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Pinot grigio is one of the most divisive grapes in the world of wine. Its devotees are die-hard enthusiasts, many of whom eschew other varieties altogether, but its detractors are vocal. How can popular opinion be so split on one of the best-selling wines on the planet? Well, think about vanilla ice cream. If you pick up a pint from a large national brand at your local convenience store, it’s likely to be pretty bland and uninteresting—not actively bad, but merely fine. But a scoop of fresh homemade vanilla bean from your favorite local creamery can be complex, delightful and perhaps even revelatory.
Wine follows a similar principle: If you go with the mass-produced option, you’ll likely be underwhelmed. But if you choose the right regions and producers, you’ll be on your way to an outstanding pinot grigio experience.
Pinot grigio, commonly known as pinot gris in Francophone countries, is Italian for gray pinot. This name comes from the color of the grape skins, which are actually pink rather than gray, but it makes sense when you think of it as being in between pinot bianco/blanco (white pinot) and pinot nero/noir (black pinot). In fact, all of these varieties are naturally occurring color mutations of the same grape.
Thoughtful vineyard management is a necessary component of producing great pinot grigio. When yields are kept low and grapes are allowed to ripen fully, the wines are bright, crisp and refreshing, with vibrant lemon-lime citrus notes alongside other fruits like peach, apricot, green apple and melon. These flavors and aromas are often accompanied by a floral perfume of jasmine and honeysuckle. Italian versions of pinot grigio often have a hint of almond skin in their profiles. In some regions, like Alsace, the finest wines can even develop some elegant toasty, smoky and biscuity notes with a bit of bottle age.
Pinot grigio’s bad rap comes from the inexpensive bulk wines that dominate the market. High-yielding vines save growers money by producing the largest possible crop, but they also lead to diluted flavors. These wines can be rather neutral and simple, but they’re typically very palatable to inexperienced drinkers and also quite affordable, rendering them perfect for parties.
But those looking for a more meditative drinking experience should not overlook pinot grigio, which is perfectly capable of producing some outstanding and memorable wines—if you know where to look. Much of Italy’s pinot grigio production comes from the Veneto region of Italy, but the best examples frequently come from other parts of Italy and beyond.
These are a few of the most surprising pinot grigio wines that may change your mind about the grape.
Chehalem 2017 Three Vineyard (Willamette Valley, Oregon, $20)
When pinot grigio grows in a region that is neither French- nor Italian-speaking, the winemakers can choose whether they want to call it grigio or gris. It’s often the case that light, crisp styles end up labeled grigio, while rich, perfumed versions are called gris. Chehalem’s draws its inspiration from the vineyards of Alsace, so it’s apt that this one is dubbed a gris. Fruity and full-bodied yet balanced, this lovely wine is full of ripe apple and peach notes offset by juicy acidity and white blossoms. This shows the food-friendly side of pinot gris that truly shines at the dinner table alongside poultry, pork, poached fish or vegetarian dishes.
Kabaj 2015 Sivi (Goriška Brda, Slovenia, $23)
Sivi pinot is the Slovenian word for pinot grigio and is also used by some nearby Friulian producers such as Radikon. The style of wine is similar on both sides of the border, and it’s common for this variety to be produced as an orange (or skin-contact) wine here too. Kabaj, a natural producer located in Goriška Brda, likes to hold back its wines for several years before release, so this isn’t your usual young pinot grigio. Parisian-born proprietor Jean-Michel Morel puts “pinot gris” on its label, a nod to both his French heritage and the richer style of this wine as compared with examples from Veneto. This pink-tinted beauty, with its notes of dried stone fruit, custard and brioche, is a beautiful example of how well pinot grigio can do with age.
Losonci 2018 (Mátra, Hungary, $25)
In Hungary, pinot grigio is called szürkebarát, but no one will expect you to remember that. What you will want to remember is that Hungarian pinot grigio is a fantastic alternative to the Alsatian style of pinot gris, with a similar oily texture and rich, aromatic bouquet. Spicy, floral and ripe, the Losonci 2018 pinot gris from Mátra, Hungary, gets a nice color boost from three weeks of skin contact and is accented by the high acidity and salty, smoky character that’s typical of Mátra. Low-yielding vines give this wine plenty of depth and intensity.
Radikon 2018 Sivi (Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, Italy, $44)
This one is for the skeptics: If you really want a revelation in pinot grigio, start here. The late Stanko Radikon was an absolute legend in northern Italy’s Friuli region near the Slovenian border. oday, his wife, Suzana, and their children, Saša and Ivana, carry on his remarkable legacy, continuing to use the winemaking methods favored by Stanko’s grandfather in the 1930s. Radikon, a biodynamic winery, makes its pinot grigio in the traditional ramato style, so the grapes stay on their skins for a couple of weeks to extract color and tannin, producing what’s known as an orange wine. The result is a savory copper-hued wine with soaring complexity. Think candied fruit, citrus pith, tangerine and spiced pear, all wrapped around a core of saline minerality. Just consider yourself warned: This wine will seriously raise your standards for pinot grigio.
Robert Sinskey 2017 (Los Carneros, California, $34)
In Napa Valley, Robert Sinskey Vineyards is home to some of California’s prettiest and most aromatic whites, inspired by the wines of Alsace. This biodynamic estate goes against the grain by producing elegant, delicate pinot gris in a district surrounded by bombastic chardonnays. This wine is all about nuance, from the essences of sweet herbs, chamomile and lemongrass to the burst of Meyer lemon, ripe peach and guava, to the layers of acidity and minerality, all the way through to the clean, dry finish. Pair it with oysters and never look back.
Wairau River 2016 (Marlborough, New Zealand, $18)
For budget-friendly PG, nothing beats New Zealand. It’s hard to believe the country’s winemakers are able to fit so much flavor into such reasonably priced bottles, but somehow they manage to do it just about every time. Wairau River’s pinot gris blends the best of both the Italian and Alsatian styles—the crisp acidity and bright citrus fruits of Italian pinot grigio with the ripe, voluptuous apple and pear notes of Alsace’s pinot gris. The older vines used for this bottling contribute to the impressive weight and texture of the wine.
Zind-Humbrecht 2018 (Alsace, France, $28)
The Alsace region of France is where pinot gris achieves its most elegant iterations, and Domaine Zind-Humbrecht is one of the region’s most iconic producers. If you’ve tried only Italian pinot grigio, you’re in for a surprise when you taste this wine and realize just how dissimilar two wines made from the same grape can be. Alsatian pinot gris is anything but neutral: It’s rich, round and deeply perfumed, with powerful smoky, spicy and nutty notes to complement the ripe peach and pear fruit aromas. As is common with pinot gris from this region, the nose may lead you to think that this wine will be on the sweet side, but in fact it’s quite dry on the palate. (There are, however, also some excellent sweet pinot gris wines from Alsace, made in a style inspired by Bordeaux’s sauternes.)