Poor Gray Pinot. This grape with two names and two personalities is so misunderstood. It originated in France (where it’s called Pinot Gris) as a natural mutation of Pinot Noir. When it made its way into northern Italy, it became Pinot Grigio. If that were the extent of its differences, we could call the whole thing off, but the wines occupy opposite sides of the white spectrum: It’s light-bodied and crispy in Italy and full-bodied and lush in France. To confuse matters further, the New World (notably America) has had considerable success with both PGs, and “Gray Pinot” just didn’t cut it. Fortunately, most U.S. winemakers choose the moniker that corresponds most closely to their wine’s style.
Here in Alsace, France, the grayish-purple pinot thrives due to cool summers, warm soil and dry autumns.
In Alsace, France, where this gray to purple-hued grape thrives because of cool summers, warm volcanic soil, and dry autumns, producers pick later, allow more skin contact and ferment in neutral oak barrels (see Winespeak 101). These methods produce a wine that’s deeply colored, highly aromatic, unctuous (it feels like whole milk in your mouth) and full of ripe fruit and spicy, smoky, floral characteristics. Conversely, in Italy’s Trentino-Alto Adige and Friuli-Venezia Giulia, producers pick early and ferment in stainless steel for a super zippy wine that feels like skim milk in your mouth and tastes more of citrus, pear and nectarine (when done well) or like water with a squeeze of lemon (when done not so well). Some Italians are fermenting Pinot Grigio more like the Alsatians, but for the most part, you can rely on these Cliff’s Notes to tell the two apart.
Our country’s introduction to the grape was in the form of mass-produced Pinot Grigio that washed ashore in 1979 after wine importer Tony Terlato discovered Santa Margherita on a buying trip to Italy. His discovery not only made Pinot Grigio a household name, but it also established Santa Margherita as the high-end brand of Pinot Grigio. Thirty years later, we’re watching commercials showing gorgeous Italians guzzling it down and importing 600,000 cases per year. There is no reason, apart from the magic of marketing, that this insipid wine should cost $30 (or that we should be willing to pay that much for it).
Five ways to drink Gray Pinot
Alois Lageder Riff Pinot Grigio 2009 (Italy). Market Street Wineshop. $10.99
ArborBrook Croft Vineyards Pinot Gris 2009 (Oregon). Tastings of Charlottesville. $16.95
Barboursville Pinot Grigio 2009 (Virginia). Barboursville Vineyards. $14.99
J. Fritsch Pinot Gris 2009 (France). Wine Made Simple. $18.99
Jefferson Pinot Gris 2010 (Virginia). Jefferson Vineyards. $19.95
We’d do better buying one of the many beautiful PGs made in our country (and state). First planted in Oregon in 1966, the grape didn’t really take off until the ’90s, when it became the mellifluous alternative to overexposed Chardonnay. Today, Oregon harvests more than 2,400 acres of Pinot Gris annually, and California’s acreage of Pinot Grigio (most of the state’s offerings resemble the Italian-style, with some noteworthy Pinot Gris exceptions, like the ones from MacMurray Ranch and J Vineyards) totals around 17,000. Here in Virginia, Gabriele Rausse was the first to plant it (grafting it from a bud wood he got from Oregon’s Erath Winery in 1983) and now 22 of our 192 wineries plant it.
Choosing between the two PGs simply comes down to personal preference. If you’d happily drink either, then let what’s on the menu decide for you. For light-colored fish and shellfish, goat cheese salads and vegetable-based pasta dishes, choose the more acidic Pinot Grigio. For creamy soups or sauces, oily fish, roasted white meats and spicy Asian dishes, Pinot Gris is the better match.
Whether you prefer the breezy, gulpable Pinot Grigio, or the weightier, costlier Pinot Gris, this misunderstood grape rises above its identity crisis to deliver two wines delicious in their own rights. If only we could all be so secure in our differences.
The search is on for a new winemaker at Pollak Vineyards (which, incidentally, makes a fantastic Pinot Gris). The talented and medalled Jake Busching (his 2008 Petit Ver-dot won the Monticello Cup last year) was hired to start a winery at Mt. Juliet Vineyards, the western Albermarle fruit source for many of our state’s best wines.
Neutral oak (n.): A barrel that has been in use for three years, at which point it loses its ability to impart flavor to a wine, yet retains its ability to soften a wine through slow introduction of oxygen.