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To most people, the name Pinot Grigio conjures up a crisp, dry, neutral wine from Italy. But, says Chris Losh, the best examples are the
rich and unctuous Pinot Gris wines from Alsace
Pinot Grigio – the grape that launched a thousand lunches; that became the chattering classes’ tipple de choix; that signals that gear-shift moment when end-of-work Friday afternoon becomes start-of-weekend Friday night. No doubt about it, Pinot Grigio is, as they
say in the fashion world, having a moment.
Pinot Grigio is one of those Jekyll-and-Hyde grapes with two very distinct personalities – and two or three different passport identities to boot. The one most of us will know is the Italian incarnation. Theoretically, most of these Italian Pinot Grigios should be from the cool, Alpine vineyards in the north, where the conditions can give wines of freshness and subtlety. Not, it’s true, always hugely complex – and often distinctly on the pricey side – but versatile with food and charming as an aperitif.
In fact, everyone knows that the Italians don’t have anywhere near enough Pinot Grigio to supply the tsunami of bottles that floods the UK every year. At the cheaper end of the market there’s a good chance many of these wines are characterless white grapes from the co-operatives of the south, trucked up north and cunningly relabelled when no one is looking. They are nothing more than a crisp, neutral, dry white with a good brand name.
The fashionability of ‘The Gridge’ has seen dozens of wannabe plantings across the New World. No self-respecting Chilean, Argentinian or South African winery would be without at least one version to keep the supermarket buyers happy. They’ve usually got a bit more fruit than the Italian versions but, as wines, they are often inferior to Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc.
The world’s best Pinot Grigio is actually found in France and (to a lesser extent) Germany, where it’s known as Pinot Gris and Grauburgunder respectively. The versions from Alsace, in particular, are fascinating wines. With a long ripening in some of the sunniest (though not hottest) weather in France, you end up not with something crisp, neutral and dry, but a wine that is rich and luscious.
Alsace Pinot Gris (often, confusingly, called Tokay Pinot Gris) doesn’t have a big, aromatic nose, though its aromas of honey, sultanas, briar and faintly smoky red fruit are intriguing. Instead, it’s all about mouthfeel. Get it out of the glass and into your mouth and it sloshes around with a languid viscosity that is the opposite of the quick-stepping but vacuous Grigios from further south.
Rich, unctuous, low in acidity and frequently off-dry, it is a fantastic wine to match with spicy food. And despite its lack of acidity, it can age beautifully for five to 10 years, becoming even more oily and expressive with time.
Alsace (France), Germany, Trentino and Alto Adige (Italy)
Trimbach, Zind Humbrecht (Alsace); Alois Lageder, Tiefenbrunner (Italy)
Fresh, citrusy, smoky, spicy (Italian versions); honey, raisins, red fruit, smoke (French)
Pinot Gris/Grigio is a pink-skinned mutation of Pinot Noir. And if you try it in a black glass, it can be hard to tell whether it is a red wine or a white, based purely on the taste