What’s in a pinot grigio’s name?

Tuesday, March 13, 2018 8:44 PM

What sounds best to you? Clean, crisp, refreshing? White peach, flower blossoms and slaty minerals? Or rich, dense, ripe, voluptuous and minerally?

Oddly enough, these are the classic styles of pinot grigio grown in different terroirs or countries. In the United States, pinot grigio, synonymous with pinot gris, ranks fourth in off-premise retail sales, with chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, red blends taking the top three.

Most people don’t realize that pinot grigio essentially comes in three distinct styles. Depending on its origin, it will carry a different name. “Pinot grigio” denotes the wine came from, for the most part, northeastern Italy and occasionally California. “Pinot gris” indicates its origin lies in either Alsace, France, or the Williamette Valley of Oregon. While there are plantings in Germany, Austria, Moldova, Luxembourg, New Zealand and Australia, the bulk of it comes from Italy, Oregon and France.

The Friuli and Alto Adige regions in northeastern Italy produce the best Italian pinot grigios. Small producers there aim to produce quality over quantity, while the pinot grigios of the Veneto, just south and west of Friuli and Alto Adige, are where the larger production wines come from. These “porch pounders” are light, fresh and go down all too easy. In contrast, the wines of Fruili and Alto Adige offer considerably more complexity and body. Entry-level pinot grigios can be found around $10, while those from Friuli and Alto Adige begin in the low teens and can climb above $20.

Pinot gris from Oregon have grown rapidly due to the near-perfect climate and close proximity to Portland, Washington and California. In the early 2000s, pinot gris surpassed chardonnay plantings. The Oregonians realized that trying to compete with California was a losing battle, and pinot gris and pinot noir began to dominate the landscape. The style of Oregon’s pinot gris falls perfectly between those of Italy and France. Oregon’s pinot gris offers richer, more peach, flower blossom and mineral notes than Italy’s, but not to the extreme of their French counterparts. Prices start at $12 and can quickly jump above $20.

The creme de le creme of pinot gris come from Alsace, in northeastern France. Traditionally known as Tokay d’Alsace, pinot gris is the only accepted name due to an agreement between Hungary and the European Union. The zenith of pinot gris, this style is rich, dense and concentrated, but with an acidic lift that seems to lighten the weight of the wine. That’s not to say that the wines lack acidity – they don’t. These wines have excellent aging potential, upwards of 15 years in great vintages. In Alsace, producers seek a more opulent wine with notes of ripe peach, honeysuckle, apricot when young. As the wines age, they take on a biscuity and buttery flavor. While these wines are excellent cocktail wines, they also make great food companions as well. Orange chicken anyone? Entry-level wines begin at $20, while the greatest wines from classified Grand Cru vineyards can easily exceed $50. For those who have not tried an Alsacian pinot gris, it’s time.

Alan Cuenca is an accredited oenophile and owner of Put a Cork in It, a Durango wine store. Reach him at