WINE VITAE: Welcome Spring with Pinot Grigio

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In the coming weeks, Canadians will thankfully welcome spring and bid farewell to, what for many us, was a challenging winter. This year in particular, it seems difficult to recall what spring renewal feels like. Only on a recent trip to Laguna Beach, California did I begin to brighten into spring mode. Seated on our balcony at the Surf and Sand Resort, overlooking the Pacific Ocean while enjoying freshly shucked oysters from one of the top local restaurants Splashes, brought a poignant change in wine mood. With the sunshine streaming down overhead, the compulsion to enjoy winter rich, concentrated powerful reds was replaced by a desire for lighter, fresher, easy drinking wine styles. Coupled with the oysters’ natural hint of sweetness, we opted for a glass of Pinot Grigio.
Pinot Grigio (in Italian) and Pinot Gris (in French) are in theory the same wine: both are white wines made from the Pinot Gris grape and produced in wine growing regions around the world. The difference simply is style. Pinot Gris varieties in general are weightier to the palate. They range from bone dry to lusciously sweet, exploding with rich citrus fruit aromas and flavours and, depending on the terroir, a touch of minerality. Pinot Grigio, on the other hand, is typically used to describe a dry wine characterized by its brighter acidity, lighter body and perfumed aromatics of typically green apple and lemon zest. For purposes of labeling, particularly in New World countries unrestricted by winemaking laws that have the flexibility to use either label, thus often a clue as to the wine’s style – Pinot Gris is generally richer, fuller, more alcoholic, more complex in aromatics often with spicy undertones, and occasionally sweeter than Pinot Grigio.
Pinot Grigio is produced by harvesting grapes relatively early to retain the fruit’s acidity. Grapes are then crushed, fermented and stored in stainless steel tanks to retain the wine’s crisp acidity and pure fruit flavours. A small number of producers will mature the wines in oak barrels, adding palate weight and sweet-vanilla like aromas. The growing international success of Pinot Grigio has seen plantings of the grape in Italy almost double over the last decade, predominately in the north east region of the country. The more expressive Pinot Grigio styles are produced in Friuli which are generally fuller, rounder, and richer with more expressive fruit and minerality versus those produced in Alto Adige that showcase more perfumed aromatics.

The bulk of Pinot Grigio we see on the shelves comes from the Veneto region and tends to be more neutral in character due to higher yields in the vineyard which prevent any of the wines’s true character to shine. Pinot Grigio’s mass appeal in recent years, as a result of changing consumer palates, has warranted a number of wine producers around the globe to mimic Italy’s success. It is therefore no surprise to see that the Pinot Gris/Grigio grape is experiencing an international boom – it has overtaken Chardonnay in terms of total plantings in Oregon; plantings have doubled in Australia; and there seem to be more offerings eminanting from New Zealand.
For now, Pinot Grigio’s remarkable success continues to procure oceans of everyday Italian or domestic Pinot Grigio widely available in retail outlets and on wine lists thanks to the surging popularity of the wine’s “lightness,” “lower alcohol,” and absence of “oakiness.” Yet, Pinot Grigio isn’t without its critics: many disgruntled with its immense popularity given that the bulk of Pinot Grigio wines lack of any real fruit flavour or intensity. While the critics are factually correct, the majority of Pinot Grigio produced is designed to be exactly that – a straight forward, easy to enjoy and understand wine capitalising on present consumer trends. That said, where Italian Pinot Grigio’s reputation has consequently been influenced by these basic, often neutral styles, and although Pinot Grigio wines can be excellent, outstanding quality wines remain for now the exception rather than the rule. The good news however, is that a growing number of Italian producers are attempting to yield more complex styles pushing the boundaries of the Pinot Grigio.
So, whether it is the equivalent of “cooks night off” and a simple quaffing wine is on the menu, or the occasion calls for something a little more intense and complex to tantantalise your taste buds, Pinot Grigio is a perfect way to welcome in Spring.