Pinot grigio is one of the most divisive grapes in the world of wine. Its devotees are die-hard enthusiasts, many of whom eschew other varieties altogether, but its detractors are vocal. How can a popular opinion be so split on one of the best-selling wines on the planet? Well, think about vanilla ice cream. If you pick up a pint from a large national brand at your local convenience store, it’s likely to be pretty bland and uninteresting—not actively bad, but merely fine. But a scoop of fresh homemade vanilla bean from your favorite local creamery can be complex, delightful, and perhaps even revelatory.
The wine follows a similar principle: If you go with the mass-produced option, you’ll likely be underwhelmed. But if you choose the right regions and producers, you’ll be on your way to an outstanding pinot grigio experience.
Pinot grigio, commonly known as pinot gris in Francophone countries, is Italian for gray pinot. This name comes from the color of the grape skins, which are actually pink rather than gray, but it makes sense when you think of it as being in between pinot Bianco/Blanco (white pinot) and Pinot Nero/noir (black pinot). In fact, all of these varieties are naturally occurring color mutations of the same grape.
Thoughtful vineyard management is a necessary component of producing great pinot grigio. When yields are kept low and grapes are allowed to ripen fully, the wines are bright, crisp, and refreshing, with vibrant lemon-lime citrus notes alongside other fruits like peach, apricot, green apple, and melon. These flavors and aromas are often accompanied by a floral perfume of jasmine and honeysuckle. Italian versions of pinot grigio often have a hint of almond skin in their profiles. In some regions, like Alsace, the finest wines can even develop some elegant toasty, smoky, and biscuity notes with a bit of bottle age.
Pinot grigio’s bad rap comes from the inexpensive bulk wines that dominate the market. High-yielding vines save growers money by producing the largest possible crop, but they also lead to diluted flavors. These wines can be rather neutral and simple, but they’re typically very palatable to inexperienced drinkers and also quite affordable, rendering them perfect for parties.
But those looking for a more meditative drinking experience should not overlook pinot grigio, which is perfectly capable of producing some outstanding and memorable wines—if you know where to look. Much of Italy’s pinot grigio production comes from the Veneto region of Italy, but the best examples frequently come from other parts of Italy and beyond.
These are a few of the most surprising pinot grigio wines that may change your mind about the grape.
When pinot grigio grows in a region that is neither French- nor Italian-speaking, the winemakers can choose whether they want to call it grigio or gris. It’s often the case that light, crisp styles end up labeled grigio, while rich, perfumed versions are called gris. Chehalem’s draws its inspiration from the vineyards of Alsace, so it’s apt that this one is dubbed a gris. Fruity and full-bodied yet balanced, this lovely wine is full of ripe apple and peach notes offset by juicy acidity and white blossoms. This shows the food-friendly side of pinot gris that truly shines at the dinner table alongside poultry, pork, poached fish, or vegetarian dishes.
Kabaj 2015 Sivi (Goriška Brda, Slovenia)
Losonci 2018 (Mátra, Hungary)
In Hungary, pinot grigio is called szürkebarát, but no one will expect you to remember that. What you will want to remember is that Hungarian pinot grigio is a fantastic alternative to the Alsatian style of pinot gris, with a similar oily texture and rich, aromatic bouquet. Spicy, floral and ripe, the Losonci 2018 pinot gris from Mátra, Hungary, gets a nice color boost from three weeks of skin contact and is accented by the high acidity and salty, smoky character that’s typical of Mátra. Low-yielding vines give this wine plenty of depth and intensity.
Radikon 2018 Sivi (Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, Italy)
This one is for the skeptics: If you really want a revelation in pinot grigio, start here. The late Stanko Radikon was an absolute legend in northern Italy’s Friuli region near the Slovenian border. Oday, his wife, Suzana, and their children, Saša and Ivana, carry on his remarkable legacy, continuing to use the winemaking methods favored by Stanko’s grandfather in the 1930s. Radikon, a biodynamic winery, makes its pinot grigio in the traditional ramato style, so the grapes stay on their skins for a couple of weeks to extract color and tannin, producing what’s known as an orange wine. The result is a savory copper-hued wine with soaring complexity. Think candied fruit, citrus pith, tangerine, and spiced pear, all wrapped around a core of saline minerality. Just consider yourself warned: This wine will seriously raise your standards for pinot grigio.
In Napa Valley, Robert Sinskey Vineyards is home to some of California’s prettiest and most aromatic whites, inspired by the wines of Alsace. This biodynamic estate goes against the grain by producing elegant, delicate pinot gris in a district surrounded by bombastic chardonnays. This wine is all about nuance, from the essences of sweet herbs, chamomile, and lemongrass to the burst of Meyer lemon, ripe peach, and guava, to the layers of acidity and minerality, all the way through to the clean, dry finish. Pair it with oysters and never look back.
For budget-friendly PG, nothing beats New Zealand. It’s hard to believe the country’s winemakers are able to fit so much flavor into such reasonably priced bottles, but somehow they manage to do it just about every time. Wairau River’s pinot gris blends the best of both the Italian and Alsatian styles—the crisp acidity and bright citrus fruits of Italian pinot grigio with the ripe, voluptuous apple and pear notes of Alsace’s pinot gris. The older vines used for this bottling contribute to the impressive weight and texture of the wine.
Zind-Humbrecht 2018 (Alsace, France)
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