Story by Charles Fredy
charlesDo a Web search for “pinot grigio,” and “pinot gris” is likely to come up. It’s the same grape, but a pinot grigio from northern Italy can taste quite different from a pinot gris from Oregon or Alsace in northeastern France. Since the varietal has become so popular in the last five years, knowing the difference can help you avoid losing something in translation.
The grape itself is a happy accident, a mutation that occurred centuries ago. Its DNA is close to that of the red grape pinot noir, but gris or grigio has a grayish-blue skin; hence its name. In the glass, it presents a slightly platinum or coppery hue.
In Burgundy, during the Middle Ages, it was called fromenteau or pinot beurot. It can still be used in some regions as a blend for chardonnay and pinot noir, adding a floral component to the wines. As the grape spread across the Continent, winemakers began producing it as a varietal (a wine made predominantly from a single kind of grape).
Why so popular? It’s a grape that produces subtle, versatile and affordable wines. It is easy to drink, easy to pair with different types of foods. Like many a sauvignon blanc, it’s fermented in stainless-steel, rather than oak, so the wine retains the bright acidity and freshness of the fruit. But where sauvignon blanc has herbaceous aromas such as grass, hay and green bell pepper, pinot gris and grigio are gently perfumed and taste of melon, orange blossom and white flowers.
For wine growers, what makes this varietal exciting is that it thrives in very different regions, producing very different tastes. In Alsace, the fruit gets very ripe, with an alcohol content of as much as 14 percent. The pinot gris wines of Alsace have a full, round taste comparable to a lighter chardonnay, and like chardonnay, pair well with rich foods. By comparison, the pinot grigios of northern Italy are crisp and light, with a little more fruit. Grigios pair well with lighter fare; it is a good picnic or appetizer wine.
Thanks to Oregon winemaker David Lett, pinot lovers can enjoy the best of gris and grigio combined. In the 1960s, Lett started experimenting with pinot gris; other producers soon followed suit. The climate and soils of Oregon proved a middle ground between France and Italy, yielding a powerful and beautifully balanced wine with good floral tones.
We’ll present a fine example of pinot grigio by Tiefenbrunner at the April 4 ‘Aipono Wine Dinner at the Westin Kaanapali’s Pulehu Italian Grill, along with other wines of northern Italy.
Can’t wait? Here are a few suggestions to try:
- Cristom, Pinot Gris, Willamette Valley, Oregon, 2009
- Kris, Pinot Grigio, Veneto, Italy, 2010
- Trimbach, Pinot Gris Reserve, Alsace, 2007