Pinot Grigio & Pinot Gris – What’s the Difference? (And Should I Be Ashamed to Drink It?)

All of us at ABC Wine Country wish you and yours a very happy Thanksgiving! Guessing that you’ve already chosen and most likely enjoyed your Turkey Day wines, we decided to move on to a new topic. Hope you enjoy!

Pinot Grigio and Pinot GrisPinot Grigio? They make oceans of this stuff and it sells like there may well be no tomorrow. At the same time 7 out of 10 self-respecting wine drinkers tend to pooh-pooh it. The next time you’re dining at a prestigious restaurant try asking the sommelier to recommend one. You will likely receive the most withering of glances and be mentally put in that circle of hell reserved for those who imbibe wine coolers and sugary pink wines.

Pinot Gris? Well, that might be a different story. That might be acceptable, except that many novice wine-lovers don’t quite know what it is or how to say it (‘gree’).

The fact is, of course, that the two grapes are exactly the same, ‘grigio’ being the Italian name and ‘gris’ being the French. At face value it’s as simple as that. AND YET – though the grape is exactly the same, in most cases the wine labelled ‘grigio’ will be stylistically very different from the wine called ‘gris.’ So what’s the difference?

Let’s start at the beginning. Gris or grigio – the word translates as gray, which seems to indicate the grape’s gray-blue skin. (Pinot is the French word for pine cone, which may have something to do with the shape of the cluster.) It seems to have originated in Burgundy in the Middle Ages, and from there brought to Hungary and to the Champagne region. In the 16th century Hungarian plantings found the way back to France, this time to Alsace, where it became one of their noble grapes. For a while the grape gained some prominence and recognition, but by the late 18th century Pinot Gris fell out of favor in Burgundy and Champagne. It was introduced to Germany in 1711 where it was known as Ruländer (after wine merchant Johann Seger Ruland) or Grauburgunder (‘gray burgundy’), and it was most likely from there that it was brought into northeast Italy, where it still proliferates today.

What is the difference in style? In a nutshell the Italian style is light-bodied, fresh, crisp, dry-ish, with light simple fruit flavors and a pleasing acidity. The French style is rich, full-bodied, fruity, sometimes spicy, with higher alcohol levels, often a hint of oiliness and low acidity. This style can also be subdivided into dry fruity and sweet fruity.

The grape itself has a natural low acidity which is why in the cool higher elevations of northeast Italy it is picked relatively young so that it retains its vibrant acidic qualities. In the warmth of Alsace, on the other hand, the grapes are allowed to ripen longer, which enhances their full-bodied fruitiness and reduces the acidity. Both styles are usually fermented in stainless steel (occasionally in old barrels that impart no wood flavors). The Italian style does not usually go through malolactic fermentation, while the French style often does, giving it a rounder, richer, creamier mouthfeel. The French style is often aged on the lees, which contributes to a greater complexity.

Though we speak of an Italian and a French style, Pinot Gris/Grigio is produced all over the world now. The first American Pinot Gris was planted in Oregon in 1966 by David Lett of Eyrie Vineyards. King Estate followed a few years later, and today Oregon is known and respected for its many fine Pinot Gris wines. No matter where it comes from, the producer will usually use the name Grigio or Gris to denote the style used in the making of the wine.

So should we be ashamed to drink it? Certainly not! Pinot Gris has a complexity and full-bodied flavor that many white wines would envy and is a natural partner for many fine foods. As for Pinot Grigio – any wine that has a long tradition and a style founded on the region that it comes from is worthy of interest. And provided that it is created with this in mind, all wines have their time and place. The honest simplicity of Pinot Grigio is a natural for casual dining, especially out of doors, and is perfect in these surroundings with picnic foods, grilled seafood, chicken, light pasta and appetizers.

No matter which style you’re looking for, your nearest ABC wine consultant will have plenty of delicious suggestions to offer. Cheers!

Bill Stobbs, ABC Fine Wine & Spirits wine supervisor

Follow me on Twitter @abcwinebills



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