What’s the distinction between Pinot Grigio and Pinot Gris? No, seriously, what is the difference? Sitting side by side, they look like they could be twins. They’re made from the same grape and at the lower end of the price spectrum can seem indistinguishable so why the name difference and how did we get here.
Origins of Pinot Gris
Pinot Gris is important to start with as is was the original variation of the name. As previously stated Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio are in fact the same grape. We now know that Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir are genetically very similar. Pinot Gris is typically a blue grey color (hence the Gris, meaning grey in French) and can be made into a rose that is light orange pink or the more common light white wine. The grape will occasionally appear as brown, or even white, speaking to the easy mutative character of the Pinot family of grapes. Pinot Gris is the first appearance of the white grape , being discovered in the middle ages. Originally called Fromenteau and grown in the Burgundy region, it is rumored to have been blended with Pinot Blanc, and Aligote to make the house white wine of Charlemagne King of the Francs in the 800’s. His wife Hildegard hated how red wine stained his beard so she asked for a white wine to be prepared for the king. In time Pinot Gris would lose out in popularity to Chardonnay in the Burgundy region due to a series of band vintages, and the ease of growing Chardonnay relative to Pinot Gris. By the 1300’s Pinot Gris’s popularity was migrating out of France and into Switzerland, where it was the preferred wine of the Emperor. The Alps region of Italy soon embraced the grape and mutated it’s pronunciation into the Italianized Pinot Grigio. The grape quickly spread and is now the predominant table wine grape of Italy. More than a grape the name Pinot Gris has come to represent a style. Particularly in the Alsace region of France, Pinot Gris has created a niche for itself. Alsace, a region as German as it is French, has been inspired and affected by both traditions. This has lead to a blending of wine making styles that results in a wine that is frequently higher in ABV, has a more rich and pronounced aroma, and has a distinct oily characteristic that it shares with it’s clonal cousin Pinot Blanc. Interesting enough to make this style, a cool climate is necessary to allow the quick ripening variety to spend extra time on the vine, developing these more intense and rounded flavors. This is partly why the first plantings of this grape variety happened in Oregon by David Lett of Eyrie Vineyards. In 1965 Lett planted the grape, but struggled to find room in the wine market for the grape. Fast forward to 1991 and King Estate, another Oregon winery, is started with the distinct mission of creating room in the US market for the grape and more specifically the style.
Origins of Pinot Grigio
Pinot Grigio has come to represent a specific style more than it does a grape. The Pinot Grigio style of wine starts in Italy, where it was planted in warmer climates and ripened quickly, resulting in a light white wine, that was refreshing, with low ABV, low residual sugar, and a bright acidity reminiscent of lemons. This style of table wine was inexpensive and rapidly grew in popularity. Additionally some of the agricultural challenges that the grape faced in cooler climates like Burgundy were negated in Italy’s Mediterranean climate, making it a popular grape to plant among the Italian farmers. This style of lean citrus driven wines has become the calling card of Pinot Grigio. This style has become very popular in a variety of places, including CA where the grape is much more commonly identified as Pinot Grigio than Pinot Gris. This style of refreshing, chug-able white wine gained in popularity through the 1970’s and into the 1980s’s with producer like Franzia and other box wine producers preferring the grape. Much of the confusion about Pinot Grigio as a fine wine stems from this history as a bulk wine in the late 20th century.
How do These Two Wines Contrast in Production
Pinot Gris varies in style among winemakers, but can safely be assumed to be a fuller bodied and more viscous style of wine. Pinot Gris is typically picked later in the season, and more frequently grown in cold climates. This allows the grapes to hang on the vine longer, developing more flavor ripeness, without converting to much acid to sugar, resulting in full flavor and mouth feel without losing acidity. Pinot Gris is frequently pressed with it’s stems (also called rachis) to help the riper grapes yield better volumes. Unlike its more tart counterpart, Pinot Gris frequently goes through malolactic fermentation (a bacterial fermentation that converts malic acid into lactic acid) resulting in a creamier less citrus character. Curiously as Pinot Gris loses its citrus aspect, flavors of white pepper and clove emerge, a character famous from the wines of Alsace.
