This member of the family Pinot (so named because their grape clusters resemble small pine cones) lies – in color, flavor and aroma – between the “white” Pinot (Blanc) and the “black” Pinot (Noir). The name comes literally as a mix of the others’ two colors. Gris means “grey” in French; Grigio, the same in Italian.
But the name “Pinot Gris” is merely semantic. In truth, Pinot Blanc’s grapes ripen to a soft yellow-green; Pinot Noir’s, to a deep blue-black; and Pinot Gris’, to a color somewhere in between magenta and (oh, yeah) hot pink.
Where it grows
Widely diffused across the globe, Pinot Gris grows most spectacularly in Alsace (where it can be called Tokay d’Alsace, but is no relation to Hungarian Tokaji), British Columbia (Canada) and Oregon. But you will find it throughout New Zealand and Australia, in Germany (where it is called Rülander) and South Africa and – if not “spectacularly,” then very much monumentally, both in market impact and by volume – in Italy, especially from the north.
Italian Pinot Grigio is the new Chardonnay, one of the fastest growing white wines in especially the American market. Sadly, much Italian Pinot Grigio is overcropped, vapid stuff, with aroma (if any) and flavor a wee step above Evian. Perhaps, hereabouts, that is its appeal.
Some winemakers, in especially Friuli and Trentino-Alto Adige (check out Jermann, Hofstätter, Tieffenbrünner or Damijan), do produce worthy Pinot Grigio, by both limiting yields and allowing the grape to mature over a long autumn, in order to develop its intriguing fragrances and depth of flavor.
What it’s like
You’d never guess that Pinot Gris from Alsace and (most) Pinot Grigio from northern Italy are born of the same grape. In Alsace, Pinot Gris sports an almost viscous texture and is replete with the smells and tastes of honey, buttered toast, minerals, the mild brown spices and the flesh of Brazil nuts. It can be very exotic, enormously fragrant and with a never-ending finish. When made into a sweet wine, it is one of the more powerful stickies in the world of wine.
By and large, Oregon makes Alsatian-style Pinot Gris, although the alcohol both ratchets up a notch or two while the intensity of flavor diminishes a bit, and you’ll often find some residual sugar. British Columbia Pinot Gris is more honeyed than either of the former and, given a long autumn, even more alcoholic.
The easygoing, light, fresh Pinot Grigio of northern Italy rarely captures any of the aforementioned concentration, in either taste or aroma, but it is workaday, gulpable and relatively cleansing. The same can be said for many new producers of Pinot Grigio in California (note that the Italian, rather than French, name is used).
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