An Overview of Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio

overview of pinot gris grigio

Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio

Same grape – different taste! Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio are two different names for the same grape.  In France, where it originated in the Alsace region, this grape is called Pinot Gris and in Italy it is referred to as Pinot Grigio.

They are both a white mutation of the Pinot family. Gris meaning “grey”, which refers to the color the clusters turn when they are ripening.

History

Pinot Gris has been known since the Middle Ages in the Burgundy region, where it was probably called Fromenteau. It spread from Burgundy, along with Pinot Noir, arriving in Switzerland by 1300. The grape was reportedly a favorite of the Emperor Charles IV, who had cuttings imported to Hungary by Cistercian monks: the brothers planted the vines on the slopes of Badacsony bordering Lake Balaton in 1375. The vine soon after developed the name Szürkebarát meaning “grey monk.” In 1711, a German merchant, named Johann Seger Ruland discovered a grape growing wild in the fields of the Palatinate. The subsequent wine he produced became known as Ruländer and the vine was later discovered to be Pinot Gris.

Until the 18th and 19th century, the grape was a popular planting in Burgundy and Champagne but poor yields and unreliable crops caused the grape to fall out of favor in those areas. The same fate nearly occurred in Germany, but growers in the early 20th century were able to develop clonal varieties that would produce a more consistent and reliable crop.

Researchers at the University of California, Davis, have determined that Pinot Gris has a remarkably similar DNA profile to Pinot Noir and that the color difference is derived from a genetic mutation that occurred centuries ago. The leaves and the vines of both grapes are so similar that the coloration is the only aspect that differentiates the two.

Santa Margherita wine group, a wine producer located in the north of Italy, has been the first company in the world in 1961 to vinify pink Pinot Grigio grapes as a white wine.

Around 2005, Pinot Gris was enjoying increasing popularity in the marketplace, especially in its Pinot Grigio incarnation and similar styles coming from other parts of the world.

Where it’s grown

Pinot Grigio

Pinot Grigio is grown in the Northeastern part of Italy. Specifically: Veneto, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Collio and Trentino-Alto Adige. The grape makes up 150,000 acres worldwide, with 60,500 being grown in Italy. Of that amount, about 60,000 acres are in the Northeast of Italy.

That region of Italy has a cooler climate. The best areas for Pinot Grigio are select parts of Friuli and Alto Adige, the finest growing zones for white wine in Italy. These steep vineyards have sharp day-night temperature changes that generate complexity and aromas.

The zones also benefit from microclimates generated by their vicinity to the Julian Alps and the Adriatic Sea. The mountains protect the vineyards from harsh winter storms, while the Adriatic’s warm breezes encourage ripening.

Due to its massive popularity and demand, Pinot Grigio is growing in regions of North America, Australia, New Zealand and South America, as well.

Pinot Gris

Pinot Gris is grown in the Alsace region of France. The grape is regarded as one of the region’s ‘noble’ white wine grapes. Its ability to reach high alcohol levels makes it a candidate for the region’s most respected wines.

The natural barrier of the Vosges range protects the vineyards and contributes to the climate.

On one hand it limits the oceanic influences and accentuates the climate with very hot summers and cold winters. The degree of temperatures favorable to vines (above 50 degrees during the growing season) are therefore reinforced.

On the other hand, the strong winds from the west give abundant rainfall on the western slopes of the Vosges which become dry winds upon arriving on the vineyards. The low amount of annual rain, reduces the risks of rots which allows for less vineyard management.

Finally, the Alsace climate is distinct due to the alternation of hot days and chilly night during the autumn, perfect conditions for slow and extended grape ripening. This longer growing season will increase the sugars in the grape.This allows the development of complex aromas and maintains a ripe acidity and a bit of sweetness, which provides freshness to the wines.

Much more Pinot Gris is grown out of the Alsace region. The U.S. leads with about 32% of the worlds’ vineyards compared to 24% in France. Oregon outgrows other states, with Washington and California next. New Zealand comes in at 18%. Pinot Gris is the third most planted white grape in that country.

