Pinot Grigio: The Official Portrait
There's more to this megastar white than the light, fruity style we all know.
Illustration by Cyrille Berger
It's the white wine of youthful enthusiasts. It's the go-to wine for people at Italian restaurants. It's the omnipresent white wine at parties and picnics. It's easy, it's light, it's pronounceable.
If a single grape can be credited with driving the commercial success of Italian wine in our country, that grape is Pinot Grigio. The number-one imported wine in the U.S. and the second most popular white wine after Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio is an enological superstar and the darling of American wine drinkers. More than other foreign wines, Italian Pinot Grigio has helped stimulate our own blossoming wine culture.
In many ways, Pinot Grigio is a fitting symbol of America's own evolution as a wine-drinking nation. As the base of regular wine consumers broadens—shifting away from "wine on special occasions" to "wine every day with dinner"—the sales of Pinot Grigio has dramatically increased. One reason is because it makes a perfect match for lower-calorie cooking as well as Mediterranean and Asian (Chinese, Thai and Indian) dishes. Its popularity is due to its consistency, versatility, approachability and straightforwardness. Call it the light beer of wine; Pinot Grigio producers certainly won't mind.
"Pinot Grigio is particularly successful in the Unites States," affirms Cavit Director Giacinto Giacomini. "Before wine consumption started in the U.S., people primarily drank soft drinks and then Pinot Grigio came along representing a fresh, delicate white wine that was so different from the over-barriqued wines available at the time."
Pinot Grigio, Rated
94 Domaines Schlumberger 2002 Grand Cru Kitterlé Pinot Gris (Alsace); $44. A beautiful wine, balancing acidity, spice and fresh peach flavors with structure and ageability. This brings out all the characters of great Pinot Gris, elegance and power combining in harmony. Imported by Maisons Marques & Domaines USA. — R.V.
93 Bressan 2003 Pinot Grigio (Venezia Giulia); $40. Amidst the sea of copycat Grigios one exception stands out. It starts with a deep golden color and a nose ripe with toasted almond, pine box, caramel and maple syrup. Compactly structured, smooth and silky, with lingering spice from barrel aging. Imported by VinUS Inc. — M.L.
92 Chalk Hill 2002 Estate Vineyard Selection Pinot Gris (Chalk Hill); $40. This is the future of upscale California PG. Made from good grapes in a cool climate, the wine is barrel fermented, aged sur lies and given time in the bottle. The result is a dry, tart, delicate yet complex wine. This may be the most expensive PG ever produced in California, but it is an excellent wine. — S.H.
92 Cristom 2004 Estate Pinot Gris (Willamette Valley); $17. High-density plantings, select clones, native yeasts—Steve Doerner is as dedicated a winemaker as you will ever meet. This wine validates his efforts; it's a delicious, textural, varied and satisfying effort. The wine plays with the palate, offering layers of stone, fruit, acid, herb and spice that mix and mingle easily. — P.G.
91 Neumeister Winery 2002 Grauburgunder Saziani (Südsteiermark); $30. Packed with white fruit flavors, ripe pears, and a touch of spice. These fruit flavors combine with a dense but elegant structure and balancing acidity. This is a high-alcohol wine (14.5%) and it shows in the oily texture. Imported by Morandell Imports. — R.V.
90 Tscheppe 2003 Possnitzberg Reserve Pinot Gris (Südsteiermark); $33. As befits a reserve, this is a step up from Tscheppe's standard Pinot Gris. Full of white fruit flavors, with some toast from wood aging, and plenty of richness. Imported by Winemonger.com. — R.V.
91 O'Reilly's 2004 Pinot Gris (Willamette Valley); $12. This spicy, fresh and citrus-flavored wine is at the opposite end of the spectrum from winemaker David O' Reilly's Owen Roe Pinot Gris. But it's just as good, and perhaps more flexible as far as matching food. Finishes with crisp, leesy, mineral flavors. — P.G.
