Italy is considered to be the cradle of modern day Pinot Grigio, even if Alsace may claim a longer patrimony with the grape. In fact it’s not all that common to find Alsace Pinot Gris. It’s a wine you really have to hunt down, even though it is no way inferior to the Italian versions, so why then has Italian Pinot Grigio been so successful?
There are several reasons; one of the first and most important has been the sheer size of some of the biggest and most successful in Italy. Firms such as Cavit and Mezzacorona have been able to put their formidable marketing muscle behind the grape while at the same time keeping the costs down to a minimum. There are few regions that can produce the quality and quantity of wine that these two wineries consistently pump out each year. There is no doubt that this has played a huge role in the success of Pinot Grigio, but there’s more.
There is the crisp, easy character that has become the trademark of Italian Pinot Grigio. In fact, this style is the one much of the world is emulating, perhaps with the exception of Oregon which has definitely followed the Alsatian model, right down to nomenclature. In Oregon, Pinot Grigio generally goes by its French name: Pinot Gris.
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This crisp, light style is a result of several choices that have been made to produce Pinot Grigio. Through the management of yields in the vineyards, which can be quite high (resulting in a low cost wines) stable incomes for farmers and less intense wines, the style was set. The fact that much of Italy is vineyards, much of which had been underperforming through the 1980s and 1990s, and a fair portion of that is planted on level, flat land, allowed for the quiet proliferation of mechanically harvested Pinot Grigio vineyards. Another reason why the wines can reach the market so inexpensively, but at the same time an obvious cause of the drop in quality one sees from some of the finest vineyards and producers to the sea of plonk.
So where is the best Pinot Grigio found? It really depends who you ask and where they’re from, though the valley floor that runs through northern Trentino and the southern Alto-Adige is generally considered to be the heart of Italian Pinot Grigio. Wines labeled as coming from Trentino, the Alto-Adige or the Val d’Adige all share this valley floor to one extent or another.
Other regions well-known and well-suited for Pinot Grigio include Friuli and Venezia, though in Venezia there are many vineyards on the flats that are used to produce rather insipid wines. Beyond these northern regions there have been significant plantings of Pinot Grigio in many regions of the country, with some success. Surprisingly, some of the most attractive Pinot Grigio one finds in the southern portion of Italy actually comes from Sicily, so you really can’t judge an Italian Pinot Grigio by its cover.
What to expect: Italian Pinot Grigio is generally rather light-bodied and fresh wines, though there are a growing number of producers who are lightly drying their grapes prior to fermentation in hopes of creating richer, more complex wines. The typical Italian Pinot Grigio expresses citrus and orchard fruits, most commonly apple and pear, though sometimes including apricot and peach as well. The wines tend to have modest alcoholic contents, are usually fairly dry and retain mouthwatering acidity.
Pairing with food: They are great wines for lighter fare, simply prepared chicken and fish dishes for example, or simple light pastas, and because of their acidity they can work well with less intense cheeses.