Here’s a sad truth. Most pinot grigio is so watery, bland, and just plain dull that wine snobs scorn it and sommeliers at top restaurants won’t list it. Asking for “just a glass of pinot grigio” has almost become an admission that you don’t pay attention to what you swallow.
But of course you do. So forget all those tired clichés and have a rethink about why the grape had such mass appeal in the first place. Delicious, food-friendly examples can be had for $25 and less, and they’re not hard to find.
So what do you need to know? First, cool northern Italy produces scores of crisp, refreshing, citrusy, light whites proudly labeled pinot grigio that are ideal as aperitifs and with all kinds of food.
In Alsace, in northeastern France, the same grape is called pinot gris, and the flavors are slightly different. The wines are honeysuckle-scented, powerful, spicy, lushly textured, and sometimes sweet. (By the way, grigio and gris both mean “gray,” after the pinkish gray sheen of the grape’s skin when ripe.)
Winemakers in the New World—Oregon, New Zealand, Australia, California—tend to label their examples with the name that fits the style and flavor profile they’re aiming for, but often their styles lie somewhere between the Italian and Alsace paradigms.
You could say the grape suffers from an identity crisis.
Italian pinot grigio burst on the U.S. scene in the early 1980s, after a young importer brought in the Santa Margherita brand and made it into one of the country’s best-known wines. Eventually its popularity inspired a flood of indifferent Italian plonk from low-altitude areas, which scared off discerning drinkers. Later, some fans were further seduced away by prosecco and rosé.
A New Distinction
Last year, in an effort to increase quality, Italy instituted a new, tightly controlled regional classification, Pinot Grigio delle Venezie, whose wines are certified by an independent commission. This wide area includes regions such as Alto Adige and Friuli (northwest and northeast of Venice, respectively) where some of the best wines come from vineyards on the slopes.
Alsace pinot gris has never been as fashionable as pinot grigio, but it has a great quality-to-price ratio. In fact, all the wines from the region have been underrated for years. It didn’t help that in the 1990s some producers there started making riper, sweeter, almost syrupy wines that didn’t go well with food. Some have solved the problem by putting a dry-to-sweet scale on the back label so you know what to expect. For others, the less expensive wines have always been bone dry.
The biggest news is that plantings of the grape are rising fast. It rules the white wine landscape in Oregon and is way less expensive than chardonnay (and much better with pad thai). It’s affordable because the grapes are easy to grow and harvested early, so the wines are ready to sell sooner, and they’re usually not aged in pricey new oak barrels. In Australia, experimental producers have begun planting the grape in cooler regions and experimenting with wildly unique styles.
And on a visit to New Zealand earlier this year, maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised to discover a pinot gris craze there, too. From 2002 to 2016, plantings have exploded, from 232 hectares to 2,440.
Expect more top examples to hit the shelves in the future. For now, here are nine top pinot grigio/pinot gris wines that will surprise you.