from the Cellarsunday schoolGet to know the grapes – Key regions for PINOT GRIS/GRIGIO

March 21, 2021by Terrell Abney

SCHOOL IS IN SESSION!

Join us each Sunday for an ongoing series of articles exploring the world of wine.  

We’re traveling the world with key growing regions for PINOT GRIS/GRIGIO. In this article, we will explore the key growing regions for a clonal mutation of pinot noir, namely pinot gris/grigio.

Genetically speaking, these grapes are the same (they may even grow on the same vine), but pinot gris/grigio includes a mutation that affects color, producing a grape that is anywhere from a greyish-yellow to a blue-grey (and a middle tone best described as “bruise colored”). The name variations of this grape indicate the place of origin or the style in which the wine has been made, with “gris” indicating French origins or style and “grigio” indicating Italian origins or style. Strangely, the most well-known version, from the warmer areas of the Italian region of the Tre Venezie (often appellated “Veneto” or “delle Venezie”) are rather neutral wines — often produced in huge volumes from over-productive vines resulting in wines that are less than stellar in quality. . . Of course, sometimes neutral and uncomplicated is just what is needed — but more often a wine with a bit more character is much more satisfying! As with pinot noir, the best pinot gris/grigio will come from cool-climate areas where the grapes can retain more of their acidity.

Pinot gris most likely originated in Burgundy, springing up as a natural mutation of the pinot noir planted in the area.  The grape is still grown in small pockets in Burgundy, where it is known as pinot beurot.  Unlike most French wines, these wines will ALWAYS be varietally, rather than regionally, labelled.  Pinot gris is also grown in very limited areas of the Loire Valley in west-central France, stretching from the Atlantic coast west of Nantes to beyond Orléans and may be known either as pinot gris or by its Burgundian name, pinot beurot.  The bulk of pinot gris production (small as it is) in France is in the region of Alsace, along the German border, stretching from Strasbourg to Mulhouse.

Alsatian pinot gris tends to be a lusher, richer wine than the typical Italian style, often showing baking spice notes along with pear, floral, and (sometimes, especially in Grand Cru bottlings) honey notes.  Alsatian wines may carry one of three appellations:

  • Alsace — The Alsace appellation covers the whole region and may be made not only from pinot gris, but also from pinot noir, pinot blanc (another clonal mutation of pinot noir), riesling, gewurztraminer, muscat, and a few lesser known grapes (chasselas, auxerrois and klevener de Heiligstein).  These will always be single varietal wines, not blends.  Unlike most French wines, the grape varietal will be clearly named on the label.  
  • Alsace Grand Cru — The Alsace Grand Cru appellation applies to any of 51 individual grand cru vineyards which (with a few exceptions) only permit the use of pinot gris, riesling, gewurztraminer, or muscat (collectively referred to as the Alsatian “noble grapes”).  
  • Crémant d’Alsace — Crémant d’Alsace is an appellation for traditional method sparkling wines made from pinot gris, pinot noir, pinot blanc, riesling, chardonnay (allowed only for crémant), and/or auxerrois.  “Traditional method” refers to the method used to produce the sparkling wines of Champagne.  The word “crémant” indicates a French sparkling wine produced outside of the region of Champagne.  

In Italy, pinot grigio is widely grown throughout the Tre Venezie, the region in northeastern Italy that includes the Veneto, Trentino-Alto Adige (the northern, German speaking Alto-Adige portion is often called Sud-Tirol), and Friuli-Venezia Giulia.  As mentioned earlier, the bulk of the wines (labeled either as “Veneto” or, if from the larger area of the Tre Venezie, as “delle Venezie”) have a tendency to be neutral and unexciting, although often very serviceable and quaffable.  More vibrant pinot grigio, with brighter lemon and pear tones (and often a touch of almond bitterness) can be found in the cooler northern regions of Trentino-Alto Adige (along the Austrian border) and Friuli-Venezia Giulia (often shortened to “Friuli”).  Within Trentino-Alto Adige is the sub-region of the Dolomite Mountains, producing wines often labeled “vigneti delle Dolomiti.”  These are among the most exciting and crisp Italian pinot grigios.  Some good pinot grigio is also produced across the border from Friuli-Venezia Giulia in Slovenia.  In fact, some vineyards straddle the Italian/Slovenian border.  Rather counter-intuitively, there are some rather exciting pinot grigios produced in Sicily, where the cool, high-elevations along the slopes of Mt. Etna help to retain the acidity that can make pinot grigio an exciting and thirst-quenching wine.  

While we are most familiar with pinot grigio as a white wine, it has historically been produced as a wine with orange/copper tones that bear a resemblance to rosé wines.  This “ramato” style is produced by allowing the grape juices to have contact with the skins of the grapes before or during fermentation.  Those grape skins, variously greyish-yellow, bruise-colored, or even blue-grey, lend color, flavor, aroma, and texture to the finished wines.  This is likely the oldest method of producing pinot grigio — but it certainly is not your grandma’s pinot grigio.  Their flavors can range from juicy citrus to lush almond paste, with a richer texture than the often “watery” Venetian pinot grigio.  They are anything but neutral. . .

Other key growing regions for pinot gris include the Willamette (and its sub-regions), Umpqua and Rogue Valleys in western Oregon where the wines are generally produced in a delightful French style.  California pinot gris/grigio can be a bit of a mixed bag — but some indication of style (Alsatian or Venetian) is generally indicated by the name (“gris” vs. “grigio”).  California iterations seldom carry a more specific appellation than the state name.  Excellent pinot gris is also produced in the Alsatian style in Germany (where it is known as grauburgunder or ruländer), Canada, and New Zealand.  These last iterations can be tough to find, but they are well worth trying!

Pinot gris/grigio is not the only color mutation of pinot noir.  Pinot blanc/bianco, which has even less blue/purple pigmentation than either pinot noir or pinot gris/grigio, most closely resembles our visual expectation of a “white wine” grape, appearing light-green to greyish-yellow.  Grown in many of the same places as pinot gris/grigio, pinot blanc/bianco’s flavor profile tends toward citrus and apple tones accompanied by floral notes, with the naming convention indicating either a lusher, sometimes spicy or smoky, Alsatian style or a lighter Italian style.   In Germany and in the German-speaking Italian region of Alto-Adige (also known as Sud-Tirol), pinot blanc/bianco (locally called weißburgunder) is often produced in style resembling that of Alsace.  Californian pinot blancs/biancos often display spicy and slightly bitter notes that are reminiscent of an arugula salad with freshly cracked pepper.  It should be noted that much of these California wines have recently been discovered to be produced from a grape known as melon de Bourgogne (the grape used for the Loire Valley wine called Muscadet) rather than from pinot gris/grigio.  Pinot blanc/bianco is also sometimes confused with chardonnay in the vineyard — and, as such, may be vinified with malo-lactic fermentation and/or oak treatment in much the same way as we might expect for some chardonnay.

In our next article, we will return to the head of the pinot family, pinot noir, to explore a few additional growing areas of note, including the famous region of Champagne. We’ll also discuss an interesting production variation that is the flip-side to the ramato method sometimes used for pinot grigio.

by Terrell Abney

Terrell Abney is a Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW), Society of Wine Educators and Wine Buyer at Corners Fine Wine & Spirits in Peachtree Corners, GA.