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Pinot Grigio – Or Is It?

Over the last decade or so, Pinot Grigio has seen a dramatic rise in popularity with the UK wine consumers, many of whom believe that it’s a grape indigenous to Italy and that little else is produced outside of the borders. How wrong they are.

Pinot Grigio or Pinot Gris as the French call it is said to have originated in Burgundy as a mutated version of the Pinot Noir grape variety. In fact the boffins at the University of California, Davis, took a look at the DNA of both grapes which turned out to be remarkably similar. Today it is still planted in Burgundy (in a small way) and where it is locally known as the Pinot Beurot. However, for centuries it has really made itself at home in the northern region of Alsace where it grows to perfection.

For many years, the growers here referred to it as either Tokay d’Alsace or Tokay / Pinot Gris, doffing their caps to the much sought-after wines from the Hungarian region of the same name, probably because of the quality that it used to produce making it much in demand. Today, Pinot Gris is one of the truly noble grape varieties of Alsace capable of being used for the Grand Cru wines that are very much the top of the tree. In addition to the dry wines of various qualities, it also make wonderful late harvest wines and Botrytis affected wines that are selected berry by berry and known as Grains Nobles. These wines are wonderfully rich and silky, luscious and lingering on the palate and very much the thing to drink with the famous liver terrines of the area. But the dry versions are wonderful too with notes of dried fruits, mushrooms and honey.

Since Hungary became a member state of the E.U. the use of the Tokay name was outlawed in Alsace and now the wines are simply labelled as Pinot Gris.

Across the German border the grape has also made itself at home, especially in the Baden region. Again it has attracted a different name or in fact, this time two! Blauburgunder or Ruländer are the German names and the style here is slightly fresher and crisper. We have very fond memories of dining in the home of a grower and feasting on a venison casserole with spaetzle. What a great combination for the wine so no wonder we had two helpings!

Outside of Europe it has been widely planted also in a host of countries from New Zealand to the U.S.A., Australia to Chile and in every region it places its own unique stamp on the wines, always offering something slightly different.

But back to good old Pinot Grigio. If you study the wine market in the U.K. you’ll find that Pinot Grigio is available in all shapes and sizes. Much of what is imported is fairly tasteless, light and uninteresting, specially produced and dare I say manufactured on a massive scale to supply the volume markets such as supermarkets and pubs. As an example of what I’m saying there’s a story from around 15 years ago when the popularity was just rising. We went over to Trento to produce our own blend and, working in a laboratory with a host of measuring cylinders with samples of various tanks of different origins, we finally arrived at what we wanted. When the director of the Cantina tasted the wine, he looked quizzically at us and asked if we thought that this was what the British consumer wanted. We obviously said yes, proud of our creation but asked why he should ask. “Well” he replied, “it tastes like wine!”

In truth, throughout northern Italy there are some fine examples of Pinot Grigio to be found from the slightly richer offerings of the Alto Adige to the crisper versions of the Friuli. So if you’re a Pinot Grigio lover, why not explore a little beyond the cheap and cheerful offerings of the mass market? Be a little adventurous and have a look at what an extra pound or two can deliver in terms of flavour and style.

Sipp Mack in Alsace make a delicious Pinot Gris Tradition that will be perfect to wash down some autumnal mushroom or pork dishes. Elena Walch, the magician of the Alto Adige has a great single vineyard offering that never fails to impress and of course there’s always the delightful Astoria Alisia cuvee that makes for very easy drinking with or without food. They all do exactly what it should say on the Pinot Grigio tin!

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