WHETHER you call it Pinot Gris or Pinot Grigio, this grape definitely has a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde dual identity.
On one hand, the grape makes serious, rich and age-worthy wines while its alter ego manifests itself in exceedingly friendly and approachable wines. The grape may be the same but the wines it makes are astonishingly different. This split personality helps make the variety one of the most misunderstood and under-appreciated in the wine world.
In my opinion, the staid Pinot Gris and affable Pinot Grigio wines both make for excellent summer drinking, albeit in very different ways.
The progenitor of the Pinot family is Pinot Noir, with Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc the genetic mutation descendents. In terms of DNA, they are so closely related that only a single mutation of the outer skin differentiates the Pinot relatives.
The home of the Pinot family is believed to be Burgundy, where the earliest records of Pinot Gris as a distinct variety appeared in the 13th century. By the 14th century the grape was well established in neighboring French, Swiss and German regions.
Until the 19th-century virulent outbreak of the Phylloxera pest, Pinot Gris thrived in Burgundy and Champagne as a favored single variety and blend grape. It is interesting to note that 18th-century versions of Domaine Romanee Conti red wines were blends with approximately 20-percent Pinot Gris.
The Pinot Gris vines in Burgundy and Champagne did not take well to hybrid grafting to the American root stock that was resistant to the pest and because of this and the general finicky nature of the grape, the variety was gradually phased out and replanted with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vines. However, in the cooler climates of Alsace the hybrids reacted better and the region became the new home of Pinot Gris.
The modern popularity and notoriety of the grape is almost entirely due to the explosive success of Italian Pinot Grigio wines in major markets like the US, UK and Germany, but there are other noteworthy interpretations of this grape.
Region and styles
More top-quality Pinot Gris wines come from Alsace than anywhere else. It’s the third most-planted variety after the Riesling and Gewurztraminer grapes and is used to make both dry and sweet wines. The sweet versions are called Selection de Grains Nobles and are excellent wines of great pedigree but the dry versions are more suitable for summer drinking.
The cool climate and mostly alluvial soils in Alsace result in intense, powerful and concentrated wines with intriguing spicy notes and a weighty, oily texture. They are also among the few Pinot Gris wines that can be cellared. Superb dry Alsatian Pinot Gris wines are made by the producers Domaines Schlumber, Trimbach, Hugel & Fils and Gustave Lorentz.
The most popular expression of Pinot Gris comes from Italy, where the grape is called Pinot Grigio. It’s also a style of wine that many wine experts love to hate. In general, Italian Pinot Grigio wines are light, crisp and refreshing, often with distinct lemony notes.
Some wine writers have derogatorily described the wines as water with a lemon slice, referring to the lack of intensity, depth and complexity. But this, like all generalizations, is flawed as quite good examples do exist and the overall quality has been improving in recent years. There are plenty of good Pinot Grigios that while they never will qualify as great wines to be served on special occasions are nonetheless eminently qualified for pleasant everyday drinking and summer quaffing.
The best Pinot Grigio wines come from northern Italy regions of Friyli-Venizia, Trentino, Alto Adige and Veneto. These wines offer an abundance of citrus fruit scents and flavors with lively mouth-feel and refreshing acidity. Their vibrant and friendly characters have made them the most popular Italian white wine export and the No. 1 imported white wine in the United States.
To taste the best Italian Pinot Grigio wines you must stick to quality producers like Pighin, Attems, Movia and Bressan in Friuli and Colterenzio, Elena Walch and Alois Lageder in Alto Adige.
Since the 1960s, Oregon state has evolved into an important producer of Pinot Gris wines. In 2000, the variety overtook Chardonnay to become the most planted white variety comprising about 50 percent of all white variety plantings.
Oregon Pinot Gris wines tend to be medium to heavy bodied wines with robust melon, pineapple and tropical fruit qualities. They may also taste somewhat spicy. Recommended Oregon Pinot Gris wines are made by Kind Estate Winery, Cristom and Seven Hills. California also offers some worthwhile Pinot Gris wines from producers like Chalk Hill, Claudia Springs, Etude and Swanson.
Australia and New Zealand have also jumped on the Pinot Gris bandwagon and are making a range of differently styled wines. In New Zealand, producers in the Martinborough region on the North Island and Martinborough and Central Otago region on the South Island make wines that are more similar to the Alsatian Pinot Gris wines than the Italian styles. Fine examples are made by Kim Crawford, Mud House and Villa Maria, though I must say that the best Kiwi Pinot Gris I ever tasted was the outstanding 2012 Misha’s Dress Circle Pinot Gris from Central Otago.
Our multi-personality summer varietal Pinot Gris easily makes friends with a host of popular summer dishes.
The lighter, lemony Pinot Grigio wines from Italy are seamless companions to summer salads while more serious version from Fruili and Alto Adige pair well with grilled fish and white meats.
Top Alsatian Pinot Gris wines are perfect with elegant sauced fish and white meat dishes including Dover sole in meuniere sauce, roasted veal in champagne sauce or grilled stuffed pork loin in a mustard cream sauce.
I believe the only food dry Pinot Gris wines don’t go well with is red meats, but should you find a nice rose Pinot Gris then you may prove me wrong.