Pinot Grigio; the bulk grape of university binge drinking; the cornerstone of a white wine spritz; the trusty contents of a bottom shelf bag-in-box. Few fruits have reached such desperate lows in recent years, as mass volumes of sub-standard, flabby and tasteless Pinot Grigio wines have flooded into UK supermarkets. And yet, if the will can be summoned, some superior, good value, and even interesting examples can be found amongst the dross and the drab. In the right hands and with the right climate, Pinot Grigio can be turned into a fine, expressive wine, crafted around the world in a variety of different styles.
Italy is often considered to be the heartland of Pinot Grigio, and it is from here (and of course, California) that most of the supermarket swill starts its life. A grape of mineral, lightly fruity flavours, Pinot Grigio can be vinified quickly and cheaply with simple steel tanks. No pricey oak is required, nor time consuming lees or skin contact that clutters up winery space – it can be in and out the door in a matter of months, and large-scale Italian operations have taken advantage of this minimal, easy recipe.
Hidden amongst all the big boys however are smaller, local winemakers using Pinot Grigio to much more impressive ends, experimenting with ripeness levels, oak ageing and skin contact to make white or rose wines of alluring complexity. Examples from regions such as Collio in north eastern Friuli show striking, zesty fruit character supported by fragrant, floral nuances, with subtle oak contact and malolactic fermentation building a much fuller, rounder mouthfeel. Pinot Grigio from the Alto Adige region in the northern, alpine reaches of Italy often demonstrates great mineral intensity and vibrant, thirst quenching acidity – a stark contrast to the flabby, limp versions produced en masse in the lowlands.
The wines of Soave, once-upon-a-time frowned upon as nothing more than common, insipid ‘house wines’ have been enjoying something of a renaissance in recent years. Here, Pinot Grigio is blended with a local grape called Garganega, lending a body and weightiness to the palate that result in wines far more suitable for pairing with food than their cheaper, poolside-quaffing peers.
In France, Pinot Grigio is produced in an altogether different style. France (or Burgundy, more precisely) is the ancestral home of the cultivar itself, and here it is known by its other common name, Pinot Gris. Alsace is the primary region producing Pinot Gris wines today, in a distinct, off-dry form; musky and floral with rich honeyed notes, Alsace Pinot Gris is a perfect food wine to match with creamy chicken, subtly spicy Asian flavours and light pork dishes. The easy-ripening nature of the grape (aided even more so by the hot, dry Alsatian climate) means that the berries often accrue sugar levels high enough to be made into botrytized Vendanges Tardives and Selection de Grains Nobles wines – highly sweet and highly prized bottles that are a joy to eat with creamy, salty blue cheese or with sticky desserts of equal intensity. Across the border in Germany, Pinot Gris is once again renamed, this time as Grauburgunder, and here the wines are similar in style to those of Alsace, but often possessing lower alcohol and higher acidity levels.
Whilst still the same grape, this stylistic distinction between Pinot Grigio and Pinot Gris has carried over somewhat into the New World, where winemakers tend to name their wines after the European tradition in which they have been moulded. In New Zealand for instance, where the current fashion has resided with particularly aromatic styles of wine, bottles are often labelled as Pinot Gris, and tend to be Alsatian in inclination with off-dry to sweet residual sugar levels. The region of Central Otago on the South Island is becoming increasingly lauded for its Pinot Gris, alongside it’s currently more famous offerings of Pinot Noir. This successful cohabitation is not necessarily a coincidence;
Pinot Gris is in fact a mutation of the Pinot Noir grape, and the two are suited to very similar climates. Another example of this association occurs between the two in Oregon, where well respected Pinot Gris is being produced alongside equally successful Pinot Noir. In California on the other hand, larger producers seeking to makes wines in a more quaffable, drier style tend to label their bottles as Pinot Grigio. Although these scenarios seem to demonstrate a pattern in the nomenclature, the rule that a wine labelled as Gris or Grigio will adhere to a certain style can be misleading, and ultimately the grape is produced in such a vast array of international guises that this crude separation should be considered a suggestion at best.
Often overlooked and disregarded by many wine aficionados and collectors over the last decade or so, Pinot Grigio is making something of a comeback as a quality wine producing grape. Of course, its role as the source of so much cheap, lacklustre supermarket wine doesn’t seem to be coming to an end any time soon, but this unfortunate mantle has increasingly been taken up by trendier grapes such as Sauvignon Blanc. With the right knowledge and the will to seek out producers above the sub £7/8 price bracket, some intriguingly flavoursome and textural examples can be found with relative ease. There is Pinot Grigio, and then there’s Pinot Grigio, and the latter is good for far more than merely sloshing into a Wednesday night risotto.