Chow Town

Mild-mannered Pinot Grigio inspires passion for wine expert Doug Frost

Doug Frost’s favorite Pinot Grigio: Jermann.
Doug Frost’s favorite Pinot Grigio: Jermann.

“It’s the greatest Pinot Grigio I’ve ever tasted,” said our over-enthusiastic waiter.

I was intrigued and asked if he saw it as better than the Jermann Pinot Grigio the restaurant also featured. The waiter gave me a hard stare and repeated, “It’s the greatest Pinot Grigio I’ve ever tasted.”

“Wow,” I said, enthused that there might be a Pinot Grigio as exciting as Jermann.

For me, Jermann is the bomb, the shizzizzle, the tippy-top, all that. “Does it taste different than Jermann?”

I wasn’t trying to torment him; I genuinely wanted to know. Probably I should have stopped then and there, but I thought perhaps my steely-eyed server knew something that I didn’t (and there’s always something new to learn about wine, so why not?). I pressed on.

Finally, he broke into a sheepish grin and said, “Well, actually, it’s the only Pinot Grigio I’ve ever tasted.” To save face for both of us, I bought the one he had recommended, and since I’m not mentioning it by name here, you can conclude that it was, in fact, not better than Jermann. Or many others.

I know some will be curious that I would enthuse about such a mild-mannered grape as Pinot Grigio, but in the right places it can be utterly delicious. Italy’s Trentino-Alto Adige and Friuli-Venezia-Giulia have defined the grape as much as can regions that are tenuously held together only by their hyphens.

The plains of Trento make a broad wine out of Pinot Grigio; Alto Adige is a gossamer thread of fruit with a cloak of acidity. Friuli-Venezia-Giulia includes Venice and a remarkable series of hills or even plateaus where an ever-changing cast of grapes enjoys some Mediterranean sun between wind and clouds.

Pinot Grigio likes this spot, too, and in some places it’s the craziest of combos: Imagine tart green apple notes laced with peach, apricot and even pineapple. And then more green apple. It’s exciting white wine.

But Alsace, where Pinot Grigio is called Pinot Gris, takes the grape to loftier places, even if the elevation is about the same as in Friuli and nowhere near as high up as Alto Adige (geographers call that region the pre-Alps). Instead, the Vosges Mountains protect Alsace from the usual soggy European September harvest.

As a result, the grapes hang on the vine longer, and the wines are higher in flavor (and alcohol) than anything grown in that part of the continent.

In Alsace, Italy’s crisp and congenial Pinot Grigio morphs into a comic book character that screams its intentions. Bam! Pow! Even the least expensive among Alsace’s Pinot Gris has ripe to overripe pear and baked apple aromas along with the usual tart background. The really pricey ones are tropical and rich, even slightly sweet, with intense alcohol levels that deliver pungent aromas and flavors. Along with minerality.

So why shouldn’t such a simple grape inspire passion? For me, Pinot Gris (and its alter ego Pinot Grigio) either drinks well as a stand-alone beverage or it begs for substantial food. I’m OK with either style. The grape deserves some respect for its ability to play at least two roles skillfully.

Last I checked, Jim Carrey has only one character to offer, but plenty of people like his work. For me, this grape deserves at least as much respect, however low a bar that may seem to some.

Doug Frost is a Kansas City-based wine and spirits writer and consultant. He is one of only four people in the world to have earned the titles of master sommelier and master of wine. He contributes a wine column for The Kansas City Star’s Chow Town section and blog.