet sauvignon (in each case with different pathways).

But even as pinot became recognised as the greatest variety of Burgundy, it had to beat off the challenge of the high-yielding gamay. In 1395, Philip the Bold issued a decree ordering the uprooting of “the bastard gamay”, largely ignored in what became Beaujolais.

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At this point I must firstly acknowledge Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz’s Wine Grapes (published by Allen Lane (Penguin) in the UK and Ecco (Harper Collins) in the US, 2012). And secondly, I must reveal the massive family tree of the 136 varieties has many gaps where the identity of only one parent/sibling/offspring is known, so, for example, an offspring may in fact be a parent. It is less important than might be imagined: the bloodlines are still there.

You might have noticed I have been using the name pinot. While I am inching forward to pinot noir, it and pinot gris, pinot meunier and pinot blanc are genetically identical, the last three being mutations of pinot noir (here the process cannot be reversed: pinot blanc is doomed to a white life, as it cannot gain colour through mutation).

Finally, while I’m on the subject of mutation, there are more than 1000 registered clones of pinot noir, but obviously including clones of the principal mutations. It’s all pretty unsettling: just when it seemed DNA was going to provide proof positive of the identity of certain clones, and prevent fellow travellers hopping on the bandwagon, visual description becomes the fallback, and with it the uncertainty bred from the particular terroir and inputs from the vigneron/viticulturist tending the grapes.

I cannot leave pinot’s past without acknowledging Burgundy, which is the beating heart of the past, present and future of pinot noir. For 800-plus years, the monks of Burgundy (and their various orders) were the patient observers of the earth they tilled and vines they grew on it. Time and money were of no consequence, for when one monk died, his accumulated knowledge automatically passed to the next generation. It was during this time that refinement of clones became a high art, its legacy lasting until the challenges of phylloxera in the last quarter of the 19th century as the vineyards of France were laid to waste. Burgundy was more affected than Bordeaux, as wine from Algeria or any unaffected part of France was passed off as the real thing.

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It gave rise in 1935 to Baron Pierre Le Roy fathering the Appellation d’origine Contrôlée system of today, and a parallel move to estate bottling in Burgundy to underscore the appellation system and fill some (but not all) of the remaining gaps.

Pinot noir arrived in Australia with the James Busby Collection in 1831 and was quickly taken to the Hunter Valley, where it was grown widely. As early as 1846, vigneron James King made a wine he described as “made from the red grape pineau noire, a well known Burgundy variety with about a third of the grape pinot gris [another French grape imparting the wine less colour but more perfume] crushed along with it.”

Repeated contemporaneous reports of pinot noir in the Hunter Valley run through the rest of the 19th century and show it was widely grown there. It and pinot meunier were grown in the Yarra Valley, Geelong and, most relevantly for today, at Great Western in Victoria. Henry Best interplanted both varieties in 1868, and the two blocks of pinot meunier totalling 1.02ha gives rise to a remarkable wine every year – not only of high quality, but also from the oldest vines in the world.

The scattering of 15 per cent pinot noir vines interplanted in the meunier are always picked separately, but with one exception. The volume is insufficient for bottling (2014 the exception), so it is blended with pinot from blocks using cuttings from the 1868 vines, planted in 1971 and 1987.

In the next issue of Halliday magazine I will write about pinot noir now, with an emphasis on Australia, and in the future.

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