Pinot Gris vs. Pinot Grigio

By Karl Klooster

Pinot Noir may be Oregon’s signature wine, but Pinot Gris is becoming almost as identified with the industry here as its red cousin. So much so that the majority of wineries throughout the state have come to include it in their portfolios.

The history of this versatile variety, and its most prolific applications today, make an interesting story. Most professionals know it, and it’s worth passing along to consumers of these engagingly fresh and lushly fruity wines.

If you Google “Pinot Gris,” you’ll call up references explaining that this wine grape is a mutation of Pinot Noir and the terms “Pinot Gris” and “Pinot Grigio” are interchangeable. They will say that “Gris” is the name used for the grape and resulting wine in France, whereas “Grigio” is the name used in Italy.

Both words do, in fact, mean “gray” in their respective languages. But that is where the similarity ends.

Alsatian versions are serious wines, whereas the vast majority of Italian examples represent little more than simple quaffers.

In Alsace, the wine is usually labeled “Tokay Pinot Gris.” Vignerons there take pride in distinctive wines featuring weighty texture and multiple layers of flavor. Floral, tropical fruit, orange blossom and almond notes all serve as descriptors of offerings from the famed Domaines.

So highly regarded is the grape in this northeastern French region that considerable effort is often expended in the production of “vendange tardive” or late harvest wines. Tardives can be fairly sweet or bone dry, depending on the winemaker’s preference.

Either way, they exhibit the stylistic similarities of full-bodied richness and complexity.

In some years, when very high natural sugar levels occur, the Alsatians make small quantities of “sélection de grains nobles”—botrytis-affected ultra-late-harvest wines similar to German Beerenauslese.

Italian Pinot Grigio is usually produced from a clone called Colmar that is genetically identical to its Northern European kin. But handling in the vineyard and winery make the end product a very different vino.

Purposely high tonnage levels result in a lot more juice per acre, or hectare. As a result, the wine can range from fresh, light and citrusy to watery, insipid and overly acidic.

The best Grigios are made in Italy’s northeastern-most region, Friuli-Venezia Giulia. Though still light-bodied, these wines often exhibit more interesting flavor profiles, like peach and lemon zest.

Still, since Italian white wines are primarily price-driven, there is little likelihood that much effort will be made to produce larger quantities of more distinctive—thus more expensive—wines from the Pinot Grigio clone.

These business-oriented decisions, and their resulting niches, have also influenced the separate ways in which the Oregon and California wine industries have approached the marketplace when it comes to Pinot Gris.

Oregon’s wine industry is predominantly composed of smaller wineries and owner/winemakers who are intimately involved in the process and make quality their top priority.

However, in California, where 90 percent of the country’s wine is produced, a rather different view prevails. Unlike Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc or Riesling, which have well-established reputations, Pinot Gris or Pinot Grigio is considered a grape simply to be exploited.

Its ease of growing and early drinkability lends to the goal of making a decent end product at a very palatable price. And increased competition owing to importation of the real thing—i.e. inexpensive Italian Pinot Grigio—has only served to increase the price-point pressure in recent years.

Rob Stuart, one of northwestern Oregon’s leading Pinot Gris producers, feels Oregon has positioned itself well to maintain a solid foothold within the current style and price parameters.

Referring to his popular Big Fire brand, Stuart said, “We make a fruit-forward, medium-weight style with bright acidity. It takes advantage of the freshness and charm that makes Pinot Gris so appealing when young, while also adding subtle flavor interest.”

His approach isn’t designed to deliver Alsatian structure and depth of complexity. But striving for that would inevitably increase production cost, and thus clash with market reality.

As much as he is convinced it is important for Oregon to keep quality high, he is equally certain the average price of Pinot Gris must remain relatively modest—$15 to $20 per bottle at present—gradually rising over time to account for inflation.

Showing his abilities on the Alsatian side, however, Stuart has produced a small quantity of what he calls “vin tardive,” a more extracted wine with 3.65 percent residual sugar. It retails for $20 in half-size, 375-milliliter bottles.

Almost without exception, Oregon producers favor the term “Pinot Gris” over “Pinot Grigio,” even though they are legally allowed to use either designation on their labels.

The logic lies in the direct relationship of their wine to its Alsatian, rather than Italian, counterpart. As far as they’re concerned, the more that California wineries lean toward using “Pinot Grigio,” the better they like it.

Further encouraging a readily recognizable packaging difference, they hope the Californians continue to put their Grigios in high-shouldered, Bordeaux-style bottles, as opposed to the sloping Burgundy-style bottles almost exclusively used for Oregon Gris.

The one exception would be painstakingly crafted, ultra-premium late harvest Pinot Gris. For that prestigious, high-end product, only tall, slender Rhine-style bottles will do.

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