90 Meridian 2004 Pinot Grigio (California); $10. As refreshingly crisp and clean as California PG gets, with brilliant acidity boosting vibrant flavors of kiwi, fig and pineapple. Best of all, the wine is totally dry. — S.H.
89 Bollini 2004 Pinot Grigio (Trentino); $13. A gorgeous and opulent nose with honey, vanilla bean, ripe pineapple and yellow roses. The mouth is unusually silky for the variety, with baked apple and cinnamon over a medium finish. Imported by Empson & Co. — M.L.
88 Cesari 2004 Due Torri Pinot Grigio (Delle Venezie) $10. Roasted caramelized almond, banana bread and candied fruit smells characterize a wine that is smooth but tangy in the mouth, with good persistence. Imported by Opici Wine Group. — M.L.
88 Tolloy 2005 Pinot Grigio (Alto Adige); $10. Very compact and clean in its aromatic delivery with banana, Golden Delicious apple and attractive hints of toasted almond in the background. Creamy, smooth and supple in the mouth with a touch of zesty spice on the finish. Imported by Prestige Wine Imports. — M.L.
Pinot Grigio is the Italian name for Pinot Gris—they are the same grape; the dominance of the Pinot Grigio name is due to the popularity of the Italian wines. It is known as Pinot Gris in France and Washington State. In other parts of the world, such as California, the name given it is at least in part a marketing decision.
Pinot Grigio is a genetic mutation of Pinot Noir. Its skin is deeply copper-colored, pink, or "grey" as its name implies, and it is often classified as a red variety despite the fact the wine made from the grape is almost always white. Traditionally, the wine was macerated on the skins prior to pressing, resulting in a copperish or ramato wine. But these grandfather Grigios were highly variable in quality and often suffered from problems related to oxidation.
In 1961, a group of enologists with Santa Margherita started experimenting with the grape and removed the skins sooner to avoid the ramato effect. They fermented at cool temperatures in stainless steel and produced a brilliantly straw-colored wine with vibrant fresh fruit and floral aromas. Ten years later, they started exporting their product and what started as a trickle soon became a torrent.
How can the consumer see the trees through this vast forest? Most Pinot Grigio follows a general profile: You'll get rich pear, apple, melon, peach and citrus flavors and aromas supported by a smooth, caressing mouthfeel and a prominent vein of acidity, or touch of sourness, on the finish. Variations on Pinot Grigio's taste profile can include candied, honey and toasted almond flavors, depending on the wine's origin. It's an easy-to-drink wine with no fussiness or strings attached. It is also versatile, pairing well with a wide range of foods. In general, Pinot Grigios should be drunk young, and not more than two years after the vintage—three to four years if it is a riserva or special bottling.
But Italian Pinot Grigios are just one example of a variety of Grigio/Gris styles. Following is a snapshot of PG as produced in the most prominent producing regions. As you will see, the terroir and vinification methods vary widely, so even if you think you know PG, there is more to learn, and other styles to explore.
Although you will find excellent Pinot Grigios from Tuscany, Umbria, Le Marche, Lazio and even hotter southern regions, most of the Grigios imported to the U.S. comes from Italy's northeastern regions: the Veneto, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Trentino and Alto Adige. Gorgeous wines with a fuller, creamier texture with loads of ripe melon on the nose come from Friuli's Collio and Colli Orientali del Friuli. But if you prefer more acidic Grigios (with more aging potential) topped by kiwi, exotic fruit and green apple aromas, look to cooler-climate Alto Adige, where the grape is known as Ruländer.
The names of the biggest producers are well known to Americans: Santa Margherita, Bolla, Cavit, Zonin, Mezzacorona and Ecco Domani. But riding on the tail of Pinot Grigio's enormous commercial success is a group of artisans bent on bringing back the variety's traditional characteristics. These smaller producers warn that Pinot Grigio is a variety that suffers when grown in bulk: "Yields must be controlled in order to obtain delicate expressions," says Andrea Felluga, of the Livio Felluga estate in Collio and Colli Orientali del Friuli. "This grape is a treasure chest and a fantastic resource for Friuli."
Many producers, including Friuli's Vie di Romans, are making copper-tinged wines and others are experimenting with longer oak aging. Fulvio Luca Bressan strives for reduced yields in the vineyard, cold maceration for two days, and a month-long fermentation. He also ages in large oak casks for two years on the lees. "That is my secret," says the outspoken Bressan. "I dedicate a lot of mental attention to my wine and I want it to be different from the others on the market." At 93 points, Bressan's 2002 vintage is our highest-scoring Pinot Grigio from Italy thanks to its thick, honey-like consistency and silky mouthfeel.
If more wines like these hit the U.S. market, two schools of Pinot Grigio could develop: The commercially successful wine that appeals to a broad base of consumers, and the boutique wine that attracts collectors. If that happens, Pinot Grigio's future will look even brighter.
"Pinot Gris is really a red wine masquerading as a white wine," says Jean Meyer, winemaker and director of JosMeyer in Alsace. "You can easily confuse it with a pale red Pinot Noir, if tasting it blindfold, and you can find red fruit flavors which you don't in other white wines."
That's why Jean Meyer believes Pinot Gris should be dry: "Because red wines aren't sweet," he says. But, in Alsace, whether Pinot Gris should be sweet or dry is an open question. There are some great examples of both styles—probably the greatest examples of Pinot Gris in the world—but there is no consensus. What is irritating for a consumer is that most of the time (with some honorable exceptions) producers don't bother to say whether a wine is sweet or dry on the label. You are expected to know. Unless, of course, a wine is labeled Vendange Tardive or Selections de Grains Nobles, in which case it will certainly be sweet.
Another confusion: Pinot Gris in Alsace is also, traditionally, known as Tokay Pinot Gris. It's a reference to the Hungarian grapes and is a story of legend: A Baron Schwendi, fighting the Turks in Hungary in the 16th century, was so smitten with the local wine that he brought back cuttings. The reality is that there is no connection between Pinot Gris and any of the grapes used to make Hungarian Tokay. Pinot Gris probably arrived in Alsace from Burgundy. But the Hungarian reference remains.
Pinot Gris is the least site-demanding of the noble varieties of Alsace. It can be grown almost anywhere, even on north-facing slopes, and is the most reliable in giving a regular crop not only of normal quality but of the rich, sweet, late-harvest styles. Unlike Gewürztraminer, it is also able to retain its acidity when made in a sweet style. This means that good examples of Pinot Gris in Alsace can age for 10 to 15 years.
The greatest examples of Pinot Gris in Alsace come from grand cru vineyards. Domaines Schlumberger, with its huge vineyard holdings, produces 10 percent of all grand cru in Alsace. Séverine Beydon-Schlumberger says that these are very much terroir-driven wines: "Each vineyard has its own character, which is reflected in each of the different wines the vineyard produces. So Kitterlé is spicy, mineral and ageworthy; Spiegel is mushroomy, and great for late harvest wines; Kessler is flowery."
Schlumberger has a rigorous selection process for its grand cru wines; any wine not considered of sufficient quality is declassified into a second label, Les Princes Abbés. Other great Pinot Gris sites include the Brand, Hengst and Eichberg vineyards and Mambourg, from which Marcel Deiss makes a fascinating blend of Pinots Gris, Noir and Blanc.
In food-conscious Alsace, the gourmets are impressed by the range of pairings for Pinot Gris. Jean Meyer cites risotto and pasta, terrine, liver, mushrooms, pork. "And when the wine ages," he says, "try it with black truffles—and blow the cost."
— Roger Voss
Pinot Gris, also known as Grauer Burgunder because of its Burgundian origin, is not prominent in Austria. Just over 1 percent of its vineyards is planted with the grape, but, in the right vineyard, and with the right exposure, it can produce fine dry and sweet botrytis wines.
