In Defense of Pinot Grigio

Pinot Grigio has earned a reputation as a light, flavorless white wine. My friend recently told me a story that perfectly illustrates that reputation. Her friend, who when confronted with a wine list lacking wines familiar to her, orders Pinot Grigio because at least she knows what it will taste like. Water. Not exactly an enthusiastic endorsement of the variety. 

Northern Italy has been the source of much of the colorless and flavorless Pinot Grigio referenced above, but not all Pinot Grigio from northern Italy falls into this category. We have two Pinot Grigios to share with you today that challenge that sterotype. They may disappoint my friend’s friend, but I’m certain they will not disappoint you. We received both as tasting samples.

Pinot Grigio the Grape

  • Skin color of Pinot Grigio is variable — from pink-purple to nearly as dark as Pinot Noir.
  • Pinot Gris buds and ripens early producing small clusters and small berries with potentially high sugar levels and low to moderate acidity.
  • In cooler climates Pinot Gris results in wines with citrusy flavors and in warmer climates the flavors tend more toward stone fruits.
  • Pinot Gris came to Italy through Piemonte in the early nineteenth century but, according to Robinson et al., may already have been cultivated in Valle d’Aosta before that time.

Pinot Grigio the Wine

2017 Terlato Vineyards Pinot Grigio, Friuli Colli Orientali DOC
2017 Terlato Vineyards Pinot Grigio, Friuli Colli Orientali DOC

2017 Terlato Vineyards Pinot Grigio, Friuli Colli Orientali DOCpale yellow in the glass with aromas of green pears and melons. The flavors follow the aromas with pear and melon along with dusty gravel, citrusy acidity and a hint of cedar. 13% abv. SRP $23.99

The blend of fruit flavors and dusty, gravelly minerality are very appealing in this wine. It is easy sipping, but really comes alive with food. We paired this wine with roasted halibut, a divine pairing. The minerality of this wine was enhanced by the flavors of the roasted halibut, which included onion, carrots, celery, herbs and crushed tomatoes.

Friuli Colli Orientali is located in the northeast corner of Italy. Here  Terlato makes Pinot Grigio from hillside estate vineyards. R6 Clone Pinot Grigio is chosen because it produces wines with fruity character, good acidity and good aging potential. 20 to 45-year-old vines are planted in low-vigor soils that are comprised of marl and schist.

Yield in the vineyard is kept low, 3 tons per acre, and hand harvesting over several passes in the vineyard results in perfectly ripe Pinot Grigio. Fermentation takes place in stainless steel without malolactic fermentation. The wine spends 6 to 8 months on the lees with weekly stirring for texture.

2016 Peter Zemmer Riserva “Giatl” Pinot Grigio, Alto Adige DOC
2016 Peter Zemmer Riserva “Giatl” Pinot Grigio, Alto Adige DOC

2016 Peter Zemmer Riserva  “Giatl” Pinot Grigio, Alto Adige DOCmedium yellow in the glass with aromas of ripe pears, white flowers and baking spice all of which follow into the flavor profile as well along with oat hay, gravelly minerality and juicy, citrusy acidity. This Pinot Grigio has a bit more weight than most. The finish includes citrus pith and is very long lasting. 14.5% abv. SRP $38

If ever a Pinot Grigio could be called contemplative this is it. The flavors and weight in the mouth combine in a most pleasing way. I sipped this wine as I prepared the roasted halibut dish mention above and then tasted it with our meal. I preferred sipping this wine on its own, not that it wasn’t delicious with the meal, I just preferred not to be distracted by the flavors of the dish.

Peter Zemmer Reserve “Giatl” Pinot Grigio is a wine, and a winery, with a story. The winery was founded in 1928 by Peter Zemmer in the small village of Cortina in the lowlands of Alto Adige. Peter’s nephew, Helmut Zemmer, assumed responsibility for winemaking after Peter’s untimely death. Now, Peter Zemmer is in the able hands of the next Peter Zemmer, Helmut’s son.

Giatl (pronounced ghee-AT-ul), which means little property or little vineyard in the local dialect, pays homage to the special vineyard site on which the Pinot Grigio grows. The elevated outcropping covers 24 acres and is largely owned or managed by the Zemmer family. Grapes are harvested from only the best six acres planted in complex soils of sand, stones and chalk. 

Winemaking begins with short cold maceration to enhance fruit flavors, followed by pressing and natural settling. Fermentation takes place in small French oak casks as does aging. This wine drinks beautifully now, but it is expected to continue to evolve in the bottle for six to eight years. 

I hope these two wines demonstrate that Pinot Grigio needn’t be a flavorless, watery wine. When Pinot Grigio is grown in the proper soils, yield in the vineyard is carefully managed and care is taken in winemaking, an interesting and delicious Pinot Grigio can be the result. I wouldn’t hesitate to order either of these wines from a wine list. And not because I expect either of them to taste like water.

Cheers!

2 Comments

  1. I’m going to get a complex!!! My favorite wines are riesling and pinot Grigio. I’ve never found either to be tasteless – rather the opposite – but certainly neither can compare to a big Napa Cabernet if you’re talking taste. And I get so tired of searching and searching wine lists for either of these two whites. They’ve certainly been deemed unpopular. The weird thing is, I’ve never had a pinot Grigio from alto adige/ Dolomites that tasted like water. If they quit making riesling and pinot Grigio i’d Have to switch to beer!

    • I find in general my wine friends have much less appreciation for white wines than red wines. I tend to be the opposite. Cheers to white wine lovers! Thanks for sharing your thoughts Mimi.

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