So Many Pinots

So what’s the difference?
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Brian Lesperance, vice president at Fenn Valley Vineyards, works in the cellar. Photo courtesy of Fenn Valley Vineyards.

Pinot Blanc. Pinot Noir. Pinot Gris. Pinot Grigio. Pinot Meunier.

Why are there so many Pinots, and what makes them different from each other?

Brian Lesperance, vice president at Fenn Valley Vineyards in Fennville, explains from his perch as a grower that one thing they have in common is being difficult to produce.

“They are susceptible to disease pressure,” says Lesperance, who grows Pinot Grigio, Noir, and Meunier. “In Michigan, especially those of us along the lakeshore, we face an even more challenging prospect because you do get a lot of humidity.”

The name itself comes from the French word pin (meaning “pine”) and the diminutive suffix -eau, referring to the dense grape cluster’s resemblance to a pine cone. Lesperance describes it as tight without a lot of space to let in air and sun.

“They’re quite a bit smaller than the rest of the wine grapes and very tightly packed,” he says. “That’s where the ‘Pinot’ comes from — that shape of the cluster being in that unique look.”

All share genetic connections — like cousins, Lesperance adds. And while some of the grapes appear darker, the pigment is often superficial.

“The only one that is stable [color matching the juice] is Pinot Noir, and even that isn’t that stable,” he says.

Here is Lesperance’s take on the best-known Pinots.

Pinot Noir 
In Michigan’s cooler climate, it tends to be a lighter, fruit-forward style of wine.

“It’s not real deep color, not real tannic,” he says. “[It’s] very delicate, very soft.”

Pinot Blanc 
Lesperance has never grown this grape, but he loves to drink it.

“It’s really delicate, maybe more fruity in general,” he says. “It’s truly a white grape, or yellow grape. … You’re going to have some pigment in the skins, but that pigment is superficial. It’s probably the least common I see of the Pinots.”

Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio 
These are actually the same grape, Lesperance says.

“If you’re true to tradition, it’s a different style,” he adds. “Grigio is more of the light, typically unoaked, very fruit-centric style. It very much showcases the fruit itself, where Gris is going to have a little more body, a little more texture.”

Pinot Meunier 
Meunier means “miller” in French, as in a person who works in a flour mill.

“The reason why is the grape leaves actually have this white kind of look to them, almost like they have a spray residue on them, but they don’t,” he says.

Lesperance grows Pinot Meunier primarily to use in sparkling wine — “typically a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier.” But he doesn’t use it all for sparkling wine; he uses the leftovers to create a Pinot Meunier rosé.

“It’s nice and luscious,” he says. “I got the idea from Free Run [Cellars], which is part of the Round Barn/Tabor Hill family. … I had it 12 or 13 years ago and immediately fell in love with it. I loved it as a rosé. Its day job is a sparkling wine component, but it occasionally gets to be showcased on its own.”

This article originally appeared in the 2022 Michigan Wine Country magazine.

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