Posh Pinot Grigio
Though it is most closely associated with Italy, and with easy drinking simplicity, the variety sometimes known as Pinot Gris is capable of complexity and depth. Here's where to look for a more polished Pinot Grigio experience.
Thanks to its sheer drinkability, it’s easy to look at Pinot Grigio as a metaphor for the evolving wine culture of the United States and, being among our most popular imported wines, as the engine that drives wine lovers from simple to sophisticated choices: a Pinot Grigio today may lead to a Premier Cru tomorrow. Truth is, Pinot Grigio (aka Pinot Gris) already has a sophisticated side. It can deliver much more than the highly quaffable, lemonade-like characteristics that earned it blockbuster billing. This cleverly adaptable protagonist is capable of meditative, refined and mature performances. It’s time to rethink P.G.
But first, let’s look back. The Italians are credited with the modern-day import success of Pinot Grigio. The crisp white wines of Santa Margherita, Cavit, Zonin and many others have washed over American palates for decades, winning our affections and directing us towards dry, unoaked whites. Because so much Pinot Grigio is exported and indeed specifically tailormade for the U.S., it is often regarded as the most popular Italian wine not found in Italy.
“That’s not entirely true,” says Brian Larky of Dalla Terra Winery Direct, an importer of many Italian wines, based in Napa, California. “Italians have been drinking wonderful Pinot Grigio for years in areas of northern Italy where the grape is traditionally grown. They didn’t just jump on the bandwagon.
“It continues to be a strong category in the U.S. because Pinot Grigio represents everything we love about Italy: lifestyle, beauty, people and food,” adds Larky. “Most of all, we love that it is rarely a disappointment.”
Here is a profile of Pinot Grigio in Italy and Pinot Grigio/Gris elsewhere in the world, where it is fully capable of showing a distinctly sophisticated side.
Pinot Grigio is a delicate but resilient grape that often reflects elements of the territory surrounding it. In Alto Adige, the mountainous far north of Italy, cooler climates and steep vineyard inclines create aromatic expressions with accents of peach blossom, pink grapefruit and drying mineral. A few excellent producers to look out for are Alois Lageder, Colterenzio, Elena Walch as well as the cooperative wineries St. Pauls, Cantina Caldaro and San Michele Eppan.
In the Friuli region, however, where temperatures are slightly warmer and soils are alluvial, the wines can show rich, creamy density, loads of ripe fruit and apricot, as well as natural touches of vanilla and almond. These wines are truly unforgettable and represent some of the best white wines made in the country: Marco Felluga, Livio Felluga, Ronco del Gelso, Jermann, Plozner and Mario Schiopetto are a few names to look out for.
“Pinot Grigio is a very sensitive grape,” says winemaker Fabrizio Gatto, who makes Maso Canali and Ecco Domani Pinot Grigio (two brands of E&J Gallo). “It is only possible to grow good grapes on hillsides and in very windy areas.” The uniquely grey-colored variety also reacts well to winemaking techniques like late harvests for more concentrated flavors and aromas, oak aging for nutty toasty accents, extended contact with the lees for rich density and texture or extended contact with the skins for a more saturated color. In fact, Pinot Grigio was traditionally made in a ramato (“copperish”) style that exhibits tones similar to a rosé only with more amber and orange highlights. The color is obtained by allowing the wine to absorb those pigments from the skins; decades ago (before temperature control and stainless steel), most Italian Pinot Grigios exhibited a ramato color. Now, these wines have returned to fashion: Tommasi and Attems are two producers that make them. —MONICA LARNER
Rich, luscious, full-bodied, yet always with good acidity, Alsace Pinot Gris is the complete opposite of Pinot Grigio. Many Alsace winemakers regard this as the classic Alsace variety, even above Riesling. And no wonder. Superb Pinot Gris seems to come effortlessly from the best producers in the region. It makes wines that range from dry through levels of sweetness to the great Vendanges Tardives (late harvest) wines that seem to happen in most years. Some producers love to bring out extreme opulence, while others want to restrain the variety’s natural exuberance to keep some acidity. But expect Pinot Gris, even balanced Pinot Gris, to be in the region of 14% or even 15% ABV.
Ten years ago, if you had asked an Alsace wine lover to name this grape, it would have been called Tokay-Pinot Gris. Ten years earlier, before Hungary’s entry into the European Union, it would have been called Tokay d’Alsace. The only link between the Pinot Gris’ of Hungary and Alsace is two generals—one who took the grape from Alsace to Hungary in the 14th century, and another who brought it back in the 16th, by which time it had stopped being called Grauklevner and become Tokay, but was always Pinot Gris. Confused? So are old-time Alsatians, who stubbornly cling to Tokay d’Alsace.
Pairing Pinot Gris with food can be tough. “I think it is problematic because there are so many different styles,” says Daniel Johnnes, a wine importer and wine director of Daniel Boulud’s Dinex Group of restaurants in New York. Johnnes imports Alsace wine from Domaine Mittnacht. “You have to be careful with the richness,” he says. “Personally I believe in matching intensity with intensity, so I’d pair Pinot Gris with poultry, with rich fish such as swordfish, with cream sauces. It is certainly not an apéritif wine.” —ROGER VOSS
& NEW ZEALAND
Pinot Grigio remains trendy Down Under. In New Zealand, plantings of it continue to build, following on a decade-long surge. In Australia, there’s enough of it—and enough demand—that megaproducer Casella Wines (makers of Yellow Tail) has gotten in on the act. But this being the other side of the planet, there are a few twists in the Pinot Grigio story.
In New Zealand, the domestic product is almost always referred to as Pinot Gris. And while 10 years ago, when the Pinot Gris class was first introduced at the prestigious Air New Zealand Wine Awards, styles were all over the map, now New Zealand Pinot Gris is settling into a more predictable mold: “The most common style fits somewhere in between Italian Pinot Grigio and Pinot Gris from Alsace,” explains Clive Jones, winemaker for Nautilus Estate. “It is dry— less than seven grams per liter residual sugar—and retains some of the crispness of Grigio but also has some of the weight and texture more aligned with Alsace.” At Spy Valley Wines, winemaker Paul Bourgeois aims for a rich, textured style, which he correlates with low cropping levels and old vines. “Old oak fermentation and malolactic fermentation have also been important to further refine texture,” says Bourgeois.
In Australia, there’s a wider range of styles, which recently spurred an effort by the Australian Wine Research Institute ( AWRI) to develop the PinotG Style Spectrum. Based on a wine’s spectrographic analysis, it is classified somewhere between “crisp” and “luscious.” The idea is to help guide consumers towards their own preferred styles. Perhaps because of Australia’s generally warm climates, the overall quality of the wines has been less exciting than those from New Zealand. Still, some of the cooler regions show promise, such as the Adelaide Hills and Tasmania. The biggest obstacle to enjoying those wines is the relatively limited availability here in the United States. —JOE CZERWINSKI
Most California-made Pinot Grigio/Gris display fresh, natural acidity and juicy citrus, pear, melon, apple and floral flavors. When properly priced—say, under $12—the wine can be a fine alternative to Sauvignon Blanc. In fact, you’ll find lots of “Best Buys” in Wine Enthusiast’s database of wine reviews over the years, for such brands as White Truck, Mirassou, J and Babcock. These are wines that are widely available, and can be enjoyed as cocktail sippers with small plates of appetizers, or with spicy Asian fare. Most of the inexpensive bottlings are unoaked and are called Pinot Grigio. For consumers looking for something more full-bodied and complex, a relatively small number of vintners are making wines in the full Burgundian style. These generally are barrel fermented and/or aged, stirred on the lees, and sometimes subject to malolactic fermentation. The unofficial practice is to call these more elaborate wines Pinot Gris. However, not all Pinot Gris have been wood aged, and some of the best P. G.’s never saw the inside of a barrel.
John Lancaster, the sommelier at San Francisco’s popular restaurant Boulevard, likes to serve a full-bodied, but not necessarily oaked, Pinot Gris as an alternative to a big Chardonnay. “It treads a fine line between richness and acidity, with lots of flavor and texture,” he explains. “There’s a lot of wine in the glass, but it doesn’t go over the top.” Pinot Gris usually has the benefits of being lower in alcohol and less expensive than Chardonnay. —STEVE HEIMOFF
WASHINGTON & OREGON
One region Pinot Gris/Grigio was introduced to the Pacific Northwest by the late David Lett, founder of the Eyrie Vineyards. In an interview with me some years ago, he recalled that he’d “brought Pinot Gris up to Oregon with me in 1964—160 cuttings taken from the only four vines they had at UC Davis.” They fit his theory—radical for the day—that by planting early ripening varieties in the Willamette Valley, he could work through Oregon’s cool growing season. “The idea was to adapt the grapes to the climate,” he noted, adding (with characteristic irony) “which they still haven’t figured out in places like Santa Barbara!”
Though Lett’s 1970 Eyrie Pinot Gris staked a claim to being the first commercial version made in America, for the next decade it remained one man’s odd obsession. Ten years after that first vintage, Eyrie’s annual Pinot Gris production totaled just 25 cases. In 1990 there were only 104 acres harvested in all of Oregon. But in the 1990s, propelled by an international reputation for their Pinot Noirs, Oregon vintners turned in earnest to Pinot Gris as their signature white wine. Today, Pinot Gris is the second most widely planted grape in the state, with almost 3,000 acres under cultivation.
Early versions were made as rich, buttery, oaky wines, highly imitative of Chardonnay, but they have evolved into more contemporary styles. Today, Oregon’s Pinot Gris are mostly kept away from new oak, made with an emphasis on fruit flavors of fresh pears, supported with juicy natural acidity. Washington is a relative latecomer to any significant production of the grape, though in the past few years it has jumped up to fifth place among all white grapes grown here. Demand is high, and only Viognier commands a higher average price per ton. Though not as concentrated or fleshy as many Oregon bottlings, Washington versions are also lively, fruit-forward wines, showing a zesty mix of tart green apple and Japanese pear flavors. —PAUL GREGUTT