Origins and history
Pinot Noir is a noble old grape variety, with a tradition dating back centuries
THE ORIGINS OF THE GRAPE VARIETY
Pinot Noir is one of the oldest grapes for which we have historical information and its land of origin is probably Burgundy.
It is believed that the Pinot Noir has been grown in Burgundy for over 2000 years, most likely being present in the region before the invasions by the Romans. The origin of the grape dates back to the III-IV century, as stated in a document written by the inhabitants of Autun in 312, thanking Emperor Constantine. It mentions a vineyard called Pagus Arebrignus, on the Cote de Nuits, (now Burgundy) renowned for its high quality.
The Pinot Noir we know today is not the original grape variety. We had to wait until the 18th-19th century for the variety we now know and love to appear in Burgundy and Champagne.
PINOT NOIR IN PIEDMONT
The earliest records of introduction of the French grape variety into Piedmont, and the province of Asti in particular, date back to the late 1700s, in a historical situation heavily influenced by France.
The works of Marquis Filippo Antonio Asinari San Marzano (1767-1828), a subalpine diplomat who was very interested in the area’s viticultural-oenological problems, give information on winegrowing in Piedmont. The many activities of the Marquis included winemaking. He owned large areas of land around the Castle of Costigliole d’Asti and in the municipality of San Marzano Oliveto, where he lived from 1802 to 1807. Here, he experimented with new non-native grape varieties. In 1808 he planted some French vine rootings taken from the vineyards of Hermitage in several areas, to see how they would adapt to new environmental conditions.
Without doubt, we can say that a large contribution to the arrival of Pinot Noir in Piedmont, besides the region’s proximity to the French border, was made by Cavour, thanks to his great ability to surround himself with winegrowers. Before the arrival of Barolo, in the second half of the 19th century, the tables of Piedmont’s aristocracy were already laden with products from Bordeaux and Burgundy.
Vittorio Emanuele and Cavour always served French wines at their tables. Cavour in particular did much to regulate winegrowing in the Langhe district, planting Pinot Noir, a variety that he loved, on Grinzane Castle estate.
Towards the middle of the 19th century, Marchesa Giulietta Falletti of Barolo asked the French oenologist Louis Oudart, already present in the Langhe, where he was working with Count Camillo Benso di Cavour, to improve the wines in her cellar. After a brief investigation, Oudart identified the causes of the poor quality of the wine as clumsy production techniques. Fermentation was never completed, so the wine remained unstable with a sweet taste and an inability to age. These results convinced Cavour to ask Oudart to intervene in his cellar at Grinzane Castle. Changes were made to the grape varieties planted. King Vittorio Emanuele II converted his Pinot Noir vineyards at his hunting estate at Fontanafredda, in Serralunga d’Alba, to Barolo.
This triggered a period of decline of Pinot Noir for the production of red wines in Piedmont. Marquis Leopoldo Incisa della Rocchetta undoubtedly contributed to its rediscovery. He kept in touch with the best ampelographers of his time, spreading excellent grape varieties, including varieties native to Bordeaux and Burgundy, among which Pinot Noir, throughout Piedmont.
The Counts of Sambuy Marengo, who introduced Pinot Noir into the Alessandria area, importing vine rootings directly from Burgundy, also played an important role. It was the early 19th century, a time of great difficulty for Piedmontese viticulture, with fierce competition coming from the French cousins. At that time, there were attempts to introduce new foreign varieties into the local wine scene, with the aim of channeling production towards more commercially profitable varieties.