Pinot Grigio Hits The Right Notes
What’s the difference between Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio, besides one being French and one being Italian?
Ed King knows the answer, and he’s neither French nor Italian. King is CEO and founder of King Estate Winery, which is credited with bringing Pinot Gris into the national consciousness.
His winery is the largest North American producer of Pinot Gris. Based in Eugene, in Western Oregon, it has been making the wine since its first vintage in 1992, from vines from Oregon and California.
“I think most Americans don’t know what Pinot Gris is, but if they tried it, they’d like it. I think Americans like this wine because it’s good with food, it’s consistent, and you don’t have to make excuses for it. There are so many wines that have something else going on other than grapes, but this one is so simple and straightforward. It’s a very clean, refreshing wine.”
Pinot Gris has been produced for much longer in Europe, not surprisingly. It originated in Burgundy, France, but vintners there soon realized that Chardonnay grapes and their terroir were a better match, and now the Alsace region of France and regions in northern Italy are the main producers.
Pinot Gris and the Italian Pinot Grigio wines are both made from the same grape, but are produced in very different styles.
In Italy the grapes are grown in the northern regions, especially the Tre Venezie region (Verona, Trentino-Alto Adige, and Friuli-Venezia Giulia).
“These wines are extremely minerally,” says Sharon Sevrens, owner of Amanti Vino wine shop in Montclair, New Jersey. “There are areas when the vines grow deep into the soil and the earthiness gets deep into the wine.”
Pinot Grigio grapes are harvested early so wines made from them are crisp and less fruity, with high acidity and very low levels of sugar. They’re particularly light wines, often popular in summer months.
The wine is “clean and clear and something people can ease into the night with,” says Christopher Riendeau, a certified sommelier who’s opening his own wine bar, Napa East, this summer in Nashua, New Hampshire.
“It’s perfect as an aperitif and does lend itself to other flavors, as it has a neutral nose and works in harmony with other foods,” he says.
Pinot Gris wines are less well known and are quite different from their Italian counterparts. Grapes for these wines are mostly grown in Alsace as well as in Oregon, California, and increasingly, Washington state.
“Overall for the U.S. we see more Gris because the climate is warmer so the grapes get riper,” Sevrens explains.
Grapes used for Pinot Gris hang on the vine for much longer than their Italian counterparts, with the result that the acidity decreases and the sugar increases to produce a much fruitier wine. These wines are also much darker in color than Pinot Grigios and are more full-bodied.
King Estate’s Pinot Gris style — in fact Oregon’s Pinot Gris style — is close to the style in Alsace. What’s different, King says, is that Alsatian wines are produced to age and Oregon’s are made to be drunk soon.
“Alsatians realize that the wines soften in time. [King Estate’s] style is one that I think is probably more pleasing to the American palate — it’s a very clean, refreshing style. You don’t get hit in the face with oak; you don’t get hit with musty and earthy flavors.”
But in fact, King himself is very pro aging. He even recommends consumers let his wines age for between five and eight years. “The wines become more delicate as the acidity softens. They become more drinkable. The floral notes on the nose become more pronounced.”
Because Pinot Gris is relatively unknown and because many consumers are unaware that Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio are the same grape, restaurants should ensure their sommelier or servers are well versed in the differences between Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio, Sevrens says.
And it’s important to always have a Pinot Grigio on your menu, she adds. “People are pretty confident with Pinot Grigio and consider it a safe choice. They sometimes don’t want to think about what they’re drinking.”
Riendeau also believes it’s a good idea to have a Pinot Grigio on the menu. “It stimulates the palate and gets your mouth watering and ready for the things coming,” he points out.
He advises having a Pinot Grigio and a Pinot Gris on the menu year round because they’re uncomplicated, reasonably priced and don’t present many surprises. But he says that Pinot Grigio is particularly accessible in the spring and summer “because of its light flavors and crispness.”
Smith & Wollensky, the national chain of nine restaurants, sells Pinot Grigio mostly by the glass for $10 to $12.
Bottle sales come in fits and starts, says national beverage director Stuart Roy. Bottle sales tend to happen when Pinot Gris or Grigio works well as an appetizer drink for a table of four, who will then move on to a red wine with their entrée.
Pinot Gris tends to be favored by guests who have a little more wine knowledge, he adds.
Pinot Grigio is the second most popular wine at Oliverio Restaurant at the Avalon Hotel in Beverly Hills, the top wine being Sauvignon Blanc.
“Our dining is poolside, so it’s very conducive to white wine drinking,” says Bill Haig, restaurant manager. “People drink it with everything and certainly with their dinner. It’s always popular, especially with the ladies, because it’s an easy drinking white wine and it’s light.”
Oliverio also sells much more Pinot Grigio by the glass than by the bottle. It carries two, both from Italy: Ca Donini, which is $8 per glass ($32 per bottle) and Jermann, which is $13 for a glass and $52 by the bottle. Jermann is selling slightly better right now, Haig says. “People want to experiment with wines by the glass.”
Customers tend to know less about Pinot Gris, so it’s less popular, Haig explains. “I try to get my wine purveyors to come in regularly to give classes to my staff because I think a lot of diners want guidance with their wine.
