Time to Ponder Pinot Gris(gio)
Looking for values with Pinot Gris and finding a few wines that compete with wines nearly twice the price!
I’ve been through this so many times before that it becomes rote. The differences between Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio. Well, there really aren’t any, when we are referring to the grapes. One is the name in French while the other is the name in Italian. When it comes to the wines though, there remains some distinction, though that is disappearing as producers seem to be tuning their style towards a price point today, rather than a regional expression.
That is not entirely fair of course. There are certainly regional expressions. Pinot Gris from Alsace continues to be richer, spicier and generally sweeter than Pinot Grigio from northern Italy, which historically has always been about crispness, freshness, and juicy fruit. Bottles labeled as Pinot Grigio, regardless of origin, generally had those traits while bottlings using the Pinot Gris nomenclature generally showed more of that Alsatian style. Today that is increasingly not true.
It seems to me that Pinot Gris is simply winning the battle of the greys, both grigio and gris mean grey in their respective languages, in more ways than one. More producers around the globe are using Pinot Gris on their labels but perhaps more importantly, even more are putting something more stylistically akin to Pinot Gris in the bottle, no matter what the label says.
While the overall level of quality for these wines continues to improve, it’s not helpful for the consumer to have to wonder about a bottle of wine. whether it will be sweet or dry, soft or acidic. it’s a wonder that Pinot Gris(gio) continues to be as successful as it has been, but maybe that is a bit of an illusion driven by the massive numbers sold by a handful of Italian producers. In truth some of those wines, remarkably inexpensive as they are, offer tremendous value to the casual wine drinker. Easy to drink, fruity, and light on the palate, they offer a real alternative to Chardonnay or Sauvignon blanc, falling roughly between those two varieties.
Once we move away from the true volume producers a funny thing happens. The inexpensive options seem to all get a little sweet on the palate, reflecting both the grapes naturally fruity character, but also the current trend towards wines that have enough residual sugar in them to be soft, fruity, and frankly sweet. While with red wines this has been the domaine of the “innovative” red blend, with Pinot Gris, in particular, there is a historical precedent for these wines. And let’s not forget that Chardonnay in California received a big boost when it went from being a dry wine to being a “dry” wine.
People love their little touch of sweetness in wine. It make the fruity flavors fruitier, covers the acid, and makes the wine easier to drink, particularly on its own as so much wine in this country is consumed. So it’s not surprising to find that Pinot Gris(gio) is now sweeter on the whole than it was a few years ago. That is not universally true as i see many producers in Oregon, for example, reigning in their sugar levels. And incidentally, as if further proof was needed considering the Rieslings and Chardonnays, Oregon continues to emerge as the greatest terroir for white wines in the US, Pinot Gris included.
One interesting result of this tasting was that there appears to be a real difference between the quality of the less expensive and more expensive wines samples for this report. Five of the six most expensive examples finished atop the leaderboard, with the least expensive examples clustered towards the bottom. And while there were some outliers in the middle, the difference between the two price categories was quite significant.
Still there were two standouts at the $15 price point, one predictably from Italy, the other surprisingly from Idaho. Which just goes to show how well Pinot Grigio can do just about anywhere it’s planted. For my palate though the wines tend to be a bit too fruity, and while not my favorite I can appreciate many of these wines for the way they express the distinct varietal character of this grape that is beloved around the world.