Pinot Noir: Parent to a Rather Mutated Family


You should never judge a grape by its color.
This past week wine journalist Erika Szymanski chronicled the differences between pinot noir, pinot gris and pinot blanc. Her conclusion in the Palate Press article? Though pinot grapes may be a different color, their genetic information is actually quite similar.
“If you found that unsatisfying, you had the same reaction I did. Obviously they're not the same,” Szymanski wrote. “Unless the interns go out and paint all of the pinot noir clusters purple at veraison, different genes are the only way noir and gris will come out noir (black) and gris (grey, but really more of a pinky-bronze). So, frankly, what gives?”
The answer can be traced to the genetic makeup of the grapes, which is different for gris and noir because the grapes undergo somatic mutiations, genetic changes which affect the body of the grape. 
“Remember being a kid and thinking that if you got a mutation maybe you'd turn orange or grow a third eye, and your kids would be orange and have third hands too,” she wrote, illustrating somatic changes. “Mutations actually work that way for grapes. One cell in the right location can pass on any random DNA changes it suffers to its offspring.”
According to Szymanski, research shows that sometime in the past pinot noir mutated and these mutations resulted in pinot gris and pinot blanc.
“In pinot gris, one of two cell layers responsible for berry color is missing anthocyanins; in pinot blanc, they both are,” she wrote, pointing out anthocyanins are responsible for skin color. “Mutate the anthocyanin gene (and you) change the grape color.”
Pinot noir's mutations aren't limited to changes in skin color, either. Genetic changes have altered growth and leaf texture.
“Non-color related mutations have produced a slew of other pinots with, for example, different fruiting patterns (pinot fin and pinot moyen), hairy leaves (pinot meunier), different growth patterns (pinot droit), and waxless berries (pinot moure),” she wrote.
Yet though the grapes have expressed their mutations in different ways, somatic changes to color don't signify a big difference in genetic information. In other words, the grapes, regardless of color, are essentially the same, she said. 
“Here's why we can say that all of the pinot family grapes are genetically the same: the color variations are no more different from each other than different clones of the same color,” she wrote. 
When it comes to wine production, however, the colors and flavors can be varied based on who is making the wine and how they use the grape. 
“Red wine? White? Pink? We've already found that tasters can't accurately call a wine's color form smell and taste alone,” she concluded. “Maybe we can get past the idea that grape color determines what you do with it in the winery. Even in this conservative industry, it's time to stop judging based on skin color.”

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