Pinot Grigio: Not always a snoozefest!

The most popular wine import in the U.S. is usually a bore. But everyone loves it, and you can find great ones

Published July 14, 2010 1:01AM (EDT)

Pinot Grigio is the single most popular imported varietal-labeled wine in the United States, but to be honest, I have to wonder why. Most often, Pinot Grigio is just a decent quaff that quenches the thirst and doesn't offend food. There's nothing wrong with that, but should that really be enough to make it the most popular wine we pack onto planes and boats and ship around the world?

Maybe we just like saying "Pinot Grigio," a lovely phrase, almost sensual, but -- here's another problem with the wine -- the name is now almost devoid of meaning. When we open a bottle of Pinot Grigio, unless we have a favorite that we stick with, there's no telling what the wine will taste like. I have had Pinot Grigio that tastes like wine-flavored water, Pinot Grigio that tastes noticeably sweet, Pinot Grigio that tastes like cheap jug wine, Pinot Grigio that is food-friendly, expensive Pinot Grigio that tastes like the grape but with no sense of place, overpriced Pinot Grigio that was, well, overpriced, and the occasional Pinot Grigio that is sublime and memorable.

But for the most part, the popularity of Pinot Grigio can be, in a sense, one of its own best characteristics -- it's an inclusive wine, one that everyone can agree on and enjoy, and there are wonderful ones, and wonderful values, to be found.

But first, a little secret: Pinot Grigio, most closely identified with Italy, is not really an Italian grape. The grape is Pinot Gris (the "Gray" Pinot), found most prominently in Alsace, France. A variant of the Pinot Noir grape (as is Pinot Blanc), it's hard to tell in the vineyard if a grape is Pinot Gris or Pinot Noir until the veraison, the moment when ripening begins and the grapes change into their true color. Although Alsatians think of it as a white grape, most Italians think of Pinot Gris as red, but in the end this may be a difference without a distinction, as the grape is most often treated as a white grape in the winemaking process. With just a little bit of skin contact during fermentation, Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio should show a bit of pleasantly "gray" color in the wine. There are even Pinot Grigio wines from Italy that would qualify as rosés, based on their color.

There are many fine Pinot Gris wines available from Alsace that I highly recommend. Alsace Pinot Gris is made in a unique style: bone dry, spicy, refreshing, and powerful enough with food to be considered a red wine in drag. Expect to pay about $15 to $25, a bit more for wines sourced from single-vineyards and grand cru sites. Favorite producers include Trimbach, Hugel, Albrecht, Domaine Schlumberger, Kientzler, Boxler, Blanck, Mann, Dopff-Irion, Kreydenweiss, and Josmeyer.

Closer to home, some of the more interesting Pinot Gris made in the New World comes from Oregon, the only state that has chosen to focus on the varietal as its representative white wine. Oregon Pinot Gris tends to be fruit-forward, quite floral, and the best wines have a touch of spice and hazelnut. The most widely available Oregon Pinot Gris is King Estate, a delicious wine redolent of tropical fruits. Other producers of fine Oregon Pinot Gris: Cooper Mountain (biodynamic), Cristom, Elk Cove, Bethel Heights, Adelsheim, Chehalem, Bridgeview, A to Z, Erath, Ponzi, Firesteed, Sokol Blosser, Capitello, Willamette Valley Vineyards, Foris, Benton Lane, and Archery Summit.

While "Pinot Gris" will always have its small number of admirers, it was not until the introduction of "Pinot Grigio" that this grape found its place in the sun and on so many dining tables around the world, especially in the United States.

Benessere Vineyards in the Napa Valley makes the single greatest New World Pinot Grigio I have ever tasted. The wine is jampacked with tropical fruits -- mango, papaya, pineapple, with a long, complex, rich and dry finish. Benessere's Pinot Grigio has redefined the category for me, and has sent me on a (largely heartbreaking) quest to find more truly great Pinot Grigio from California (the 2008 Benessere Pinot Grigio is $24 at Two close seconds: a fine one made by Swanson, also in the Napa Valley, and J Vineyards Pinot Gris from the Russian River Valley (both about $20).

The inevitable news from Australia is that the latest [yellow tail] varietal is -- what else? -- Pinot Grigio. I have tasted the wine and can safely say that if you like the [yellow tail] style (and price), you will like the Pinot Grigio. [yellow tail] will very likely redefine the bargain segment for Pinot Grigio: a tropical fruit salad in a glass, with a touch of residual sugar in the finish, though I have to confess it's not for me.

Of course, most wine drinkers look to Italy for high-quality Pinot Grigio, even though the grape is indeed a French interloper, and there are several quality producers in Northeast Italy, particularly in the bilingual (Italian/German) province of Alto Adige, which borders Austria. Here, ostensibly Italian winemakers dressed in leiderhosen make clean, Alpine-crisp wines. Best producers include Lageder, Kittmeir, Zemmer, Tiffenbruner, Elena Walch, Barone Fini, Neidermayr, and the ubiquitous, good-quality-but-overpriced Santa Margherita. In the Friuli-Venezia Giulia province of Italy, which borders Slovenia (where Movia produces an outstanding wine), Pinot Grigio tends to be richer and fuller-bodied. The best wine regions in Friuli for Pinot Grigio are Collio and Collio Orientali del Friuli (collio means hillside), followed by Friuli Grave. Fine producers include: Bastianich, Jermann, Livio Felluga, Marco Feluga, Attems, Gravner, Russiz Superiore, Schiopetto, Borgo San Daniele, Zamò, Pighin, Lis Neris, and Vie di Romans. You can expect to pay from $20 to $45 for these wines at retail.

It's almost absurd: I generally like most wines labeled as Pinot Gris, while I'm not crazy about most Pinot Grigio, but love great Pinot Grigio when I am fortunate enough to find it. Last year, on a trip to Friuli-Venezia Giulia, I thought I would find the ultimate Pinot Grigio. I didn't, and fell in love with Friuli's unheralded Sauvignon Blanc (who knew?). Still, the appeal of Pinot Grigio is undeniable, perhaps based on its promise of comfort and reliability. 

By Steven Kolpan

Steven Kolpan is Professor and Chair of Wine Studies at The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, NY. He is the author of "WineWise," a consumer-friendly guide to the wines of the world

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