What’s the Difference Between Pinot Gris (Grigio) and Pinot Noir?

Difference Between Pinot Grigio and Pinot Noir

It is an easy assumption to make when learning about grapes and wine that if the word Pinot is in the title, that the wines must be related. To some degree that assumption is correct, but very quickly the Noir, Meunier, Gris, and Blanc’s distinguish themselves, much like you from your cousins. This article in particular is interested in Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris (also called Pinot Grigio), and there relationship, history, and distinguishing characteristics.

The History of Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir has an incredible history dating back to antiquity, with some of the earliest references being attributed to the court of Charlemagne in the 800’s. There are many origin stories, but the most commonly accepted version for the name Pinot (pine in French) and Noir (black) is that the grape clusters that Pinot Noir and its cousins grow in are small tightly packed grapes that resemble a small pine cone.

The Noir, Gris, and Blanc are simply additional classifiers that farmers, and monks of old, who had no understanding of genetic mutation, would observe. In fact this proclivity for genetic mutation has lead to the various Pinot family members as well as a shocking number of clones, a term that denotes the same grape variety (i.e. Pinot Noir) but is genetically distinct and as such has distinct characteristics.

A good example would be the Dijon clone of Pinot Noir, vs. the Pommard clone. Both are Pinot Noir grapes, and Dijon and Pommard are both villages in Burgundy, but the grape mutates so easily that these two villages only 5oish km apart produce distinctly different Pinot Noir vines, and therefore wines.

Pinot Noirs rise to importance and fame begins in Burgundy when Cistercian monks began keeping meticulous records of their farming. Committed to religious excellence and not financial gain, the monks of old created a cult like following to the notoriously difficult to grow grape. This devotion persists to this day, as do the challenges of growing the grape.  This devotion has sent the fickle Pinot Noir grape to unlikely areas as far flung as New Zealand and Chile.

The grape thrives in cool climates where it’s slow ripening can really be a benefit, but it is prone to issues with water, mold, insects and delivering on flavor and yield. A good Pinot Noir can make a true believer of the harshest critic, while a bad version will make a harsh critic for sure.

See this full overview of Pinot Noir for more tasting notes.

The History of Pinot Gris

On the other hand Pinot Grigio is a mutation of the original Pinot Noir grape, and can be identified by its distinctive blue-grey skin. The grape is grown all over the world with particular importance in Oregon, Australia, and most of all Italy. Italy is responsible for the name change to Grigio which is a Italianized version of the word Gris.

Don’t believe me, ask an Italian what Grigio means and the response will inevitably be “The wine?”

The predominant distinction between Pinot Gris (think French) and Pinot Grigio (think Italian) is a stylistic one, not a grape difference.

Compared to its cousin, Pinot Gris is a relatively easy grape to grow, being an early ripener, and often one of the first grapes to be picked, yielding the first wines ready to be consumed from a vintage. This has lead to some of the degrading of the grapes reputation, as many viticulturist don’t spend as much time with a grape they consider cheap table wine. The reward for the careful farmer though is a grape capable of really interesting and unique flavors.

If there is in fact a common thread between the Pinot family it would be this idea. Treat it well and get a remarkable treat in return.

Winemaking

Pinot Gris

To make Pinot Gris, the juice from the Pinot Gris grape is pressed off it’s skin and rachis yielding a light straw colored juice. The wine can also be made as a Rose, simply by allowing the juice to remain in contact with the skins prior to fermentation. This yields a pinkish orange rose that’s known for its citrus flavors.

Pinot Gris can be made sweet or dry, but you can always anticipate a healthy amount of acid in the wine, due to it’s early ripening time.

Once finished with primary fermentation style will dictate choices like if the the wine goes through malolactic fermentation, or if the wine spends time in an oak barrel. It would be uncommon for the Pinot Grigio style to undergo either of these steps, but the world is the winemakers oyster with the Gris approach.

