Pinot Gris/Grigio - The Ingenue of Grapes!
Pinot Gris, like many an ingenue, has been overlooked in the presence of more showy, established stars, like Chardonnay, Riesling, and Sauvignon Blanc. Then, after many years of unrecognized hard work it becomes an "overnight sensation". So it has been with Pinot Grigio. Barely acknowledged for many years, it has been in the past 10 to 15 years, with the rise of Pinot Gris under its Italian name, Pinot Grigio, that it has found world wide acceptance and fame.
From Grape to Bottle - Pinot Gris in the Vineyard and Winery
Pinot Gris is one of several mutations of Pinot Noir. Its name reflects its color, not the dark blue/black of Pinot Noir, nor the pale green of Pinot Blanc, it is somewhere in between, ranging from a light bluish gray to pinkish brown. As a mutation of Pinot Noir, you might expect it to be a grape that is highly susceptible to disease, but it is not. In fact, it is a relatively hardy, disease free grape to grow. It grows well in a variety of soils, preferring good drainage. It grows best in moderate to cool climates. In warmer climates, if its sugars rise too high, it tends to loose acidity, and make dull, flabby wine. Its main viticultural failing is that it has an uncertain yield, making growers somewhat wary of planting it.
In the winery, Pinot Gris is a fairly straightforward, uncomplicated wine to make. It is usually pressed without extended skin contact, and the juice is fermented at cool temperatures in neutral vessels. After fermentation is complete, it is usually bottled right away. It is rarely aged in oak, and if it is, the oak is usually older, used barrels that do not impart any strong flavors, as the mild flavors of the grape would be overwhelmed by significant oak aging. After
In the Glass - The Flavors of Pinot Gris
Pinot Gris is something of a chameleon of a wine, displaying distinctly different character depending on where and how it is grown. In cooler climates, and with its yields kept low, it can produce a yellow to copper colored, medium to full bodied wine, with rich, floral, melon, pear, apple or peach flavors, with moderate acidity to balance. If the climate is a bit warmer, or the yields higher, the richness, body, and flavors are all lessened, but the basic profile remains the same. In warmer climates, in order to prevent its characteristic drop in acidity as it ripens, it is often harvested early, which results in a wine of less color, less body, less flavor, and more pronounced acidity. The richer forms of Pinot Gris have shown an ability to age and develop, while the lighter forms are best consumed in their youth. There is also a small amount of late harvested Pinot Gris made, so sweet, dessert style Pinot Gris also exists.
On the Table - Pinot Gris and Food
Pinot Gris is a very versatile wine with food, pairing with as wide a range of foods as virtually any white wine. The lighter forms, most notably the Italian Pinot Grigio, are useful as aperitif wines, and also pair well with light pasta and fish. The richer forms can pair with richer fish, chicken, veal, and pork dishes. There is a particular affinity for dishes with a smoky or creamy component. In Oregon, there has been a synergy between the local salmon and Pinot Gris. Lacking the flavors of oak aging, but with richness of flavor, Pinot Gris is particularly successful with many dishes often thought of as good accompaniments to Chardonnay, but where Chardonnay's often oaky flavors interfere. That lack of oak makes Pinot Gris a better cheese wine than Chardonnay. It pairs well with a variety of cheese styles, from fresh Chevre, soft ripened cheeses like Brie or Camembert, to more assertive cheeses like Taleggio, and even all the way to classic "stinky French" cheeses like Muenster.
The Geography of Pinot Gris - Where It Grows, and Grows Well
Alsace is only region in France where Pinot Gris is prominent, and even there it takes third place behind Riesling and Gewurztraminer. However, it is the source of what are generally regarded as the finest Pinot Gris wines in the world. In the hands of producers like Willm, Trimbach, Zind Humbrecht, Weinbach, or Hugel, Pinot Gris can be a very rich, full flavored, and intense wine. There also exist two other styles of Pinot Gris in Alsace, the Vendange Tardives and Selection de Grains Nobles. Vendange Tardive literally translates as "Late Harvest", and these wines are richer, and more alcoholic. Depending on the producer's "house style" these wines range from dry to semi sweet. Selection de Grains Nobles, translates as "Selection of Noble Grapes" and refers to a wine made from grapes that have been affected by Botrytis cinerea, called pourriture noble, or "noble rot". This mold shrivels the grapes, and concentrates the juice, resulting in very high sugar juice, and resulting sweet, dessert wine. Elsewhere in France, a little Pinot Gris is grown, sometimes under the name Pinot Beurot, but it is of little importance.
