Virginia wine began as a collaboration between Thomas Jefferson and the Italian merchant Filipo Mazzei. But between war and pestilience, the dynamic duo wasn’t really able to ever make great wine. They did, however, realize that the name of the game was adapting European varietals to American soil. Virginia wine as we know it today began when Gianni Zonin brought Gabriele Rausse to Barboursville Vineyards in 1976 and they figured out how to graft Vitis vinifera. Now the Italian love story has come full circle, as the folks at Barboursville (three-time Governor’s Cup winners) have for the first time created a Virginia Pinot Grigio.
The grape accommodates many adaptations in name, style, and place. In Italy, it’s known as Pinot Grigio, in Germany as Grauburgunder or Rulander. It’s called Malvoisie in Switzerland, and in Alsace it was formerly Tokay—now Pinot Gris. Due to international marketing in the United States, Pinot Grigio is more widely recognized than Pinot Gris, but both names are acceptable. In Australia, Pinot Grigio indicates a dry and crisp style, whereas Pinot Gris refers to a richer and weightier wine.
Pinot Gris, like Pinot Blanc, is a natural mutation of the Pinot Noir grape and translates to “gray pinot” because of its bluish-silver to mauve-pink skin color, and the word pinot is derived from “pinecone,” due to the grapes’ tightly banded clusters. The color of the wine itself also varies depending on grape color and style of winemaking (the wine darkens and develops deeper tannins with longer maceration).
The style varies dramatically based on growing climate, the attitude of the winemaker, and location. In Italy, Pinot Grigio can be simple, light, and refreshing, or opulent, rich, and honeyed.
The regions of Collio and Collio Orientali are renowned largely for their un-oaked, viscous whites derived from warm growing conditions and low yields. This area is considered to be one of the best white wine regions in Italy and lies in the province of Friuli Venezia Giulia on the border of Slovenia. Collio has earned the DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) classification, which ranks the second highest in Italy. The Venica “Jesera” Pinot Grigio from Collio has a subtle pinkish hue, with crisp, lightly floral notes, and is one of my favorites from this region. It can be found at Market Street Wineshops for $21.99.
The Vie di Romans Dessimis Pinot Grigio from Friuli is a highlight on the wine list at tavola with its citrusy, slightly floral notes, making it a perfect complement to any of the restaurant’s Italian seafood dishes.
Moving further north in Alto Adige lies Abbazia di Novacella, a working 12th century Augustinian abbey producing some of the finest wines available. The Pinot Grigio posseses hints of white flowers, pear, and anise; pairs well with cheese and cured meats; and can be found at Tastings of Charlottesville for $22.95.
Also near this area is the Sudtirol (South Tyrol), which was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until WWI. This area has a strong German inclination in food and language, with a shared culture between both Italy and Germany. The wines from this region are often packaged in slender bottles (as are most Alsatian whites), with labels written in both languages. Kellerei Kaltern Caldaro makes a fantastic Pinot Grigio from this region, with notes of lemon curd and apple blossom. Find it at Market Street Wineshops for $12.99 (a bargain!) and pair it with seafood and spicy dishes.
Alsace, in the very northern part of France, is acclaimed for its Pinot Gris d’Alsace and Pinot Blanc. These wines are markedly different than Pinots from any other area. The grapes grow on steep terraced vineyards with little water, and produce light, innocuous, dry wines that still maintain a mouth-wateringly unctuous texture. The J. Fritsch Pinot Gris at Tastings is a classic example of this region for $21.95.
Oregon has become the leader in producing fantastically rich, yet bright Pinot Gris. These wines are ripe and crisp, with notes of juicy pear, melon, fresh citrus, and a medium-to-full body. Giradet is one of southern Oregon’s oldest wine estates, located in the Umpqua Valley. Second-generation winemaker Marc Giradet makes a luscious Pinot Gris, which matches sublimely with salmon and oily fish. It’s poured occasionally by the glass (and always by the bottle) at Tastings for $19.95.
Also in the Northwest, in neighboring Washington State, you’ll find the Sineann Wy’east Vineyard Pinot Gris from Columbia Gorge, which is a good pour at Market Street Wineshops for under $20.