Pinot Gris is more capable of aging than it’s Grigio counterpart, but few winemakers would make the choice to age the wine for extended periods due to its vulnerability to oxidation. Bright and fresh is the name of the game in the Pinot Gris/Grigio world.

Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir is notoriously difficult in the vineyard, and brings that prima donna attitude into the winery as well. The small tight clusters of grapes, often times hide pockets of mold and mildew making it impossible for even the most seasoned picker to sort in the field.

Often wineries will have long sorting tables, called shaker tables, where the grapes will be sent after being knocked off the rachis by a destemmer machine. Workers will hand sort through individual berries looking for pea’s (tiny green underripe berries) or shots (large overripe or even split open grapes) as well as mold and mildew. The grapes will then be sent into a fermenting vessel.

In large scale wineries these might be huge stainless steel tanks, or in a boutique winery these might be dozens of small open top bins. These vessels will be inoculated (have yeast added) either by addition of re hydrated commercial yeast or by the wild yeast floating around in the air. Fermentation will be considered complete, when all the sugar is consumed.

There is such a thing as sweet Pinot Noir, but it is rare enough to not warrant a lot of though here and now. This dry wine is now ready to be pressed and barrel aged. Some winemakers will choose to do what is called extended maceration, which is when a no longer fermenting wine remains in contact with the skins for purpose of color and tannin extraction.

As trends have leaned towards fuller bodied versions of the wine this process has become more and more common. Winemakers will remove the finished wine from the fermenting vessel, calling this juice that is easily separated from the grapes free run, typically setting this aside for special consideration. The remaining juice, grapes, and detritus will be put in to a press and squeezed until all the desired wine has been extracted.

Red wines, almost without exception, go through malolactic fermentation. This process can take months to finish, after which time aging will begin.

Pinot Noir is very susceptible to oxidation so most winemakers will continually top up the barrels as evaporation concentrates the flavors, but leaves room for oxidation and mold to begin growing on the top of the wine. Winemakers will age Pinot Noir in barrel anywhere from a year to 3 or so before making the decision to bottle.

An additional note on Pinot Noir. It is very common to see a vineyard name called out on a bottle of Pinot Noir. There is a strong argument to be made that Pinot Noir more than almost any other grape reflects the place it is grown. The term for this is Terroir, and in theory it encompasses lots of things like soil, and sun light, the vintage and the wind.

It is an ephemeral idea that few winemakers would define the same way, but is intricately associated with Pinot Noir. Much of this history dates back to those original monks, keeping careful records, and grafting the strongest Pinot Noir vines into their strongest vineyards, resulting in dozens and dozens of different sites, potentially all located on the same farm being distinguished and separated for wine making.

This same level of intense attention continues to this day, with some winemakers going so far as to call out the clone, block, and vineyard of their Pinot Noir. There is no end to the depths of nerdom for serious Pinot Noir fans.

Identifying and enjoying Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris

Outside of the obvious, one is white and one is red, nature of these two grapes, there are many similarities in flavor in the finished wines

The Difference in Taste:

Pinot Gris

Pinot Gris is noted for it’s high acid and delicate flavors. Higher end versions of this wine will present with white flowers and spices on top of the ever present lime component. Some of Italy’s best versions are noted for their steely and limestone character.

Less expensive versions are some of the greatest table wines in the world, being light easy drinking and completely crushable. The wines won’t age particularly well even with the high level of acid and low alcohol. The utter lack of any tannin results in a highly susceptible wine, that will turn the wine into an almond aroma then vinegar in very short order.

The lack of tannin and high acid also lends to a misconception the Pinot Gris is always a very light bodied wine. On a scale of skim milk to cream, inexpensive Pinot Grigio is often water. Exceptional versions of this wine though can have a light but present body, with a distinct oily characteristic that has lead some geneticists to wonder if the grape has some ties to Riesling, also noted for it’s oily nature.

Pinot Noir

If Cabernet Sauvignon is the bold and powerful King of Wine, that would make Pinot Noir the delicate and attractive Prince. Similarly to Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir is noted for being naturally high in acid and low in tannin.

