Vines of Versatility

Sort of Italian. Sort of French. Sort of white. Sort of gray. Pinot Grigio grapes can take many different forms in the bottle.

Anyone who has ever been in a vineyard after the harvest, heading into cooler weather, knows that the colors of the grapevine leaves changing with the season and preparing to drop off the vine are varied and spectacular.

While many folks head off into the northeast portion of the U.S. to enjoy the changing colors of the foliage, many who have a desire to see and to taste head into wine country. The joy of the many colors in the grape leaves is matched by the joy of tasting the fermented juice that was made from the fruit that came off of those vines. Maple syrup is good. Wine is better.

But the changing of the leaves’ colors into many varied shades after the harvest is matched perfectly by the many colors of a particular grape before it is harvested.

In France, the grape is known as Pinot Gris; in Italy, it’s Pinot Grigio. In Germany, it is Grauburgunder or Ruländer. It’s all the same fruit, but depending on where it is from, its flavor and bouquet can be quite different.

The grape itself is actually an old and natural mutation of the pinot noir grape. The French named it “gris,” which means “gray.” The color of the mature fruit can be anywhere in the range of bluish-silver to mauve-pink to ashen-yellow. This explains why one bottle of Pinot Gris or Grigio can be deeper or lighter or even differently hued from the bottle sitting right next to it that was made from the same grape .

Probably the richest and most elegant expression of this grape comes from the Alsatian region of France. The wine here, and hence the fruit, is sometimes called “Tokay d’Alsace.” That being said, and to further confuse matters, this iteration of Pinot Gris is no relation to the Tokay of Hungary.

The Pinot Gris from Alsace is full-bodied, with perfume characteristics on the nose and heavy fruit expression on the palate. The wine is opulent and can even be spicy. There are even instances where a bit of residual sugar is intentionally left in place to create a sweeter dessert-style white wine.

Head over to Germany, and the grape becomes brawnier and bolder. This is a function of creating a wine that will accompany the regional cuisine – but you know how some people and their doggies look alike? My theory is that the German people want a grape that reflects who they are.

Go just a bit farther east and south, over to the Tre Venezie and Alto Adige areas of northeastern Italy, and the Pinot Grigio wines are crisp, with high levels of acidity, and carry citrus notes on both the palate and the bouquet. The wines from here are lighter-styled and more fruit-forward. 

Don’t forget now: It’s all the same grape.

The New World has entered the scene in a big way and determined that there is a huge commercial market for this grape’s juice.

Oregon makes a fine Pinot Gris, with the essence of pears and spice-cake flavors, that can be enjoyed young.

California, because of its diverse climates, can make Pinot Gris or Grigio across the whole range of experiences but lately has been taking the lighter, more quaffable route to success. Sometimes, depending on where the wines are grown in this vast state, you can find a peppery character and an arugula-like quality, which is a bitterness that some drinkers find unattractive. But these features sound like a great accompaniment to a salad – or they could even be the salad.

There are even occasions when the Pinot Gris grape is blended into the wine with its close relative, pinot noir, to add richness while simultaneously making the resulting cherry-colored wine lighter in style.

There is a downside to Pinot Gris and Grigio’s approachability and versatility: Overproduction and overcropping make for a thin, vapid beverage, exhibiting only light fruit and plenty of acid, which confuses consumers into thinking they are drinking better than they really are. Even winemakers are driven by market demands.

What is particularly nice for us, in a warm weather climate, is that many of these wines are made to be drunk young and enjoyed very cold. In fact, it is almost impossible to make many of these wines too cold. Although low temperatures suppress many of the more subtle flavors in wines, the fact that, in some cases, there are no subtle flavors means, “Go for it!” Get it really cold on a hot summer day.

Pinot Gris or Grigio is the type of wine that is good to have on its own as you simply seek refreshment, or it can pair well with our area’s lighter dishes and fresh seafood plates, not getting in the way of the flavors or the aromas of the cuisine.

If you like white wine but are getting restless with chardonnay, pick up several bottles of Pinot Gris or Grigio from all over Europe or America’s West Coast. The wines are usually fun and unpretentious. An added plus is that they are reasonably inexpensive.

Sounds like a great choice for the beach. Sounds like a great choice right now. Oh, waiter …!

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Reader Comments:
May 31, 2010 06:22 pm
 Posted by  Bill Hunt

Well stated. This grape can be very lovely, when produced with care and knowledge. Unfortunately, it is too often done, almost as a market-driven after-thought, and the results can be disappointing.

Domestically (US), there are not as many worthy producers, as there should be, considering the growing conditions, especially in the Pacific NW.

When I find examples that do perk my interest, I usually will pick up a case. The King Estate Reserve (not one of the other similar examples) is such a PG.

Just found a great one from Slovinia, and surprisingly, another from the Oak Creek Area (do not think that it has AVA status yet) of Arizona.

Alsace is, as noted, a worthy area to look, along with the Pinot Blanc (similar, but different) offerings, but is most often overlooked. Thank you for making mention.

Unfortunately, much of the Old World PG suffers from the same issues, as the US wines - they seem produced by bankers, and not winemakers.

Thank you for this article,


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