Pinot Grigio is typically picked early, often being the first fruit to come into the winery each harvest. After primary fermentation, which in this style often happens in stainless steel tanks, or neutral concrete vessels, this wine typically does not under go malolactic fermentation. Rather these wines quickly move through cold stabilization and bottlingto preserve the bright citrus character and catch as much of the young vibrant character as possible. Pinot Grigio is regularly the first wines of a vintage to be ready, right along side Rose, a style of Pinot Grigio that can be made simply by allowing the juice to come into extended contact with the blue gray skins. Frequently it is ready by late winter or early spring.
What is the Difference in Taste
Pinot Gris is typically a more fruit expressive version of the grape. As the grapes get riper, more and more spice characteristics become present, including cinnamon, clove, and Chinese 5 spice. Ripe pear, lychee, and guava are common. Additionally some of the more earthy fruit characteristics like mango are more common.
Pinot Grigio has a more crisp taste. It is a light-bodied wine that is clean and vibrant. There is a hint of citrus flavors in the taste and frequently shows metalic, and stone characteristics. An aroma of green melon is very normal.
A cheat sheet for Pinot Grigio and Pinot Gris
- Fruity/tangy fragrance
- Primary character: Citrus
- Flavors: Apple and Pears
- Three Types of Pinot Grigio: Dry and mineral, Dry and fruity, sweet and fruity
- Made from grayish-blue grapes
- Tart and light flavor
- Vibrant fruit
- Silky texture
What to Eat Alongside These Wines
Like, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Gris works with a wide variety of foods. However, Pinot Gris has a richer texture and more spice driven flavor meaning it’s less straightforward.. Eat meals like rabbit stew, chicken casserole, and hard cheeses. A personal favorite is to pair Pinot Gris with Indian food. The deep aromas that depend on heavy spice are lifted and brightened by the acidity, while the richness of slow cooking that complex flavors are complemented by the oily baking spice character of Pinot Gris.
It’s better to have a glass of Pinot Grigio with dishes like pasta, chicken, and light seafood dishes. Foods with a more buttery and creamy aftertaste work great. Make a nice mushroom risotto with a little hard Italian cheese and a fresh young Pinot Grigio and you’re set. Avoid pairing Pinot Grigio with intensely acidic foods as the two will have a cumulative effect resulting in a mouth full of acid and little else.
Serving Pinot Grigio and Pinot Gris
Pinot Grigio does not age particularly well and is intended to be drank within two years of getting bottled. If the vintage date is more than a year or so old be wary, even with that crazy good price. It’s crazy good for an oxidized reason. Might be ok to cook with, but that hot date deserves better. Instead look for a less expensive import that is close to the same year your buying it and serve that Pinot Grigio cold as a starter wine. Pinot Grigio can be served cold because its flavors have a tendency to lean to tart and acidic, and won’t necessarily be negatively affected by the temperature. It’s intended to be a summer drink refresher so wait for a nice hot day, grab a moderately priced bottle of Pinot Grigio and find a shady tree to lean against while reading a book. The alcohol won’t be enough to affect you negatively, and someone will be eager to join you.
Lucky for everyone Pinot Gris ages better than it’s counterpart. It’s good for 2-5 years from its vintage, but we’d still advise consuming it early. Pinot Gris also tastes best chilled, so we’d recommend pulling the bottle from the fridge 30 mins before serving. Giving it a chance to warm up a touch will bring out those spice notes and let you fully enjoy all the interesting but delicate flavors. Served to cold and the oily character will overwhelm the wines more nuanced characteristics, leaving you with a ho hum experience. Pinot Gris as previously mentioned is a great food wine, so take the time to cook a little something to go with it to really enjoy the wine. Another personal favorite is linguine with shrimp in a butter sauce with herbs and black pepper, finished with some lemon. Straight forward honest food, for a straightforward honest wine.