Gray Matters

Pinot Grigio. One of the most well-known Italian grapes, it just might be the least respected among connoisseurs. This typically cheap white is, of course, inarguably one of the best-selling in the US, but rarely receives oenophile attention.

“It doesn’t really taste like anything,” says the wine specialist at my local store when I bring it up. This opinion is not a solitary one; it stems from the tide of bulk wine that flows out of the “delle Venezie” IGT (mostly Veneto and Trentino), made by wineries like Cavit, Bolla, and Mezzacorona. Pale and insipid, this juice can offer some freshness but not much else.

On the Esquire show Uncorked – which follows several Master Somm candidates as they prepare for their exam – one guy is shown rinsing with Grigio in place of brushing his teeth the morning of a blind tasting, so as not to throw off his palate.

At my local wine school, instructors suggest using Pinot Grigio to rinse the glass when transitioning to a new wine, as it will neither dilute the next pour like water nor affect the flavor like another wine. (The best rinse is actually the 2nd wine, but that’s another conversation.)

“Pinot Grigio is perceived by the market as a watery, super-light wine,”  Max di Lenardo of Friuli-Venezia Giulia’s Di Lenardo Vineyards confirms. “The grape has been successful, so now there are a lot of industrial wines that don’t taste like the real thing. In our region,” he continues, “we don’t have big cooperatives like this. We are a small area and almost all of our Pinot Grigio is family-owned, estate-bottled wine.”

Interestingly, Pinot Gris – the same grape, with French styling – receives none of the disrespect of its Italian twin. It’s quite highly regarded, in both Alsace and in Oregon. People rarely call it boring or plain; it can feature in some of the most exciting whites from those regions.

Despite carrying a healthy dose of skepticism for years, I recently find myself wondering if Grigio can ever match up to Gris. Is Italy’s version a lost cause, or can it actually be good?

My awakening begins with a bottle from Castelfeder in the Alto Adige that’s full-bodied and luscious, turning any and all previous notions of the Grige on their head. Of course, most of my experience up to this point has been of the Santa Margherita mold: well-known but not particularly good.

I start to seek wines made in the ramato-style – a copper-hued wine that’s been fermented briefly on its skins, imparting some of the color, flavor and tannin. Produced primarily in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia sub-region of Collio, they’re not only surprising in appearance but offer a completely different gustatory experience when compared to the stuff we all know and, er, don’t love.

Di Lenardo, who produces the ramato Gossip, says he enjoys vinifying a wine in this “special” way that the industrial cellars won’t, as well as helping to educate consumers that the Pinot Grigio grape is actually quite dark in color (Grigio means gray).

pinot grigio grapes

He also notes how this method can produce “bigger texture” as well as “distinctive aromatic power.” And while Gossip does feature varietally typical flavors of stone fruit and tart apple, there is absolutely more. Feral notes of hay and fuzzy peach showcase in the aroma, and a distinct bitter almond note coincides with the finish. Though softer than I’ve come to expect with Grigio, a nibble of tannin adds balance.

One of the finest ramato bottles I come across takes me out of Italy, across the border to Slovenia, specifically the region of Štajerska, which – although towards the eastern side of the country — is still as close to Collio as Verona. The winery Pullus (aka Ptujska Klet) has been around for a little bit, according to the label, which claims, no joke, “since 1239.” Regardless, they produce a killer ramato, lighter than Gossip but also sharper, redolent of strawberries and raspberries followed by a mineral and herb-tinged finish. With no disrespect meant to the surely wonderful folks of Štajerska, this is one fine Italian Pinot Grigio.

Though distinct, the ramato-style in and of itself neither equates to bigger or more serious. Take the wines of Fruili’s Attems. While their ramato offers up rose-like fruit alongside a touch of tannic dryness, the overall impression is gentle and elegant. Attems’ non-ramato Pinot Grigio – which is darker than plonk yet still a white wine – on the other hand, is rich and lush, showcasing deep fruitiness (tangerines!) alongside nutty complexity and mouthwatering salinity. Wow.

attems pinot grigio

Image via Attems FB page

Heading back up to the Alto Adige, Peter Zemmer Pinot Grigio is yet another standout. Perhaps the palest of the mentioned wines, it defies that with bold flavor. Huge herbal aromas act as an Alto Adige calling card, but opulent peach, pear and melon bring balance. Experiencing this abundant fruit’s coexistence with vibrant freshness, it’s hard to imagine this grape ever developing its reputation for blandness.

So why does it? Judith Unterholzner – who represents Alto Adige wineries Terlano and Andriano – suggests this phenomenon is mainly due to exaggerated yields. “Whenever producers fail to reduce quantities harvested per hectare to get higher quality primary fruit, Pinot Grigio cannot demonstrate its full potential,” she notes. “We cultivate our Pinot Grigio with the same production philosophy like all the other wine; by taking care of the vines. This creates a product of remarkable quality, balancing varietal typicity with the Alpine brightness our region is famous for.”

It also, of course, requires higher costs. “Low yields are the main reason for the high quality,” Unterholzer continues “which clearly has to have a certain price, since we invest on average 500 hours of manual work per hectare to get the best out of the vineyards.” Don’t fret, though. It’s still only about $20/bottle. Tough to compare on paper with Cavit at $8, perhaps… until the wines are tasted.

This story is, in the end, hardly surprising. Should we, for example, estimate the potential of California Cabernet by bottles of Woodbridge and Barefoot? Hardly. Nor should we judge Pinot Grigio based on bulk garbage.

Me, I began this quest intrigued yet skeptical about the potential of Pinot Grigio. Now here I sit, an unabashed fan. Are you finally ready to open your own mind?

Recommended Bottles:

  • Pullus Pinot Grigio
  • Di Lenardo Gossip Pinot Grigio Ramato
  • Attems Pinot Grigio & Pinot Grigio Ramato
  • Peter Zemmer Pinot Grigio
  • Castelfeder Pinot Grigio
  • Donna Alma Pinot Grigio Dolomiti

Top image via Castelfeder Facebook page.

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This post was featured in the July 2016 Italian Food, Wine & Travel group’s Twitter chat on orange wines. Check out a list of other posts from the group: