All about pinot grigio
Pinot grigio, known as pinot gris in France, is a crisp, refreshing, dry white wine, with popular varieties grown in Italy, France and the USA. One of America’s favourite wines, this light, zesty grape pairs beautifully with fish, chicken and mild creamy cheeses.
Younger pinot grigio grapes yield notes of lime, green apple, and lemon, changing to pear, white nectarine and white peach as they ripen. Depending on where the grapes are grown, they may offer hints of almond, honeysuckle, honey, salinity, cloves, ginger or other spices. These wines also have a medium-high to high acidity, which cuts through the fruit, keeping things clean and crisp.
Although most commonly associated with Italy, the pinot grigio grape actually originated in France, where it is thought to have been a mutation of the pinot noir grape. Unlike most white wine grapes, it is not green, but a shade of bluish grey, which is where it gets the name ‘grigio’ or ‘gris’. Pinot gris grapes, as they are known in France, have been grown in Burgundy since the Middle Ages, and the wine is said to have been a favourite of Emperor Charles IV, ruler of the Holy Roman Empire from 1355 to 1378.
Pinot gris is thought to have spread to Italy via Switzerland, and it soon took hold as a popular grape in northeastern Italy, where it became known as pinot grigio. From its early days in the vineyards of Lombardy, Veneto, Friuli, Trentino and Alto Adige, pinot grigio went on to become Italy’s most popular white wine, and it was soon catching the attention of other countries, too.
The first American pinot grigio was planted in Oregon by David Lett of Eyrie Vineyards in 1965, but was slow to capture the public imagination at first. It wasn’t until the 1990s that homegrown pinot grigio became really popular, but from there it quickly grew to be one of America’s favourite wines. Today, the USA has over eight thousand hectares of plantings, primarily in Oregon and California, making it second only to Italy in terms of pinot grigio production.
Wines produced in different countries tend to have different characteristics due to differences in growing conditions, soil quality, and when the grapes are harvested. Most pinot grigio comes from Italy, where the grapes are harvested early for a crisp, refreshing acidity. These wines are totally dry, with a subtle fruitiness, notes of bitter almond and occasionally a hint of mineral salinity.
French pinot grigio, or pinot gris, is richer and more full-bodied, with notes of honey and spices. It also tends to have greater cellaring and ageing potential.
Although pinot gris is typically a dry wine, some growers from the Alsace region harvest their grapes later in the year for a slightly sweeter taste. These wines have a complex flavour, with notes of cinnamon, honey, clove, Meyer lemon and ginger, and a long, lingering aftertaste. Some Alsatian wineries harvest even later to produce pinot gris dessert wines, with labels marked ‘vendages tardives’.
American pinot grigio is typically harvested later than the Italian grape, but not so late as sweeter Alsatian varieties. These wines are still dry, but with more pronounced fruity flavours and less acidity than their European cousins.
Pinot grigio has gained something of a bad reputation over the years, with people tending to reject it out of hand as too simple and lacking in complexity. In this regard, the wine has been a victim of its own popularity, with cheap, inferior products flooding the market to meet demand. If you avoid cheap, sweet wines, however, there are some excellent quality pinots available, with plenty of good options from $15 upwards.
Pinot grigio pairings
If you’re looking for the perfect dish to pair with your favourite bottle of crisp, refreshing pinot grigio, there are a few basic rules to follow. Wine matching can get quite complicated and technical, but if you stick to the basics you can still create some rewarding combinations.
In general, a wine should be both sweeter and more acidic than the dish it is paired with. Desserts, for example, are often accompanied by a sweet dessert wine. Both the wine and the food should have a similar intensity of flavour, with bold reds matching well with hearty meat and cheese dishes, and whites pairing better with light chicken and seafood dishes. For an instant guide to food-matching different types of wine, take a look at this handy wine and food pairing chart.
Light and uplifting, pinot grigio is a great wine for informal, lighthearted occasions. Generally considered to be fairly neutral, it also works well as a starter wine before the meal begins, with no overbearing flavours to draw attention away from the dishes to come.
As a delicate, neutral wine, pinot grigio pairs best with light, fresh flavours. Think summery dishes like salads, chicken and seafood, as well as light pasta dishes and risottos, and avoid heavy sauces in favour of creams and vinaigrettes.
The elevated acidity of pinot grigio makes it a particularly good match for seafood dishes. Remember to keep it light, avoiding meaty fish like tuna, or lobster dishes with heavy sauces. Crab or shrimp salad is a great choice, as are grilled halibut, poached salmon, sushi or calamari. If you’re a fan of shellfish, freshly-caught oysters and seared scallops also pair beautifully with a crisp bottle of pinot.
Pinot grigio’s neutral qualities also make it the perfect accompaniment for earthy garden salads and fresh summer vegetables. It works well with crunchy crudités, vegetable antipasto, and risotto dishes like risotto primavera or risi e bisi.
Other good pairing choices include various chicken dishes, especially when marinated in lemon or white wine. You can even add some pinot grigio to the dish as it cooks. Light pasta dishes are another favourite, especially dishes with vegetables or seafood.
If you want to try some cheese with your wine, be careful to avoid sharp, pungent cheeses like cheddar or stilton, as these can overpower the delicate flavours of pinot grigio. Instead, try soft, mild cheeses, like brie or mozzarella, as these will enhance the wine’s sweeter, more mellow notes.
Pairing wine with your food is a handy skill to acquire and one that will make you a popular host. The Italian culinary tradition focuses on the fact that local food should be consumed with local wine so that’s a good place to start. Here are a few tips on pairing that classic Piedmontese white Moscato d’Asti, particularly harmonious with desserts. For rich, meaty main courses and hearty pasta dishes, look no further than Amarone di Valpolicella, a DOCG red from the Veneto region.