A decade ago, Australia’s greatest wine taster, James Halliday, told me a Pinot Gris joke: “They held a taste-off between Pinot Gris and Perrier (water), and Perrier won.”
Halliday’s jest was intended to illustrate how lacking in flavor this varietal wine can be and why it’s OK to disparage most such wines.
It’s true that Pinot Gris is a grape with some odd characteristics, but its failings, in relation other grapes, don’t preclude it from making an interesting wine. Made well, Pinot Gris can be tasty. And great winemakers using great grapes can make excellent PG.
Dozens of wineries, all of them using ordinary fruit, make Pinot Gris that are simple quaffing wines — nothing special at all. Such wines are popular with many people. Included are Pinot Grigios from Italy that are sold here in huge volumes and elicit about as much excitement as a wet dishrag.
Mysteriously enough, Pinot Gris’ various shortcomings can actually make it a fascinating wine for those who are willing to try to understand it. Which isn’t easy.
Over decades, I’ve thought a lot about this strange grape and tasted widely varying styles. And recently I began to dissect it in ways that lead me to like it better than in the past. Part of the reason is that I may finally have put it into perspective.
Both the good Pinot Gris and the bad start with the genetics of this peculiar grape variety, which is a bit of an enigma.
It’s a member of the noble Pinot family of grapes, but the “gris” in its name is French for “gray,” which is the color of the grape skins late in the season, after the grapes lose their early season green. So Pinot Gris may be viewed as a degenerate cousin of Pinot Noir with no ability to make anything even resembling a red wine, or a rosé.
The “white” wine it makes often has a tinge of copper or gray color from the phenolics (tannins) in the skins. So in a way, it makes a “white wine” that’s neither white nor red and definitely isn’t pink!
The grape’s tannins (leucoanthocyanins) can leave the resulting wine susceptible to being bitter, similar how tannins work in most red wines. Pinot Gris’ potential astringency poses a dilemma for winemakers. To mask bitterness, winemakers use various techniques.
— Leave residual sugar in the wine to cover bitterness. This is more common in France’s Alsace.
— Make it with higher alcohol, which can add a delicate sweetness, thus covering some bitter compounds.
— Make it with lower alcohol (see below).
— Press the skins very lightly so bitterness is mitigated.
— Work diligently in the vineyard to manage crop size to deal with potential bitterness even before the grapes are picked.
No matter which tactic is used to control bitterness, there are potential problems.
Some California wineries make a Pinot Gris using a technique they think helps mask bitterness. They harvest a bit late and the resulting higher alcohols (14% or more) add the impression of sweetness. It also gives the mid-palate a certain weight, so it “feels” like Chardonnay to some buyers.
But problems can arise. Higher alcohols act like a solvent. During fermentation, any juice-to-skin contact allows higher alcohols to extract more tannin!
Additionally, some winemakers age Pinot Gris in barrels to give it added flavor (many consumers appreciate oak flavors). Oak aging also can give a wine added mass, making PG slightly like Chardonnay. But I often find that the flavors of barrel-aged Pinot Gris are incompatible – sort of like a char-grilled steak with caviar on top.
Some winemakers reduce the acidity to make the wine more succulent, but that simply makes the wine less likely to go with food.
Perhaps a better technique is to age Pinot Gris in old vessels in which the wood imparts no flavors at all, and instead allows maturity to develop by letting the spent yeast cells (lees) to create a layer of flavor from the genetic material through autolysis.
One additional tactic is to treat Pinot Gris a bit like a red wine and not release it until it’s been in the bottle for a year. The extra bit of aging in bottle allows some of the wine’s aromatics to “knit,” giving the wine slightly more depth.
Jim Klein, winemaker for Navarro Vineyards in Mendocino, doesn’t like how oak works with the flavors in PG and instead uses extended lees contact to build the mid-palate with nuances of nuts. Navarro’s PG is sensational.
Some of the best Pinot Gris come from cool or even cold regions. In such areas, the grape can develop wild spice aromas not unlike carnations. As such the semi-aromatic variety resembles a distant cousin of the German hybrid grape Müller-Thurgau with its Riesling-esque blossom-y aroma.
When the wild aromatics of Gris are coaxed out of a cold-climate vineyard, the main spice note is that of fresh fennel with a trace of white pepper. Other aromatics often seen are peach, pear, and a faint tropicality.
That sort of semi-aromatic spice typically doesn’t appear in most Italian Pinot Grigios that come from warmer Trentino. From there, the best wines display more minerally.
Some of the best broad-palate Pinot Grigios from the slightly warmer Italian Veneto can display a charming minerality, such as the handsome 2018 Ornella Molon ($18), which we recommended here months ago.
Historically, among the most prized Pinot Gris are those from the top producers in France’s Germany/adjacent Alsace. Pinot Gris isn’t as widely respected in Germany, where it’s often called Rülander.
The Alsace, however, rates it as a noble grape, and among the best PGs there include those from the respected house of Zind-Humbrecht. Its single-vineyard Pinot Gris sell for $75 to $90 per bottle.
These are fascinating stylized wines, best suited for those who have a long connection to them, and a budget to afford them.
Perhaps the single most important region for Pinot Gris in Italy is the cool/cold region of northwest Italy called Alto Adige, an Austria-adjacent district also referred to as Südtirol. A new regional designation is called Dolomiti.
Wine of the Week: 2019 Alois Lageder Pinot Grigio, Dolomiti ($16) – Italy’s Alto Adige has a sub-region called the Dolomites (Dolomiti) that has a cool climate and limestone soils, which allow this respected producer to craft delicate, slightly spicy white wines. This youthful version with only 12.5% alcohol is subtler than some of the more widely seen Trentino wines. This classic version of that style is an astounding value. After trying it, I suspected it would sell for $25. Perfectly balanced, it has no bitterness and no residual sugar! Dalla Terra (Direct) Imports, Napa.