The greatest dry Pinot Gris in Austria comes from an unexpected place: Styria, in the extreme south of the country, has the proper climate (warm), the right soil (sand and chalk) and great hillside sites. All three Styrian regions, but most particularly Südsteiermark (South Styria), produce a light, fresh style of Pinot Gris with liveliness and good acidity. Polz, Vin'o Tscheppe and Domäne Müller (in Weststeiermark) make good examples.
Burgenland, around the shallow Lake Neusiedl, has the greatest concentration of Pinot Gris vineyards in Austria. This is where the sweet wines are produced, and Pinot Gris, with its great propensity to botrytis, furnishes some rich, spicy examples. Perhaps one of the best is Ruster Ausbruch's Feiler-Artinger. Another successful curiosity is from Bründlmayer, a blend of Grau and Weissburgunder (Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc) from vineyards in Langenlois.
In California, as in Italy, Pinot Grigios are workhorse whites: In other words, they're clean, racy and simple. The grapes easily ripen to fruit-basket flavors of peach, pear, apple, citrus, fig and melon, backed up by firm acids, and range from dry to off-dry. The wines can be a value if priced below $10.
But a handful of Pinot Grigios are exceeding expectations; and, of course, they're pricier. The best come from Chalk Hill, Etude, Madonna, Swanson, Cambria, Claudia Springs, Epiphany, Mayo and Perbaco. Geographically, they come from Chalk Hill, Santa Maria Valley, Anderson Valley, Santa Rita Hills, Sonoma Coast, Arroyo Grande Valley and Carneros in Napa Valley—in other words, in order to excel in California, Pinot Grigio needs a cool climate. And crop yields must be kept low.
Beyond that, the good ones share little in common, enologically. Chalk Hill employs Burgundian techniques, like barrel fermentation, sur lies aging and battonage, and aging in French oak barrels. Others, like Etude's, never see a splinter of wood, while Epiphany and Claudia Springs combine barrel and stainless steel fermentation. However it's made, the wine is best consumed young.
Pinot Grigio (or Gris; in this part of the world it's a simple marketing decision) is a versatile food wine. At San Francisco's Boulevard restaurant, sommelier John Lancaster likes to recommend Etude's Pinot Gris as an alternative to Chardonnays, especially those from Burgundy. "Pinot Gris treads a fine line between richness and acidity," Lancaster notes. "There's a lot of wine in the glass, but it doesn't go over the top."
— Steve Heimoff
Washington and Oregon
Northwest Pinot Gris is fleshy and ripely fruity, with lip-smacking acidity that sets up food flavors. They are are bright and clean; their freshness is a virtue. The fruit-driven flavors range from apple and pear (most common) up through peach and mango. The best of them have spent extra time aging on the lees, which adds a creamy texture and a refreshing minerality. Winemaker Casey McClellan of Seven Hills explains that Pinot Gris is "naturally balanced with food, and has a sensory profile of taste and aroma that matches well with a variety of dishes."
A decade ago, Oregon vintners seemed hell-bent on making ripe, barrel-fermented, buttery versions, but the fad for oaky, soft, Chardonnay-style Pinot Gris seems to have passed. Stainless steel fermentation, minimum malolactic and extended aging on the lees is now standard, producing wines that are crisp and textured.
The top Oregon Pinot Gris, such as Cristom's estate bottling and Laurent Montalieu's Soléna, layer in streaks of mineral, herb and spice. Montalieu likes them for their "powerful aromatics," and their "big, lush mouthfeel and lingering acidity." Indeed, his wines seem to freshen the palate as they flush through.
Though Oregon makes the lion's share of Northwest Pinot Gris, Washington versions are becoming more common. Washington has just a few hundred acres of the grape planted, but demand is high—it is the most expensive white wine grape grown in the state. Columbia, Willow Crest and Covey Run all make affordable, excellent versions that put a distinctive Washington spin on the grape: The fruit is edgier, the acids sharper, the flavors suggesting citrus more than pear. With their wonderful apple and pear flavors, they are especially well-matched to poultry or pork loin with a fruit sauce.
— Paul Gregutt