Both grapes can be painfully simple in their least expensive table versions, and profoundly complex in their best.

Where Pinot Noir really distinguishes itself is in it’s age ability and it’s inherent fruit characteristic. Skin and stem contact, as well as time in barrel provide Pinot Noir the requisite tannin necessary to age.

In its infancy this tannin can quickly over power the more delicate rose water, lavender, and cherry aromas in the wine, but as time chips away at those tannins, the wine can settle into deep flavors of baking spice, cola, as well as perfume and plum.

Pinot Noir can really shine when properly paired with food, as the acidity in this red wine will help to brighten flavors and cut through fat.

A quick cheat sheet for encountering these wines in the wild:

Pinot Gris

  • Light-bodied
  • Fruity/tangy fragrance
  • Main Ingredient: 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
  • Light

Pinot Noir

  • Medium-bodied
  • Heavily perfumed
  • Scents of earth, spices, and cherries
  • High acidity
  • Ages well
  • Expensive

What to Eat Alongside These Wines

Properly pairing your food and your wine is often intimidating and seemingly pretentious, but it doesn’t have to be. So for those of you who are getting ready for that big party, here’s what you should know when it comes to serving Pinot Grigio and Pinot Noir at parties.

Pinot Gris

Pinot Gris lends itself to dishes like pasta, chicken, and light seafood dishes. Foods with a more buttery and creamy aftertaste will be brightened by the high acidity and lemon aspect, lightening the dishes and cleaning the palate between bites.

Other great options for Pinot Gris (and Grigio) include cheese and meat boards or fruit platters. Try to avoid pairing Pinot Grigio with acidic foods like feta and other fresh cheeses as Pinot Grigio is already acidic and the combination will result in acid on acid.

Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir is a favorite of foodies and wino’s alike for it’s favorable aspects when it comes to pairings. The wine, particularly from cool climates, is light and acidic enough to pair with some seafood, while it’s more robust versions can easily stand up to the signature dish of it’s ancestral home, Beef Bourgogne.

The trick in pairing Pinot Noir with any dish is knowing what your getting into. With some many factors affecting how Pinot Noir tastes we would recommend buying two bottles. Use one to enjoy. See when does the wine open up it’s best. Was it ready to go right after pulling the cork or did it need a little time.

If it’s hot outside try throwing the bottle in the fridge for 15 mins to cool it down, helping to tame some of the acidity and making the wine more accessible. Figure out what Pinot Noir your working with, and when it was it’s most enjoyable and then work from there.

A favorite pairing of ours is Cajun food and Pinot Noir. It might not seem like an immediate match with the seafood not having the animal fat necessary to calm the savage tannins, but remember Pinot Noir when properly aged is going to be a light tannin wine. The acidity will cut through the heavy spice, and the cherry’s and floral aspects of the wine perfectly compliment the sweet spicy nature of Creole cooking.

Alcohol Content Rate

Pinot Gris

Its a safe bet to think of Pinot Gris as a low alcohol wine. It’s early ripening nature means it rarely develops enough sugars to yield a high alcohol wine, and acidity is the goal with Pinot Gris so winemakers rarely let the grape get over ripe.

Take your Pinot Gris out of the fridge a half hour before serving so wine-tasters can really taste the more nuanced flavors. Alcohol level ranges from 10ish percent in it’s Italian version to the low 13’s in the US and Australia. About 122 calories are in each glass.

Pinot Noir

The alcohol content of Pinot Noir varies widely depending on where it was grown. Cool climate and old world version will typically be lower, coming in around 11 to 12% while warmer climate versions in CA and Chile can result in fruitier version well into the 14% range. About 120 calories are in each glass.

Celebrate International Pinot Noir Day

That’s right, Pinot Noir has its very own holiday dedicated to the international red wine. It is on August 18th and the best way to celebrate is grab a glass Pinot Noir and drink up, Be sure to have a glass of wine with friends and family as all wine is made better by good company. Two Old Friends can attest to that.