Pinot's extraordinary pedigree


This is a longer version of an article also published in the Financial Times.

Today's Financial Times Weekend Magazine is a special graphics edition. My contribution is to share the biggest of the 14 grape-variety pedigrees/family trees included in our award-winning tome Wine Grapes – a complete guide to 1,368 vine varieties including their origins and flavours (did I ever mention that Julia and I had written a book about grapes with grape geneticist José Vouillamoz?). 

Should you see the magazine, which includes Nick on menus, you'll see there are two family trees, one labelled Pinot and one Cabernet Sauvignon, but in fact the latter is a subsection of the former. The Pinot family tree shows so many varieties (156 in all) that it is impossible to show usefully on this site, but you can enjoy it free in all its glory here on our special Wine Grapes site.

Reading this diagram, remember that Trebbiano Toscano  is identical to Ugni Blanc, just as Folle Blanche is the same as Gros Plant, while Cot is also known as Malbec.

These are the introductory notes to the table(s) in the FT

When in 1997 geneticists at the University of California at Davis discovered the parentage of the ubiquitous Cabernet Sauvignon vine, they revolutionised wine knowledge, opening the door for an avalanche of revelations of relationships between varieties previously never associated with each other. By complex analysis of the DNA of some of the most important vine varieties, they found that, just as any small child might surmise but no wine connoisseur had ever contemplated, the parents of Cabernet Sauvignon must have been the equally dark-skinned Cabernet Franc and, unexpectedly, the light-skinned Sauvignon Blanc. But, as you can see from this diagram showing the relationships between this particular family of varieties, many but not all of them common in south-west France, this was just the start of a jigsaw puzzle, one that is not yet complete. Question marks represent unknown, probably extinct, varieties. DNA profiling demonstrates parent–offspring relationships but cannot identify which is the parent, so, for example, Abouriou may turn out to be the parent of the surprisingly important variety Magdeleine Noire des Charentes (and grandparent of Merlot) rather than the offspring.

It is perhaps not unexpected that the Cabernets, Merlot, Cot (Malbec), Carmenère and Sauvignon Blanc turn out to be related. They are the most commonly grown varieties of Bordeaux (even if Carmenère is now much more widely grown in Chile than in Bordeaux). Folle Blanche is grown to the north of Bordeaux in Cognac country and just south of Nantes at the mouth of the Loire. The Loire is Chenin Blanc territory so Chenin's appearance here is not a total shock. Nor is Trebbiano Toscano, otherwise known as Ugni Blanc, another variety widely used for distillation in south-west France. But Savagnin, in the far left of the Cabernet Sauvignon section of the family tree, in the bottom left sector of it, comes from the other corner of France entirely – and makes a much more predictable appearance in the Pinot family pedigree below, too, thus showing that, in a roundabout fashion, the great grape of Burgundy is related to the great grape of Bordeaux.

The Pinot family tree is the most complex in Wine Grapes. This is only partly because Pinot (Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris/Grigio and Pinot Blanc have identical DNA profiles) and an obscure eastern French, pale-skinned variety Gouais Blanc produced so many progeny. Their 21 known offspring include Chardonnay, Aligoté, the Muscadet grape Melon and the Beaujolais grape Gamay. But Gouais Blanc, encountered today occasionally as Gwäss, has also been shown to be a parent of dozens of other varieties including Riesling, the great grape of Germany; Chenin Blanc; Colombard; the middle-European dark-skinned Blaufränkisch; and Muscadelle, the third white wine grape of south-west France with Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon. Few of the other parents are known, and this is particularly true of the relationships shown in the top-right-hand corner, which shows how, unexpectedly, the Pinot of Burgundy is related to Syrah and Viognier of the Rhône as well as to a host of Italian grape varieties, including those most famously responsible for Valpolicella and Soave respectively. Other varieties apparently descended from, or at least closely related to, Gouais Blanc include such varied vines as the Petit Verdot of Bordeaux, Furmint of Tokaj in Hungary and Silvaner of Germany and Alsace.

But Savagnin also proves itself to have been extraordinarily prolific and closely related to a host of important varieties such as Grüner Veltliner of Austria, Chenin Blanc of the Loire, Verdelho of Madeira and both Petit Manseng and Gros Manseng of Jurançon in the far south-west corner of France – very far from Savagnin's usual sphere of influence in north-east France and south-west Germany.