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Although a big seller, Pinot Grigio is often dismissed as boring and lacking in flavour. But in the right hands it can be a weighty, food-friendly wine of immense character.
Pinot Grigio must be the first wine in the history of civilisation to become popular precisely because it tastes of nothing in particular. It’s the sliced white bread of wine; wine for people who either aren’t interested in what they put in their mouths or who just don’t much like the taste of wine.
And yet it was never meant to be like that. Pinot Gris (the vine’s origin is French, so we’ll give it its French name) is a grape of huge character. In Alsace, where it’s a star, it has weight, a pungently earthy, spicy, fresh mushroom character and a silky mouthfeel. At the other end of the spectrum, standard Italian Pinot Grigio sheds all flavour in favour of a bland freshness – and sometimes even turns up as rosé. It’s true that the grape, when ripe, has a faint greyish-brownish tinge to its skin, hence its name, but to make rosé you need to sling in a bucketful of red from some other grape. Pinot Gris/Grigio is a white wine.
Let’s jump in at the deep end with Alsace. This is Pinot Gris at its most characterful. Most Pinot Gris is dry but rich, and the acidity is adequate but not high. Its plump silkiness makes it a natural with much Asian food, such as dim sum. The best wines (from one of the Grand Cru vineyards, labelled as such) will go with roast goose or duck, and it’s good, too, with semi-soft cheeses such as Reblochon or Saint Nectaire. Sweeter versions (labelled ‘vendange tardive’, or late harvest) will be honeyed, and perfect with duck-liver pâté.
Nobody else in the world makes Pinot Gris of the richness of Alsace; the next point on the spectrum is wines with similar mushroomy, forest-floor earthiness but without the feeling of sumptuousness that you get in Alsace. We’re in Germany now, where the grape may appear as Ruländer or Grauer Burgunder, or indeed as Pinot Gris. Most of it is in the warmer areas of Pfalz or Baden, and made dry, and it will go very well with fish dishes, such as sea bass or roast cod.
Other countries making wines in this style include the better spots of central and eastern Europe. Slovenia is a good bet, and Hungary makes some under the rather indigestible name of Szürkebarát. Then there’s Oregon, where pure fruit flavours of apple, pear, melon, spice, perhaps lychee, perhaps honey or orange blossom, mingle with good acidity.
We’re another step along the spectrum here, where Pinot Gris still has its recognisable exotic spicy notes, but the acidity is creeping up and the opulence down. These are intensely flavoured wines that go beautifully with crab or salmon, but which have the acidity and spice to match Thai food, with its pungent lime-zest flavours.
From Oregon the spectrum heads in two different directions. One is New Zealand, where wines are increasingly concentrated and bold. New Zealand uses both names, Gris and Grigio, with Gris indicating sympathy for Alsace in its notes of apple, honeysuckle and spice bread, and Grigio being applied to drier, crisper wines. New Zealand Pinot Gris is weighty enough for roast pork and Chinese or Thai dishes; Pinot Grigio from here is good with fish, particularly fish with a bit of spice.
The other direction takes us to Italy, but not all Italian Pinot Grigio is flavourless. There are some superb, mineral, weighty wines in the north-east, where structure wins over aroma and power over exoticism. These are very ‘winey’ wines, terroir-driven and expensive. Put them with a risotto for perfection.
The Alto Adige handles the grape differently, with ultra-fresh flavours, high acidity and a confident spiciness that is less forest floor than mountain top. Trentino, slightly to the south, is fresh, but richer, weightier. These are wines of real character. Why would you want sliced-white-bread Pinot Grigio when you could have any of these?
2012 LaVis Vigneti di Montagna, Pinot Grigio, Trentino, Italy (Tesco, Waitrose)
Apple and quince nose, and a palate that is both floral and nutty, with good Pinot Grigio spice and some orange zest flavours.
2012 Ara Single Estate Pinot Gris, Marlborough, New Zealand (Planet of the Grapes)
A New Zealand example with ripe, concentrated baked apple and mandarin fruit and a note of mushroomy spice, all integrated into a rich and pungent wine.
2009 Trimbach Pinot Gris Réserve, Alsace, France (Tesco)
Try this if you want to see what Pinot Gris can do in the hands of a superb producer. Dry, rich, superbly elegant and precise.
2011 Jermann Pinot Grigio, Friuli, Italy (Majestic)
One of those serious north-eastern Italian Pinot Grigios. This is a concentrated, mineral, subtle and very fine example.
This feature was published in the summer 2013 issue of Square Meal Lifestyle.