Pin your hopes on Pinot
Pinot Grigio can vary in style, from crisp and dry to off-dry and aromatic. It is most often associated with Italy, but here are some to try from other regions
Pinot Grigio has been a fantastic money spinner for the Italian wine industry over the past decade and is showing little sign of slowing down. Along with Prosecco, it has been the driving force behind exports of Italian wines the world over.
Pinot Grigio has succeeded for two reasons. Firstly it is cheap; at times you can buy a bottle for as little as €4 in the multiples, although €6-€12 is more common. More importantly it suits the modern palate – generally light in alcohol, rarely aged in oak, with rounded melon fruits and lowish acidity, it is the perfect all-purpose white to sip with friends. Critics argue that it tastes of nothing, but that could actually be the key to its success, it may be difficult to love, but it is equally impossible to dislike.
Most of the really cheap stuff, labelled Pinot Grigio delle Venezie comes from the vast Veneto region in north-east Italy and some of it can be fairly sweet and flabby. The better versions are crisp, dry white wines with pleasant apple fruits, perfect with lighter seafood dishes. As ever, price is often a reliable indicator of quality.
Adjacent areas such as Friuli-Venezia and Trentino-Alto Adige produce better (and sadly more expensive) versions of Pinot Grigio; a cool climate and lower yields seem to be essential for quality.
Despite its name, Pinot Grigio is not an Italian grape. The Grigio is merely a translation of the French Gris, or grey, which refers to the pinkish grey hue of the grapes, which can sometimes add a tinge of pink to the white wines.
Pinot Gris is a mutation (or cousin) of Pinot Noir and was first discovered in Burgundy in the Middle Ages. You won’t find much of it in Burgundy today, although it is still a permitted variety. However, in Alsace it is revered as one of the four noble grape varieties.
The Alsace style of Pinot Gris is markedly different to that of Italy, and often unrecognisable as coming from the same grape. Where Italian Pinot Grigio is either light and fruity or crisp and dry, Alsace Pinot Gris is rich and textured, sometimes even opulent, and often has a few grams of residual sugar too.
The best examples are ageworthy, improving for many years. Picked late it becomes even more intense and luscious. Locally it is paired with foie gras, chicken and pork, but it also goes well with many Asian dishes, as well as lobster.
Wines made from late-picked grapes (known as Vendage Tardive or Sélection des Grains Nobles) are drunk with rich desserts.
A few other countries, largely in Eastern and Central Europe, have a long history of growing Pinot Gris. Romania has large plantings, as do Slovenia and Hungary. In Austria and Germany it is popular, and known as Grauer Burgunder or Rülander.
There had always been small plantings of Pinot Gris in the New World, but its popularity only really took off when producers saw the massive success Italy was having with the variety and decided to jump on the band wagon.
The problem is they don’t always specify which style they are making – Alsatian or Italian. A look at the alcohol levels can be a pointer; the more full-bodied Alsace wines often have 14%, whereas the Italian style is more likely to be 13% or less. However this is not always a reliable indicator as you certainly can find plenty of lighter, sweeter examples.
New Zealand has been to the forefront of the New World Pinot Gris/ Grigio movement, as it was felt suitable for their coolish climate. This week I excluded Italy from my tasting and sampled a range of Pinot Gris from around the world, but largely emanating from Alsace, New Zealand and Australia.
I had been unimpressed by most of the New World versions prior to my tasting. Many seemed insipid and sweetish without having the necessary grip. However I was pleasantly surprised by some in the line-up, and found two very enjoyable wines, one each from New Zealand and Australia. The samples I received from Alsace offered a variety of styles, but most were off-dry and richly textured, perfect for drinking with food, but unlikely to appeal to Pinot Grigio fans.
However, the surprise of the tasting was a delicious Pinot Gris from the Loire that combined the freshness of a Pinot Grigio with the honeyed richness of Alsace.