P inot is the Genghis Khan of the wine world; father to a great many different grape varieties. This can be partly explained by its habit of mutating in the vineyard. Pinot Gris (known as Pinot Grigio in Italy, Pinot Beurot in Burgundy and Grauburgunder in Germany and Austria) is a mutation of Pinot Noir, the variety responsible for all great red Burgundy.
Pinot Gris has in turn mutated into Pinot Blanc, also known as Pinot Bianco in Italy and Weissburgunder in Germany and Austria. Then there is Pinot Meunier, one of the three grapes used in Champagne production. Confused? This is only the tip of the iceberg. DNA tests prove Pinot is parent to over a hundred other grape varieties, including Chardonnay, Bourgogne Aligoté, Gamay (used to make Beaujolais) and Melon, which provides the grapes for Muscadet. Most of these are most commonly found in Burgundy and the nearby regions of Alsace and Germany.
Today we look at Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris, two white varieties, although Pinot Gris grapes often have a pinkish brown colour.
Pinot Gris, more widely known by its Italian name Pinot Grigio, is one of the most popular grapes around. Possibly its most valuable trait for a wine retailer is that it tastes of very little. That means that few wine drinkers will object strongly to a glass. It tends to be low in alcohol, low in acidity and have pleasing plump melon fruits. Rarely aged in oak, it is the perfect sipping wine, found in wine bars, pubs and restaurants around the country.
At least that is the version produced in the Veneto, a large region surrounding Venice. Look elsewhere and the picture changes completely.
Most of the good stuff in Italy tends to come from the areas to the north and east of the Veneto. The various parts of Friuli-Venezia Giulia and Trentino-Alto Adige produce some of Italy’s greatest white wines, including some seriously good lively Pinot Grigio. Most, sadly, are more expensive.
Supervalu periodically promotes the very attractive Terrazze della Luna Pinot Grigio from Trentino for €9.99 (don’t pay the full price of €19.99). It is streets ahead of most Veneto Pinot Grigio. But a good Pinot Grigio from Alto-Adige or Collio will usually cost around €20 or more.
Alsace has its own version of Pinot Gris, including some spectacularly good wines. Sometimes off-dry, but powerful, rich and spicy, with luscious peach fruits, it is hard to recognise it is the same grape that produces the light-bodied wines of the Veneto.
A wine carrying the designation Vendage Tardive or Sélection de Grains Nobles will be rich and sweet. Germany produces some high quality Grauburgunder (sometimes also called Rulander), often lighter and fresher than Alsace Pinot Gris.
In the New World New Zealand and Oregon make the best examples of Pinot Grigio, usually a medium-bodied fruity white, sometimes with a little sweetness – a half-way house between Italy and Alsace.
Only occasionally does Pinot Blanc/Bianco reach the same heights as Pinot Grigio. You rarely find the name on an Italian label, which is strange as it accounts for six per cent of total vineyards plantings. One suspects much of it must find its way into the river of Pinot Grigio that flows out of the Veneto region.
As with Pinot Grigio, the best wines come from the surrounding regions, and some can be very good. In Alsace, it makes relatively neutral crisp dry whites with clean pear fruits. Try the delicious Trimbach version widely available for around €15. Picked early, it is often a component in sparkling wines – Crémant in Alsace, and Franciacorta in Italy.
Under the name Weissburgunder, the Germans produce very attractive plump fruity white wines, and in Austria it is used to make some of the finest sweet white wines of all.
The lighter versions of both Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio make for perfect sipping wines. That crisp acidity means they go well with most fish and shellfish dishes. The richer wines are very good with chicken, pork and foie gras, while the sweet wines should be served well chilled with desserts.
This week three dry Pinot Grigios and a Pinot Blanc. All might cost a little more than you're used to paying, but believe me you will notice the difference.