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Why Am I Drinking Pinot Grigio, or is it Pinot Gris?

Relax & Go Deeper

Jennifer Rosen, The Cork Jester
Jennifer Rosen, The Cork Jester

I get the feeling someone put America in a trance and planted the post-hypnotic suggestion: “Switch to Pinot Grigio.” The fastest-growing white in the country, bigger, even, than white zin, PG is in everyone’s glass these days, but no one seems to know why.

Typical comments: “I like Pinot Grigio, right? And remind me, why do I like it?”

And, “Pinot Grigio…um, it’s something to do with fresh breezes and things growing, I think.”

Responsibility for this voodoo goes partly to Italy’s Santa Margherita winery. Paterno Imports fell for the brand in the 1970’s and has built it into the leading imported white by way of, for all I know, subliminal marketing.

As for you, do you—should you—like it, and if so, why? Yes, you should like it and you will.... But only if you pick the right style for you, because this grape wears a lot of different hats.

While it kicks butt at the entry level, replacing Chardonnay as the new generic name for white, that’s only one facet. PG is also capable of being complex, rich, even age-worthy.
Called "Rulander" in Germany as well as a hundred other names around the world, PG is part of the somewhat dysfunctional Pinot family, so named for its tight little grape clusters that resemble pine cones. While you may know its red sibling, Pinot Noir, or its little sister, Pinot Blanc, what you probably don’t know is that this is the mutatingest variety ever to hit a vineyard. Plant one and you might get the other, or half and half, all on one vine.
or the French version, gris, means gray. This refers to the fact that the skins are neither black nor white. Now, considering black (noir) grapes are actually red, and white (blanc) grapes are yellow, you won’t be surprised to learn that gray grapes are actually pinkish brown. A sort of rosé on the vine. In fact, PG often hints toward reddish-gold in the glass.
A step-child of the world-famous Pinot Noir vineyards of Burgundy, PG migrated further north to Alsace, right across the river from the great Riesling vineyards of Germany. Alsatians make kind of a cult of producing a viscous, almost oily PG, oozing with buttered-toast and honey aromas plus dizzying amounts of alcohol, exceeded only by their dizzying prices: easily $50-$100.
Oregon pioneered this cool-climate grape in America. Labeled sometimes Grigio, sometimes Gris, their version is medium-bodied, crisp and strong on fruit flavors and aromas.
Italy, meanwhile, cranks out oceans of thin, unripe, overcropped Grigio for thirsty American zombies. But they also make another kind.  
High up on the thigh of Italy's boot perch the Alpine regions of Friuli and Alto Adige. Their climates produce wonderful freshness and acidity in wine, but even more important are the producers. A unique breed, they're the product of a cultural blender of changing borders, alliances and ideologies, tramped through by Julius Caesar, the crusaders, Napoleon and two World Wars. Like many survivors, they tend to be practical, flexible, independent thinkers.
While half of Italy clings stubbornly to winemaking traditions, and the other half chucks them all for test-tubes in a sterile lab, these guys try a little of everything. A single azienda might be experimenting all at once with enormous stainless steel tanks, small Slovenian oak barrels and clay amphorae buried in the earth.
The resulting wine is rich and complex, with tangy acidity, shot through with stony minerality. To find it, scan the Italian shelves for out-of place German and Slavic names: Jermann, Attems, Hofstatter, Tiefen brunner, Kupelwieser, Primosic, Princic and Damijan to name a few.
Whatever the country, most PGs share a generous perfume of flowers as well as melons, apples, pears and tropical fruits, all wrapped up in the rich, silky texture of a satin sheet.
Most are best drunk young, but older folks enjoy them too. Just a little syntax trick to distract your conscious mind while I engage your unconscious. As you chase that thought, you might notice how heavy your eyelids are getting and how the sound of my voice helps you relax deeply and comfortably into that chair….
When you wake up, you’ll have no memory of this. But you’ll have a compelling desire for Pinot Grigio.

Read more by The Cork Jester on her website,, or check out her newest book, The Cork Jester's Guide to Wine.

by Jennifer Rosen


(Updated: 06/24/09 SV)

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