The History of the Pinot Nero Grape

You may think that you haven’t heard much about the Pinot Nero grape. But you’d be wrong. In fact, Pinot Nero is one of the most popular grapes in the world and it is used extensively in the French and Italian wine industries.

However, you may know it under a slightly different name. You see, Pinot Nero is also more commonly referred to as Pinot Noir.

The name means Pine Black in French. This is a reference to the interesting conical shape of the grape clusters. Basically, they look like a pine cone that’s completely full of grapey goodness. Moreover, it’s also considered one of the most difficult grape varieties to grow.

In this article, we’re going to take a closer look at the grape and why it has managed to achieve the popularity that it has, despite how difficult it is to grow.

The Very Early History

A lot of people will have heard of Pinot Nero or Pinot Noir thanks to the Paul Giamatti vehicle Sideways. In the film, he waxes lyrical about the qualities of the grape, which many people attribute to the grape’s increased popularity during the 2000s.

But the truth of the matter is that Pinot Nero has been a popular grape for over a thousand years.

The early history of Pinot Nero can be traced all of the way back to the Roman Empire. Documents recovered in France suggest that winemakers were growing the grape back then. This was likely a result of the Roman influence, as the empire had a tendency to force its winemaking philosophies onto the countries that it invaded.

Of course, unlike many other red varieties of the period, Pinot Nero presents growers a lot of problems. It needs high temperatures, though they can’t be so high that they spoil the grape. It’s also more prone to rot and plant-based diseases. Moreover, it has a lower yield than many of the other wines that were popular during the period. It can even run into problems when stored, if it doesn’t have the perfect conditions.

All of this suggests a grape that would have been quickly discarded during the early years of the winemaking industry. Yet Pinot Nero managed to endure.

The Work of the Cistercian Monks

Even though there are records that date Pinot Nero to Roman times, it’s still likely that the grape was a distant second to the easier grape varieties of the era.

However, that all changed upon the turn of the first millennium of the AD era. Long after the Romans had left France and, presumably, abandoned the vineyards that they’d planted, Pinot Nero found popularity among an entirely new subsection of people – The Cistercian Monks.

This group held a number of strong religious belief, with a devotion to hard labour in service of the Lord being one of them. This led them to the rocky hills of Burgundy, where they began tending Pinot Nero vines. More importantly, they also kept meticulous records of their grape-growing efforts, with specific mention of the sort of conditions that led to poor yields and those that led to improved quality of the grape. In doing so, they were essentially responsible for the idea of a harvest report, and may also have contributed to the concept of terroir. After all, they were adamant that the quality of their land played a role in the quality of the grape.

All of this already sets Pinot Nero up as an important grape. But it’s the lack of trade routes running through Burgundy at the time that really helped to cement its legend. This meant that fewer of the wines made using this grape reached the public than those made in more populous regions, such as Champagne and Bordeaux. As we all know, scarcity leads to popularity. The Pinot Nero wines produced by the monks gained an automatic reputation for quality simply by virtue of the fact that there were hard to find.

But that’s not all that there is to it. Because the monks toiled in service of God, rather than in an effort to make a profit, they were more concerned with creating wines of the highest quality. As a result, it wasn’t just scarcity that contributed to the idea that Pinot Nero was a great wine grape. The effort the monks put into their work meant that their bottles of wine were legitimately of a higher quality than those found elsewhere.

The outlawing of the Gamay grape in Burgundy by Duke Phillipe in the late 14th century only contributed to Pinot Nero’s growing reputation. By that point, it was cemented as an extremely popular grape.

The Modern Era

The work of the Cistercian Monks led to some important discoveries. Among these was the fact that Pinot Nero is actually much hardier than it was believed to be during the Roman era. In particular, its variable nature led to other countries adopting the grape due to the fact that it can adapt to several climates. It rekindled its popularity in Italy, but it was its expansion into New Zealand, Australia, and the United States that helped cement it as the globally popular grape that it is today.

There are now more than 40 variations of the Pinot Nero grape, each of which has its own qualities. On top of that, the various terroirs that play host to the vines also have their own influence on the final product.

The Final Word

Pinot Nero may have a reputation as being a difficult grape to work with. But it also provides more variety than practically any other type of grape in the world.

It’s also mistakenly believed to be a grape of purely French origin. But the early records show that it was the Romans that popularise the grape in the country, which means that Italian winemakers may have been using it long before it gained popularity in France.

Whatever the case may be, Pinot Nero is now one of the world’s most popular grapes. Plus, no two wines will taste the same. It’s worth exploring as many Pinot Nero wines as possible to find those that suit your tastes.


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