This white-wine-producing mutation of Pinot Noir is enjoying a wave of popularity perhaps greater than it has ever known, and certainly on a wider geographical scale, even if it is relatively rarely known by its true French name Pinot Gris. Until recently Pinot Gris was probably known mainly in Alsace (as Tokay d'Alsace), northern Italy (as Pinot Grigio) and in Germany (as Grauburgunder or occasionally Ruländer). Today however it is known and increasingly planted in less classic wine regions, from Mendoza and Monterey to Marlborough.
Pinot Gris is one of the darkest-skinned grapes producing white wine, rivalling Gewürztraminer for the redness of its berries. The grapes can vary from grey-blue to brownish pink, sometimes on the same bunch, and the resulting wine tends to be quite deep golden, even copper-toned. It is relatively soft, rarely has very marked acidity, can also be relatively high in alcohol (depending on how ripe the grapes are when picked) and as well as being full-bodied can have quite a spicy perfume (though in a much less specific way than Gewürztraminer). It almost invariably has much more character and weight than the lighter-coloured mutation of Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc (Pinot Bianco or Weissburgunder). Its leaves are almost identical to those of Pinot Noir.
Certainly in Alsace, the French home of the variety, it is much more revered than Pinot Blanc and is, along with Riesling and Gewürztraminer, 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 late-picked Vendange Tardive and Sélection de Grains Nobles categories with their usual price premiums and, often, botrytis and residual sugar levels. In Alsace it is much prized as a wine full enough, yet not too strongly scented, to serve with the sort of food most of us would pair with red wine. It can certainly handle foie gras, dishes which involve Asian spices and some sweetness, and I have even enjoyed it with venison.
Over the border in Germany, in Baden in particular, it fulfils a similar role labelled as Grauburgunder where it is an important variety, particularly prized as a partner to the new season's asparagus every spring. Grauburgunder tends to be lower in alcohol and, often, a little higher in acidity than Alsatian Pinot Gris - and none the worse for it. Increasingly however, producers such as Bercher, Dr Heger and Salwey are lowering yields, picking riper grapes and even ageing some wines in small oak barrels to produce much more concentrated, more burgundian versions of Grauburgunder. Ruländer on a German wine label generally signifies a deliberately sweeter wine, often made from grapes concentrated to a certain extent by botrytis.
The typical Italian version of this grape is entirely different - in fact for years it was extremely difficult to see any relationship between the ocean of characterless Pinot Grigio spewed forth by producers in Veneto, Friuli and to a lesser extent Lombardy, Trentino-Alto Adige and Emilia-Romagna - and its counterparts in Alsace and Germany. It is still easy to find Italian wines labelled Pinot Grigio that have been made so carelessly from grapes picked so early that they have quite a bit of acidity and not much else. But there are also examples, particularly from Friuli's white wine heartland Collio, that are stunningly fruity with real zest and a blossomy scent, while still retaining enough acidity (sometimes a certain saltiness and often a little carbon dioxide) to keep them lively. In Lombardy Pinot Grigio is sometimes blended with the much more widely planted Pinot Bianco by the region's busy sparkling wine producers.
This grape pops up all over the place. It has for centuries been sanctioned in Burgundy where it is known as Pinot Beurot and can be found in some older Pinot Noir vineyards. Indeed it is allowed in many a red burgundy by the appellation contrôlée laws and Henri Gouges of Nuits St Georges makes a full-bodied white wine based on it. In the Loire it is often known as Malvoisie, as it is in Switzerland where, particularly in the Valais, it can produce soft, fragrant whites with more body than most. It is this ability to reach relatively high alcohol levels that adds lustre to its reputation in Luxembourg.
It is planted throughout eastern Europe, notably in Austria (where it can yield extremely full-bodied wines), Slovenia, Romania, Slovakia, Russia, Moldova and in Hungary where it is most memorably named Szürkebarát. (Elsewhere it tends to travel under some local adaptation of Pinot Gris.)
But in none of these places does Pinot Gris have the excitement of being a novelty, whereas all over what we have come to call the New World, the variety is regarded as a potentially diverting variation on the Chardonnay theme. In California, for example, plantings of Pinot Gris increased quite significantly in the late 1990s, spurred on by the then-popular Cal-Ital fad (may it rest in peace). In fact throughout the New World there has been the same sort of quandary as there once was over whether to label wines Sauvignon Blanc or Fumé Blanc. With this burgundian variety, it's whether to label the result Pinot Grigio or Pinot Gris. In very, very general terms a wine labelled Pinot Grigio is much less likely to have seen any oak than one labelled Pinot Gris, which may well be being marketed as a sort of fragrant alternative to Chardonnay.
This is certainly the case in Oregon where, before new Burgundian clones came on-stream, the state's Chardonnays were frequently disappointing while similarly-made wines labelled Pinot Gris have developed quite a following. 'Anything so long as it's Pinot' would make a good motto for the state's wine industry. And further north, Pinot Gris from the likes of Blue Mountain and Burrowing Owl are some of British Columbia's most sought-after white wines.
South America may, like Italy, have much more Pinot Blanco planted in total but one or two seriously interesting Pinot Gris have emerged from higher altitude vineyards in Argentina's Mendoza region. Planted in too hot a climate, Pinot Gris grapes lose what little acidity they have all too easily, which is why Australia's limited but growing plantings tend to be in cooler parts of the state of Victoria. Pinot Gris is also enjoying a marked increase in popularity in New Zealand where 'aromatics' are all the rage, particularly in the South Island but also at Dry River in Martinborough. And L'Ormarins was the pioneer of the increasingly popular variety in South Africa.
Some top wines are Dr Heger's Grauburgunder Spätlese trocken, Baden; Ernest Burn's Clos St Imer Grand Cru Goldert, Alsace; Zind Humbrecht's Clos St Urbain Grand Cru Rangen or Clos Jebsal, Alsace; Vie di Romans' Pinot Grigio Dessimus; Lis Neris's Gris, Friuli; Ponzi's best Pinot Gris, Oregon.