Do you like Pinot Grigio? If you do, you’re not alone. Pinot Grigio, especially Italian Pinot Grigio, is one of the most popular wines in the world.
To be honest, I run hot and cold on Italian Pinot Grigios, which can vary widely in style, taste and aroma-from flinty, mineral-laden versions (which I love) to sweeter bottlings that almost taste and smell like bubblegum (which I do not care for).
Some of my more serious wine-loving friends have written off Italian Pinot Grigio, much in the same way many devotees of White Burgundy dismiss all California Chardonnay. I have to admit that I was edging closer to the camp of Pinot Grigio cynics until I tasted some really good, quite complex Italian Pinot Grigios recently. So, to turn a phrase, I come here to praise Italian Pinot Grigio, not to bury it.
Before I build my case for giving Italian Pinot Grigio another look, let me share a few facts about this grape that you will find the world over.
1) Pinot Grigio and Pinot Gris are the same grape, but due to a number of factors, most notably where and how the grapes are grown, Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio can taste very different. Heck, even Pinot Gris can taste vastly different from one region to the next. Don’t believe me? Try an Alsatian Pinot Gris where the grape originated from a solid producer like Trimbach next to a Pinot Gris from Oregon from a winery like King Estate, which has its roots right here in Kansas City. The grapes may have the same DNA and name, but the flavor and taste profiles are quite different.
2) The name Pinot Gris comes from the color of the grape, which is grayish-purple. Gris is gray in French. Grigio is the Italian translation.
3) Pinot Grigio offers three main flavor profiles: minerally and dry Pinot Grigios, which typically come from cooler, mountainous regions of Northern Italy, Austria, and Germany, fruity and dry Pinot Grigios, which are most often produced from warmer and sunnier climates like Tuscany, California and Australia, and fruity and sweet styles that you often find in Alsace. Keep in mind, though, that these are broad generalizations and you really need to taste the wine before you can judge the style of the producer. Still, these are good general guidelines to follow when buying a bottle of Pinot Grigio or Pinot Gris.
For this piece, I’ll concentrate on Italian Pinot Grigios. It comes as absolutely no surprise to me that I prefer the mineral-laced versions from places like Trentino-Alto Aldige and Friuli in northeast Italy much more than the riper sweeter Pinot Grigio from Italy’s warmer climes. While filming my television show, “Culinary Travels with Dave Eckert,” I was able to travel to both Trentino-Alto Adige and Fruili, From first-hand experience, I don’t think there’s much doubt that the finest Italian Pinot Grigio comes from these regions along with certain areas of the Veneto. There are dozens of good choices from these regions, but I will give you the two that I tasted and really enjoyed.
The first is from a producer that was new to me, but has centuries of winemaking experience: Attems. The Attems estate covers more than 150 acres in a region called Friuli Venezie Guilia. The terraced vineyards face south, giving them protection from the cold winds from the north and the warmer air coming from Trieste. Attems makes Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc in addition to Pinot Grigio. I have not tasted those wines, but the Pinot Grigio was right up my alley, fruity and soft yet framed by notes of citrus and a crisp minerality that holds the wine together.
Another Pinot Grigio I enjoyed came from Astoria, which also has a long and proud winemaking history in northeast Italy. Perhaps best known for its Proseccos, that light sparkling wine that’s so delightfully quaffable, the Astoria Pinot Grigio is no slouch on its own. From the Veneto, the Astoria Pinot Grigio is more overtly fruity than the Attems version, but finishes dry with a nice bracing acidity. Both Pinot Grigios are flexible with a wine range of food. I’d lean toward seafood with the Attems and chicken or pasta with the Astoria.
The final two bottlings I tasted were my favorites — the Kettmeir Pinot Grigio from Alto Adige and the Terlato Pinot Grigio from Friuli Colli Orientali. These two wines showcase the heights to which Italian Pinot Grigio can climb if planted in the right soils, grown in the proper climate, and harvested at a reasonable yield. The Kettmeir is a bit leaner on the palate. The Terlato is a bit more extracted. But both pack loads of clean fruit flavors. Apple dominates in the Kettmeir. Peach and pear flavors immerse your palate with the Terlato. Both wines finish beautifully, sporting terrific balance and loads of palate-cleansing acidity, a hallmark of a well-made Pinot Grigio.
As Thanksgiving approaches, check out these wines or other versions from Italy’s cooler, more mountainous regions for your holiday table. I promise you, you might just change your mind about Italian Pinot Grigio.
Dave Eckert is a partner with Flavor Trade, a Kansas City-based gourmet food incubator and co-packer. Before that, Eckert was the producer and host of “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” which aired on PBS and AWE for 12 seasons.