Grapes: What’s in a Name?

Grapes: What’s in a Name?
By Craig Campbell

There are several reasons why the wine in your glass smells and tastes the way it does. All of them play into the final product and cannot be understated. Having said that, the two main reasons are: type of grape, and where it grows. After that, the winemaker’s skill takes it from there.

The character of a wine begins with the grape juice in your glass. What type of grape was used to make your wine? Much like the way that apple varieties are best used for different things and have different tastes – think Granny Smith vs. Honeycrisp – there are many different grapes that are used for wine making. Your wine glass may contain the fermented juice of one type of grape or, like most wine on the planet, it could be a blend of the juice of different types of grapes. You’ve heard of at least two or three. Examples of grape types include Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Merlot, L’Acadie… and so on and so forth. By the way, there are an estimated 5000 grape varietals that can make wine! Italy alone has over 1000. In Nova Scotia, there are currently over 50 growing. Just as mind-boggling, is the fact that there are over 8500 names used for the 5000 grape varietals.

Enter Pinot Noir. I’ll use this as a perfect example. This is a grape grown in many different wine regions of the world, including here in NS. Its area of origin is Burgundy in France. It makes earthy wines driven by aromas of red fruit. It can be difficult to manage under less than ideal weather conditions. In the right setting, it makes legendary wines. Some grapes are prone to mutation. This occurs naturally where a grape randomly changes its characteristics. Pinot Noir is one of these grapes that are prone to this phenomenon. In fact, there are a number of grapes that all have the same first name of Pinot. All of them are essentially long established mutations of Pinot Noir. These include Pinot Grigio, Pinot Meunier, and Pinot Blanc.

Pinot grapes grow in bunches that resemble the shape of a pine cone. The names of the grapes are a loose translation of this characteristic. Pinot Noir translates to “black pine cone” but that’s the French translation. The Italian word for black is not noir, it’s nero. So Italians call the Pinot Noir that grows in their country Pinot Nero. Not to be outdone, the Germans grow Pinot Noir too, but they speak German so, guess what, they don’t call it Pinot Noir either, they call it Spätburgunder. Pinot Blanc grows in France. It grows in Italy too. There, it is called Pinot Bianco. If you’re in Germany, you call it Weissburgunder. Pinot Gris is to the French what Pinot Grigio is to the Italians. Same grape. Different language. In Germany, you say Grauburgunder. Or sometimes Ruländer… because, why not.