“For my staff to have knowledge about wine it’s easy to give them a few selling points and I think with wines like Pinot Gris you need a few bullet points to let guests know about them. And people love to find a new wine.”
The situation is similar at fine dining restaurant Gilt at the New York Palace Hotel, in Manhattan, which features one Italian Pinot Grigio and one Alsatian Pinot Gris on its menu.
“Pinot Grigio is more a wine people have when they don’t want to think about wine,” says wine director Patrick Cappiello. “It still has kept the same allure that it had 10 or 20 years ago. It’s one of my biggest-selling white wines by the glass, especially outside in the courtyard. It’s good and it’s affordable. These are reliable grapes, reliable wines for these people.”
Bottles of Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio sell rarely, but Cappiello believes that customers buying wine by the bottle in Gilt tend to be serious wine connoisseurs who “stick their nose up at Pinot Grigio.”
Gilt’s Pinot Gris comes from Domaine Ostertag in Alsace. Cappiello describes it as “toasty, nutty, and it’s well balanced and is a great companion for richer dishes.” It pairs well with the restaurant’s dish of nori-crusted shrimp in a rich fish-based consommé. “The richness of this wine stays with it, and the acidity helps carry it through.”
Cappiello acknowledges that Pinot Gris is not one of the fastest-moving wines by the glass, but it does seem to be liked by wine aficionados who are eager to learn more about less mainstream varietals. But he tries to regularly remind servers about it, and when they talk it up, he sees immediate sales increases.
Pinot Grigio and Pinot Gris might not be the best-selling wines on every menu, but they could be soon. As consumers learn more about wine and want more information from their server, the next boom time could be coming to Oregon.
Wine cocktails have been around for a long time in the form of sangria, kir, and mulled and spiced wines.
Pinot Grigio and Pinot Gris might make good sipping wines, but they are also good ingredients in a cocktail, especially Pinot Grigio, says Tim Hanni, a master of wine and certified wine educator, accredited by the Society of Wine Educators.
“Historically, wine cocktails were blended to hide inferior wines, and often Pinot Grigio was used,” he says. “But today you just need a neutral base, and Pinot Grigio is that. You’re not looking for the elements of oak and so on.”
Pinot Grigio’s high acidity works well because it’s blended down with a cocktail, he explains. “The great thing about a cocktail is you have the freedom to develop the whole flavor profile.”
Hanni advises restaurants to use a Pinot Grigio that they’d serve on its own for cocktails because it’s important to start with good-quality ingredients, “especially since it’s going to be the base of something—but not off the charts in terms of expense.”
Pinot Gris also works well for a cocktail. Depending on the recipe that you’re using, you may not get a real distinguishable difference, he points out.
Pinot Grigio is a good wine for a very simple cocktail: The kir royale, a mixture of white wine and Crème de Cassis liqueur, says Sharon Sevrens, of Amanti Vino wine shop.
“Kir is typically made with Aligoté and Cassis, but Aligoté is similar to Pinot Grigio—it’s not very fruity, has some minerality and acidity. I think Pinot Grigio would work great and much better than Pinot Gris because you want something that’s not going to impart a ton of flavor.”
Chris Riendeau also uses Pinot Grigio in simple cocktails.
“When you’re mixing it with spirits, fruits and reductions, different herbs, it lends that acidity,” he says.
He uses it in a white sangria with Cold River Blueberry Vodka, which is made from Maine potatoes and macerated Maine blueberries. “I like to put that with Pinot Grigio to lift the acidity levels—the Pinot Grigio is what’s bringing the acid and citrus profile to the table.”
Another drink features Pinot Grigio with the blueberry vodka, vanilla simple syrup, some muddled blueberries and a splash of club soda. “Blueberry and vanilla go well together, and the simple syrup brings a little richness,” he says.
Club soda or something else sparkling works well with Pinot Grigio, he adds, because the bubbles accentuate the minerality of the wines, as well as the apple and pear flavors they often reveal.
Sales of the three Pinot Grigio cocktails at the two Flex Mussels restaurants in New York are good year-round but stronger during warmer months, says manager Daryl Swetz.
The Flex Fruit Basket, which contains Pinot Gris, grapes, simple syrup, lemon juice, and lychee juice, is most popular as an aperitif. The restaurant’s other two Pinot Gris cocktails are Sweet Lightning (Pinot Gris, ginger ale, and Liquid Lightning Energy Drink) and Flexible Schedule (Pinot Gris, cucumber, basil, simple syrup, sparkling water, and lemon juice).
Both Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio are perfect for cocktails, Swetz says. “They tend to be consistently light and fruity, which creates a blank canvas for so many seasonal flavors and cocktail ingredients.”
The drinks pair well with the restaurant’s signature pot of mussels, he says, but are also both drunk as aperitifs. “However, I try to encourage customers to try one before dinner because the crispness of the wine really opens up the palate before they sit down to eat,” he says.
Champagne and vermouth also lend themselves well to cocktails, Swetz says, but he gets a good profit margin of around 35 percent with Pinot Grigio. He uses A to Z Wineworks 2009 Pinot Gris for the cocktails.