In Italy, under the Italian name of Pinot Grigio, Pinot Gris has become a very important grape. It has exploded in the last 20 years. Before that, it was one of a wide variety of grapes grown in the northeast of the country, along with Pinot Bianco, Tocai, Welschriesling, Verduzzo, and Picolit. By dint of aggressive marketing, the brand Santa Margherita established a name for itself in the United States, and other producers followed. The ensuing 20 years have seen Pinot Grigio rise above those other grapes, and become the dominant white of northeast Italy. Much of the Pinot Grigio found in the marketplace carries the appellation "delle Venezie", simply meaning from the region of Venice. In this fairly warm region, Pinot Grigio is often harvested very early, to avoid the loss of acidity that comes with overripening. While there are producers who make good quality wine from this region, much of the Pinot Grigio delle Venezie is fairly insipid, bland, wine, with a tart, acidic edge. Some producers, mostly of wines sold in 1.5L bottles, leave a little residual sugar to soften the acidity. There are two regions in the northeast that, in general, produce better quality Pinot Grigio, Friuli Venezia Giulia and the Trentino Alto Adige. In Friuli Venezia Giulia better quality Pinot Grigio is produced under the appellations of Collio and Friuli, and their subappellations. Here, the wine is richer, more flavorful, though not as rich as Alsace Pinot Gris. It is crisp, showing good acid, but does not have the hard edge of delle Venezie bottlings. In the more mountainous, cooler region of the Trentino Alto Adige, Italian Pinot Grigio is at its finest. Here, the cooler climate allows producers to wait and harvest the grapes fully ripe, with mature flavors resulting. While most of these Pinot Grigios are still lighter than their Alsace or Oregon counterparts, the flavor begins to move closer to those regions, with more pear and peach flavors added to the palate profile. With the popularity of northeast Pinot Grigio, growers elsewhere in Italy have begun planting the grape. Some have been successful, others less so. There is no distinct style that has come from these other regions, and no one region has risen up to distinguish itself, from the rest.
The Rest of Europe
In the remainder of Europe, Pinot Gris is widely planted, under a variety of names. As Rulander, it is grown in Germany, where its greater body distinguishes it from the traditional lighter German varieties like Riesling and Muller Thurgau, and makes it popular as a richer fuller style white. In Hungary, where it is called Szurkebarat, or "grey monk", it is a very important grape. Here, most of the wine is made in a semi sweet style, from late harvested grapes. It is also grown in Switzerland, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Moldova, Romania, and Russia, although none of them are of any great significance.
Before the Pinot Grigio fueled boom in the planting of Pinot Gris in the U.S., the grape had established a strong foothold in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. First planted in 1966, it exploded locally when its affinity for another Oregon product led to increasing demand. In fact, Pinot Gris' importance in Oregon is directly related to the importance of Salmon as a food there. It has been so successful that by 2002, it had passed Chardonnay as the largest producing white wine grape in Oregon. In style, Oregon Pinot Gris is most similar to Alsace, although it tends to be a bit more copper colored, slightly lighter in body, and with more fruit and less floral qualities. Because of the similarity in style to Alsace, most producers use the French name, Pinot Gris. Producers like Eyrie, Elk Cove, A to Z, Owen Roe, O'Reilly, and Sineann lead the way with flavorful Pinot Gris.
California has, in the past few years jumped on the Pinot Gris/Grigio bandwagon. In 1999, there were about 2, 000 acres planted. By 2006, that had jumped to over 7,500 acres, making Pinot Gris the fourth most widely planted quality wine grape in California! There has been no clear area that has risen up as being better than others. The quality of Pinot Gris/Grigio has also been variable. Some California producers label their wines as Pinot Grigio, and some as Pinot Gris. As a rough rule, such labeling reflects the style of the wine, indicating either the lighter, crisper Italian style, or the richer fuller Alsace style. Having said that, it is best to read the label for any description before buying. To further complicate matters, California winemakers' love of oak has led some producers to barrel age Pinot Gris, not often to great advantage. Undoubtedly, wineries in other states will join the Pinot Gris parade, but as of yet, there have not been any significant wines released.
New Zealand is yet another is another member of the Pinot Gris bandwagon. The cool climate of New Zealand is well suited to Pinot Gris, and in short order Pinot Gris has found a niche in New Zealand wine. The style of those examples which have reached the market are distinctly in the French mode. Among the richest and lushest examples of Pinot Gris found anywhere, they are usually done in a dry style, but sometimes have a richness that suggests sweetness. Australia has a long, but not large history with Pinot Gris, made in a variety of styles, and labeled as Pinot Gris or Grigio accordingly. Recent years have seen a 15 fold increase in the amount of Pinot Gris produced, most from the cooler growing areas of the Adelaide Hills, Mornington Peninsula, and Tasmania. Pinot Gris has only recently been seen in South America. Neither Chile nor Argentina has yet produced what could be considered distinctive Pinot Gris, although its popularity suggests that there will be more planted in the near future. The same may be true for South Africa as well.