Pinot grigio, also known as pinot gris, is rare among wines in that it can draw upon the traditions and romance of two wine countries to sell itself – Italy and France.
That’s a good thing, given that pinot grigio/pinot gris needs all the help it can get. On paper, it’s an ideal summer wine – white, light, fresh, relatively low in alcohol and best served well chilled. But in the glass, it’s also thin and bland, more often than not.
Nevertheless, it has developed a huge fan base in the United States. With 8 percent of the market, it’s the fourth-most-popular varietal wine in the country, behind cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and merlot.
Never mind that much of that pinot grigio/pinot gris originates in a climate that’s all wrong for it, namely California.
When pinot grigio/pinot gris has something to say that is stimulating and entertaining, it almost always comes from a region with the sort of cool climate that it relishes – the Friuli and Alto Adige areas of northern Italy, Alsace in France, Marlborough in New Zealand, and Baden in Germany, where the name of the grape periodically morphs into something else, as if it were a new model of Mercedes-Benz: rulander for awhile, grauburgunder lately.
That pinot grigio has any presence at all in the United States can be credited to one man, Tony Terlato, who as a young importer of Italian wines in 1979 struck a deal with the owners of the estate Santa Margherita of Alto Adige and began to bring in their fruity and spicy take on the varietal.
As sales of Santa Margherita’s pinot grigio soared, farmers and vintners elsewhere took notice and began to plant it like mad. Over the past decade, California vineyard land devoted to pinot grigio/pinot gris has nearly doubled, now standing at almost 14,000 acres. Big plots of it are in areas too warm to retain the acidity that marks the difference between interpretations innocuous and flabby and releases lively and crisp.
But we must be careful about blanket judgments concerning the link between setting and quality. Even in California, even in regions widely seen as too warm for pinot grigio/pinot gris, exceptional takes on the varietal can be found. A few vintners in the torrid Mother Lode, for one, have found stands of pinot grigio/pinot gris at higher altitudes or in cool hollows that with perceptive handling can produce examples of striking fruit flavor, luxurious texture and refreshing acidity. One of them, a 2011 pinot grigio from Oakstone Winery at Fair Play, was judged the best wine of El Dorado County at the El Dorado County Fair wine competition two years ago.
For whatever reason, however, no pinot grigio/pinot gris out of the Sierra foothills was in the class of 29 entries that our panel judged during this year’s Sunset International Wine Competition at Menlo Park. Results won’t be known until publication of the magazine’s October issue, but I can tell you that virtually all of them were from the kind of cooler environment in which pinot grigio/pinot gris shines, when it shines at all.
That could explain why the class was such a pleasant surprise. This was in sharp contrast to my experience at another wine competition last summer, the Long Beach Grand Cru, where our panel judged 43 takes on the varietal, giving just four gold medals. For the most part, the wines there were more tired than vivid, more soft than crisp.
I’ve no idea which of the pinot grigio/pinot gris at the Sunset competition got gold medals, but I do know I had some favorites, which I later found to be: