Have you ever gone to a wine tasting and found yourself wondering what the difference between Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc is? To give you a short answer they’re two distinct grape varieties with a similar but unique flavor profile. The long answer involves genetics, the history of Europe, and world-wide trends.
Origin of Pinot Grigio
Pinot Grigio (also known as Pinot Gris in France) first appeared in the Burgundy region of France. We now believe that Pinot Gris, is in fact a mutation of Pinot Noir the famous red variety from Burgundy. The word Gris is French for gray, and is a reference to this unique grapes blue gray skin hue. Some time between the 12th and 14th century Pinot Gris migrated to Italy via Switzerland. Since then the grape has grown in popularity all around the world with Italy, Switzerland, and Oregon making exceptional versions worth seeking out
Origin of Sauvignon Blanc
Sauvignon Blanc as we know it today originates in the Bordeaux region of France but seems to have appeared in close clonal variation simultaneously in Italy, Spain, Romania, and Moldova at roughly the same time, suggesting it was a wild grape that was recognized for its wine making potential more than it was breed. In fact sauvage is the French word for wild and is believed to be the origins of the grapes name with Blanc meaning white. Since leaving the Bordeaux region Sauvignon Blanc has traveled the world, originally used as a blending grape, but eventually being recognized for its potential as a stand alone variety. Based on where Sauvignon Blanc grapevines have grown, styles and flavors vary. Regions of note include Bordeaux, Napa, South Africa and New Zealand all producing excellent versions of this variety.
Difference in Taste
Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc share a characteristic in acidity. Both varieties are known for there tart, crisp characters, but quickly distinguish themselves from the other. Pinot grigio is known for having a very light body, being pale to almost clear in the glass, and having delicate aromas of white flowers. By contrast Sauvignon Blanc is a medium light bodied wine, that is typically straw yellow or lighter, and is distinguished by it’s ever present tropical fruit character. A quick cheat sheet on the grapes flavor profile is this:
- Light and acidic
- Fruit Flavors: lemon, lime, pear
- Other Flavors: steel, limestone, white flowers
- Wide range of styles most commonly dry
- Excellent wine for pairing with a broad range of foods
- Fruit Flavors: Lime, peach, lychee, melon
- Has more herbaceous aromas such as grass, bell pepper, or jalapenos
- Sauvignon Blanc has more fruit characteristics
Styles of Sauvignon Blanc
Another key distinguishing factor between the two grapes is the breadth of styles Sauvignon Blanc come in. Even within the borders of France, you’ll find a wide range of approaches to wine making with Sauvignon Blanc. In Bordeaux, the grape is often blended with Semillon and to a lesser degree Muscadelle to make the full bodied age worthy whites famous in the area. White Bordeaux accounts for only 10% of the wine from Bordeaux, but it’s rarity makes it some of the most sot after wines in the region. Sauternes famous for producing some of the worlds best and most expensive sweet dessert wines are made using Sauvignon Blanc that has been affected by the noble rot Botrytis cinerea. To the south of Bordeaux lies the village of Sancerre in the Loire Valley. The wines here are 100% Sauvignon Blanc and are distinguished by there flint and stone characteristics. The lime stone hills that climb from the banks of the Loire river, simultaneously impart some of the unique and identifying stone character, while also reflecting light back at the vines leading to fully ripe grapes, capable of making full bodied white wine that still possesses intense acidity. In the United States Robert Mondavi pioneered the fume blanc style of wine, which is made from fully ripe Sauvignon Blanc grapes fermented and aged in oak barrels to increase body, and decrease perceived acidity, resulting in a sweet melon forward creamy style of wine. No discussion of Sauvignon Blanc would be complete without including New Zealand, and to a lesser degree South Africa. These two regions pioneered a lean acid driven tropical fruit mixed with grassy notes style of Sauvignon Blanc that has become a category defining style for the grape. Sauvignon Blanc makes up by far the largest plantings in all of New Zealand, with producers like Oyster Bay producing millions of cases of the versatile wine every vintage.
Styles of Pinot Grigio
There is not quite as much diversity in Pinot Grigio as Sauvignon Blanc, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to explore. Part of the challenge of Pinot Grigio is that ripens quickly and is often the first grapes picked in a harvest. Additionally the aromas of Pinot Grigio are much more delicate and fall victim to oxidation much faster. There is not as much wine making variation with Pinot Grigio due to these factors, but in recent years key regions and producers have distinguished themselves by planting this fast ripener in harsher and colder climates, helping to concentrate the flavors, and increase the amount of hang time (the amount of time the grape is maturing on the vine before harvest) this grape sees. Oregon in particular has had good luck with the grape leading to several producers releasing down right creamy and texturally interesting versions of the grape. By far the most common is still the ubiquitous Italian table wine, that might not be the wine to impress your sommelier friends but is always a safe bet for a crushable picnic wine for pennies on the dollar.
Let Your Nose Tell the Difference
With a little bit of experience and patience anyone can learn to tell the difference between Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc based on smell alone. The great news is that relatively inexpensive versions of both of these wines can be found at your local store. We recommend buying two bottles of Pinot Grigio and two Bottles of Sauvignon Blanc, from different producers, or different regions etc. then setting up a tasting. Try and find common threads and what really distinguishes the grapes. A little cheat sheet to help with this exercise is here:
- Pinot Grigio: Pinot Grigio has a lighter perfume aroma. You’ll most likely smell fresh fruit when sniffing Pinot Grigio, and the aroma will be short lived. Once you’ve taken a sip, check and see if the wine is tart and light, and doesn’t have a lingering aftertaste, if that’s the case, you’ve most likely got a Pinot Grigio (or Pinot Gris if you’ve found a Frenchie).
- Sauvignon Blanc: Sauvignon Blanc is like smelling the fresh cut grass while drinking a Mai Tai. If you take a sip and instantly your salivating from the intense acidity you’ve got yourself a Sauvignon Blanc.
What Foods Can I pair with these Wines?
Part of Pinot Grigio’s success in Italy stems from it being easy to match with most dishes, just as long as it is not acidic or really full bodied liked braised lamb. A glass of Pinot Grigio sits better alongside dishes like pasta, chicken, and light seafood dishes. A great example would be grilled fish with a butter caper sauce. Light but rich. Salty and sweet, with the acidity of Pinot Grigio cleaning palate between bites. Avoid pairing Pinot Grigio with other acidic foods. Pinot Grigio is already an acidic wine and heavy acid foods will simultaneously make the acidic overwhelming and mask the more delicate aspects of the Pinot Grigio.
Depending on the style of Sauvignon Blanc you have will decide what to pair it with. Share a glass of oaked Sauvignon Blanc with roast chicken and green vegetables. For seafood lovers, you’ll be happy to hear that a glass of Sauvignon Blanc goes along great with a plate of shrimp, crab, and oysters. A personal favorite is to pair Thai food with a good New Zealand Sauvignon blanc, allowing the herbaceous character of the cold climate New Zealand wine to compliment the fresh herbs of Thai food, all the while the acidity cutting through the heat of the food, leading to a refreshing and complimentary experience
Again try to avoid pairing Sauvignon Blanc with any meal that is already highly acidic. Avoid young fresh and therfore acidic cheeses like cottage, and feta, choosing instead something like a fruited Stilton for a really fun pairing
Serving These Wines
Pinot Grigio is usually served more chilled than other whites, for a few reasons. Firstly Pinot Grigio is vulnerable to rapid oxidation, and the colder temperature slows the oxidation process. Secondly the cold temperature might reduce some of the more volatile aromas, but cold doesn’t affect perceived acidity or the intense citrus flavors, so the wine is less affected by the cold. We’d still suggest pulling the bottle from the fridge half an hour before serving if it’s been chilled.
Sauvignon Blanc is best served chilled but not cold. The acidity of Sauvignon Blanc can be so intense and bracing that if it’s served very cold, the only flavor that will emerge is the tartness of the acid. Served chilled, the more tropical flavors, and nuanced aspects of these wines will present themselves. A classic pairing is fresh oysters and Sauvignon Blanc.