Whenever the word “pinot” is mentioned among my crowd of fellow wine geeks, everyone’s ears prick up in the hope an amazing treat is about to be poured.
Our first thought is pinot noir, of course. But before there was pinot noir there was pinot fin – the original strain from which noir descended.
Today, the notoriously finicky pinot fin is rarely planted and can be found only in some parts of Burgundy.
One producer that still cultivates and cherishes pinot fin is Domaine Arnoux-Lachaux. The winery has four precious parcels of these vines, one of which was planted with cuttings from Premeaux (south of Nuits St Georges) dating back to 1959. The vineyards are high maintenance, as they are prone to millerandage (slightly stunted vines that result in tiny bunches of berries) which makes the wines more precious as they are low yielding. The wines (which are fermented naturally) show lovely weight and rich red berries/cherry fruits with a hint of gaminess and delicate wild mushroom. They are best enjoyed in their relative youth, at about five years.
The pinot noirs that we love today have been ever so slightly genetically modified – a natural process, thanks to the many generations of bees that have pollinated the vines.
Pinot noirs are considered to be genetically unstable. In vineyards growing the variety, shoots from a single vine often show different characteristics. It is easy to propagate new vines from a single shoot. If all the buds that come up on the newly planted vine from that shoot show the same characters, then they can be considered to be a new clone. Of all the wine-producing grapes, more clones result from pinot noir than any other variety.
The best pinot noir clones come from Dijon, and they are trademarked and numerically coded. The most popular – the ones that grow best and are considered most resistant to disease – are numbers 115, 165, 236, 375, 459, 667, 743, 777 and 943. These are the clones that are sought out by winegrowers primarily in the American state of California, especially in Russian River and Sonoma.
The viticulture scientists at University of California, Davis believe that pinot noir is the oldest cultivated variety of Vitis vinifera, as it was described by the Romans in the 1st century.
It is well worth hunting out a bottle of pinot fin, just to enjoy a sip of history.
Nellie Ming Lee is a food stylist and part-time sommelier studying with the Court of Master Sommeliers