Since it isn’t as popular as Pinot Grigio, it is very difficult to find “Vins de Alsace” style Pinot Gris in the grocery store.  You will want to consult a wine shop for any quality domestic producers.

The Wines

Pinot Grigio

Pinot Grigio is the more widely popular wine of the two.

Italian winemakers harvest Pinot Grigio before it reaches full ripeness. Therefore, acids are retained and you get a crisp, refreshing wine.

The Pinot Grigio flavor profile includes lemon-lime, apple, and pear, or stone fruit factors like peach and apricot—especially in warmer climates. Also found are almond, baking spices, or honeysuckle.

To keep the freshness, Pinot Grigio is fermented and aged in stainless steel tanks. The use of barrel fermentation would add palate weight and vanilla aromas—not in keeping with the clean and simple style, plus, also keeps the cost down.  Pinot Grigio wine is almost always meant to be enjoyed within a year or two of harvest.

Pinot Grigio pairs well with antipasti, light seafood dishes, shellfish, light chicken dishes and sushi.

Of the two grapes, Pinot Grigio is consumed more widely outside of Italy. Only 2% of the Pinot Grigio produced in Italy remains in Italy, the rest is exported.  It is very popular in the U.S., the U.K. and Australia.

Pinot Gris

Although sometimes used as a blending grape, Pinot Gris is usually produced as a varietal wine. Flavors and aromas vary greatly from region to region and from style to style. But common features include notes of pears, apples, stonefruit, tropical fruit, sweet spices and even a hint of smoke or wet wool.

Most winemakers avoid obvious oak character in their Pinot Gris, but some use older more neutral barrels for fermentation. For weightier, more complex styles of Pinot Gris, lees contact and partial malolactic fermentation are commonly used. Sweet late-harvest wines are also common.

The use of neutral oak and other techniques have become more of the style of Pinot Gris outside of France. When the grapes are harvested, they crush them to sit on the skins for 8 to 24 hours to increase the fruit and some acidity. Compared to the French style of no skin contact.

Stainless steel is still used for primary fermentation, but neutral or old oak barrel aging for 6-10 months has become commonplace. A neutral barrel will not introduce oak characteristics, just oxygen to soften the acidity of the wine.

Malolactic fermentation (ML) is when the natural malic acids found in the wine will be converted to lactic acid, which results in a creamy or buttery finish. This process can be stopped at any time.

Wine makers that have 100% ML, will over power the fruit and acidity of the wine. So Pinot Gris only goes through about 25% ML at the most.

So the final product of all of this tinkering is more of a full bodied wine, which is fruit forward on the palate and a clean medium acidic finish.

Quick Taste Comparison

Pinot Grigio typical flavors: Green apple, pear, lemon/lime, sometimes peach notes. Typical acidity: Crisp to very sharp

Pinot Gris typical flavors: Pears, apples, tropical fruit, stonefruit, sweetness, sometimes warm spices.

Typical acidity: medium to crisp

In-Depth Varietal Comparisons

If you have any experience with Pinot Gris or Pinot Grigio then you may find some of these comparison pieces interesting, helpful, and educational.

Differences Between Pinot Gris/Grigio & Chardonnay
Differences Between Pinot Gris/Grigio & Sauvignon Blanc
Differences Between Pinot Gris/Grigio & Pinot Noir
► Differences Between Pinot Gris/Grigio & Moscato
► Differences Between Pinot Gris/Grigio & Riesling


♦ Questions Our Readers Have About Pinot Gris

Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio both make excellent light-bodied and refreshing wines which are perfect for slowly sipping outside on a hot day.

Readers of our site however do have a number of additional questions regarding this style of wine and we have published a good deal of content devoted to addressing these questions completely. You can see all of these posts listed below.

Is Pinot Grigio Dry or Sweet?
Is Pinot Grigio and Pinot Gris The Same Thing?
What to Look For in a Good Pinot Grigio
What Does Pinot Grigio Pair With?