Enjoying 50 shades of gris
Pinot grigio has brought Italian white wine back into fashion. It is the cafe wine of Venice, which helps. But it's the pleasantly easy, fresh appeal of the wine that seems to have done the trick for drinkers in Britain.
The name pinot grigio rolls off the tongue with a certain Italian brio. There's an argument that it sounds a bit more stylish than Aussie chardonnay, a little less of a mouthful than New Zealand sauvignon blanc.
But the pinot grigio is not Italian at all. It's French. The name is just a translation from pinot gris ("grey pinot"), a grape variety native to Burgundy. The name positions the variety neatly between its two cousins, the white pinot blanc, now mostly cultivated in Alsace, and the black pinot noir, the grape that makes all the great red wines of Burgundy, and much of the sparkling wine of Champagne, too.
There are at least 50 shades to the grey pinot. The PG – to abbreviate and internationalise it – is neither a green nor a black grape, but somewhere betwixt. The skins might be a grey-blue, resembling pinot noir, or even a russet-pink, causing confusion with pinot blanc. And PG covers a wide span of wine styles, too, from the palest, lightest and driest of whites to the most lavishly rich and unctuous "dessert" wines.
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It's mostly down to location. The pinot grigio you find in the supermarkets and wine bars comes from the Veneto region of northeast Italy, where it is now produced on an industrial scale for export markets such as Britain and the United States.
The basic wines are just off-dry, with aromas and fruit that might make you think of apples or pears. The best ones are fresh and lively, and moderately priced.
Asda Wine Selection Pinot Grigio 2012 at £4.50 is among the cheapest of the own-label PGs.
It has a lively sweet-pear fruit and decent acidity which makes it more interesting than some. Over at Waitrose, try La Vis Vigneti di Montagna Pinot Grigio 2012, reduced until Tuesday next from £9.99 to a proper bargain £6.66. This is from north of the Veneto in the Trentino region, where the sub-Alpine conditions seem to be auspicious. This is an exceptional PG, generously coloured, ripe with crisp-apple fruit and an exotic note of clove with an elegant, tangy citrus finish.
Palatia Pinot Grigio 2012 at £8.49 from Marks & Spencer is from Germany, and a PG in a class of its own. The Germans used to call PG Grauburgunder ("Burgundy grey") or more commonly the Ruländer, but now that the Italian name for the variety has so caught on, it's understandable they wish to capitalise on its vogue. This M&S wine is a treat under any name, limey, and stonily fresh with long orchard fruits.
In France, the PG is virtually unknown in Burgundy, but prospers in another of the nation's classic regions, Alsace. As a good-value introduction to the style, try Jean Biecher & Fils Pinot Gris Reserve 2011 at £7.99 from Morrisons' online shop. It's a quite dry, smoky-spicy Alsace wine with deliciously exotic and layered herbaceous, orchard flavours. Amazing value for this quality.
Italian PG producers can congratulate themselves on making the market for this interesting wine style. It does not compete with the pinot gris wines of Alsace, and you could be forgiven for wondering if the two styles have any connection barring the common grape variety.
But the Italians had best not rest on their laurels, because their ever-enterprising rivals in the southern hemisphere are catching on to the PG boom fast. Try, for example The Co-operative Premium Marlborough Pinot Grigio 2012 at £9.99 from the Co-op. This is a fascinating aromatic dry white from New Zealand in which I detected a lovely grafefruit twang on the nose, accompanied by what I swear was a note of broad bean, though I might have imagined it. Whatever the case, this is a typically complex and nuanced Kiwi dry white wine of real character, and definitely a new spin on the PG theme. A gorgeous match for Asian dishes and anything smoky.
I equally like Wither Hills Pinot Gris 2012 at £10.49 from Waitrose, and not just because this winery has held to the more-appropriate name of the grape.This is a wine made in the Alsace tradition, aromatic, intense, smoky, spicy and rich, but with the hallmark minerality and vivacity of fruit that makes New Zealand such an exciting source of wines of all kinds.