Ask British wine drinkers what their favourite grape variety is, and almost a quarter of them will reply Pinot Grigio. Their wine of choice comes in a screwcapped bottle made of clear or faintly tinted glass, with a simple, graphic label featuring an ear-catching if ephemeral Italian brand, and costing maybe £5.99 or £6.99. The wine inside is colourless. That it is also odourless and flavourless (and the more odourless and flavourless, the more popular) is a now-venerable wine-trade quip.
High spring vineyards in Brda (Image: Andrew Jefford)
Those of us who have been tasting wine for a sheaf of decades, and whose taste buds have long since shed the acuity and sensitivity they had at their peak (when we were 11 years old), consider intensity and singularity of flavour and texture as unquestioned assets, forgetting the unwanted challenge that they might present to those who are just beginning a wine journey. Pinot Grigio’s great virtue is that, cropped in coolish, moist climates at very high yields (and remember that ‘affordability’ implies either high yields or low wages), it can taste balanced, delicate and fresh – but nothing more. The ‘varietal character’ which lactic/melony Chardonnay or herbaceous Sauvignon Blanc both exhibit will attract some new wine drinkers, but repel others. Pinot Grigio’s affable neutrality enables it to claim the middle ground, to become a kind of alcoholic mineral water. You can even see this neutrality in Côte d’Or Pinot Gris; no wonder Chardonnay (probably a later arrival) caught on there.
My favourite renditions of this grape variety – dense, almost oily — come from Alsace. They’re not necessarily sweet, though; an allusion repertoire pulsing between luscious patisserie richness (apricot juices seeping into flaky pastry) and something more savoury, smoky and alluringly porky is just perfect. Among the world’s newer wine-growing locations, New Zealand seems to come closest to echoing Alsace, though superfluous sugar (a sweetness unsaturated by other flavours) can dawdle in some of the wines. Supremely uncrisp whites of this sort are, of course, divisive, and lie nowhere near the middle ground.
Recent travels Italy’s Isonzo, Collio and Colli Orientali, then on into Slovenia’s Brda region (geographically speaking, the ‘same place’ as Italy’s Collio) and finally to the Vipava valley, gave me a chance to see Pinot Grigio in a different light. These are wines from the same mild, moist climate zone, wedged between Alps and Adriatic, as simple pile-it-high Grigio. They’re grown not on the fertile plains, though, but in often steep hillside locations which dictate a very different economic formula: hand work, lower yields, a sense of place.
The variety still occupies about 40 per cent of the hill vineyards on the Italian side of the border, but “people here are abandoning Pinot Grigio,” according to Christian Patat of Ronco del Gnemiz in the Colli Orientali. “It’s hard to grow, and you have to make lots of quality decisions which means that the maximum yield is about 40 hl/ha, whereas in Grave del Friuli they can take 150 hl/ha.” The consumer doesn’t easily understand why it’s necessary to pay three or four times more for a simple switch in DOC.
There are other compelling indigenous varietals to keep growers busy, especially Ribolla Gialla, Malvasia and Friuliano (Sauvignonasse) as well as Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc itself. And yes, ‘French’ international varieties like Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc Merlot and the Cabernets are regarded as being indigenous to this fragment of mitteleurope: they are said to have arrived during an eight-year Napoleonic interlude of intense Frenchification which fell between Venetian and Hapsburg domination in the early nineteenth century. Many growers have old-vine plantings of each.
Pinot Gris on its own in Collio and Colli Orientali seems to have a light, pretty, almost strawberryish character; not exactly neutral, but without the unction of heavy-calibre Alsace Gris. There is less Pinot Grigio (locally called Sivi Pinot) grown on the Slovenian side, as the hills are slightly higher here and Pinot Gris is said to prefer lower altitudes, but in the hands of skilled growers like Marjan Simčič or the relentless experimenter Aleš Kristančič of Movia it seemed to take on force and power; perhaps, though, this is simply a case of ambition. Simčič, for example, makes a pure ‘white label’ Pinot Gris grown in some calcareous soils he owns across the arbitrary frontier in Italy; it is indeed dense, with complex orchard fruits and lots of dry depth. Both growers, too, use it to great effect in blends: it provides glycerous marrow in Simčič’s Teodor Belo, hand-in-hand with Ribolla and Sauvignon; while after the long barrel ageing which the 2005 Movia Veliko underwent, the same combination of three varieties takes on a countryside allure, with lots of chunky provocation: structured, extractive and long, crying out for food.
I mentioned the wan hue of most inexpensive Pinot Gris (in Alsace it tends to gold), but it’s also increasingly sold in copper or pink versions. The grapes themselves are the colour of a heavy bruise or welter on a pale Caucasian arm, and almost all pressed Pinot Gris juice emerges with a little colour, so why not? Some Californian ‘pink Grigios’, of course, are so outrageously deep-hued that the variety must have had a little help from its friends; pink Grigio also tends to mean ‘even sweeter’ in the USA. But there are noble alternatives – and yet again it was Gianfranco Gallo of the astonishing Vie di Romans who provided the definitive example during my recent journey east.
Gallo points out that most Grigios lose their colour because the pigment oxidizes easily during pressing and processing, so you end up with white wine and pink lees. He uses nitrogen until the carbon dioxide of fermentation takes over, including through his 20-hour period of skin contact, and this ‘oxygen-free production practice’ fixes the colour – though he does it principally for its aromatic benefits. The result (his single-vineyard Dessimis Pinot Grigio) is strawberry-scented to sniff, but astonishingly structured in the mouth: dry, muscular and long, a giant Adriatic cannon booming back over the Alps at Alsace. There’s none of Collio’s hillside prettiness here. Isonzo is a flat-land AOC, and Dessimis is a clay-gravel vineyard – but the wine’s philosophical concentration testifies to barely more than half-a-kilo of grapes per vine.
Written by Andrew Jefford