The Two Faces of Pinot Gris/s/gio

Pinot Grigio. Some people love it, others hate it but both for the same reason. Pinot Grigio (pee-no gree-ji-oh) is about as plain vanilla as you can get in wine. It’s supporters claim its middle-of-the-road characteristics make it versatile and a great common-denominator wine when trying to serve a crowd. It can also be produced cheaply so most Pinot Grigios are on the shelf in the $10 and under range. Its denouncers retort that in a world as diverse as wine, Pinot Grigio is uninspiring. Compounding this issue, the EXPECTATION of Pinot Grigio is lower so less-than-reputable producers can flood the market with less-than-stellar examples. However, Pinot Grigio CAN be a great wine and there are certainly good examples to be found, particularly if you look for wines from Alto-Adige or Collio in Italy’s Friuli-Venezia region. Otherwise, getting a Pinot Grigio from a reputable producer, particularly if they work in small lots, will give you something more enjoyable in the glass. For even more adventure, look for “ramato” style wine, in which the juice spends a little more time on the skins and takes on a copper hue and more complexity and texture.

Pinot Grigio makes a wonderful porch sipper, aperitif, or pairs with delicate white meat and fish as well as greens. On the palate you’ll typically find green apples (or zippy lime if the grapes were picked early), light florals (especially fruit-tree blooms) and hints of minerality. Wines from regions that see more sun will have a bit more nectarine and peach flavors. These wines may also undergo malolactic fermentation which will further soften the acidity and allow the juicy fruit flavors come through even more. Inexpensive Pinot Grigios are made to be drunk young but ones at higher price points ($20 or so) should be good for several years.

But this blog post isn’t just about Pinot Grigio. If you have ever tried a Pinot Grigio next to a Pinot Gris, it will blow you mind (as it still does mine) that these are the same grape. Benchmarks for Pinot Gris (pee-no gree) come from Alsace, France, but Germany also produces Pinot Gris under the local name Grauburgunder, and Oregon has had some great success also. These wines typically have a fuller body, medium acidity, and lush pit fruit flavors. Frequently, you will also find a slight honey-note in these wines as well, especially if they are late-harvested. In Alsace, winemakers of the past were looking for a French answer to Hungary’s famous dessert wine, Tokaji (tok-eye) so the varietal was once known as Tokay d’Alsace. Some sweet Pinot Gris are still made in this area as well as in Germany where you might see Ruländer on the label. Perhaps second only to Riesling, Pinot Gris has the potential to be a great age-worthy wine in good vintages and by reputable producers. After a decade or so, the honey tones will intensify and notes of hazelnuts, brioche, and smoke can be found.

 "Gris" in French is gray. Pinot Gris grapes, which are a mutation of Pinot Noir, retain a grayish-blue color.

"Gris" in French is gray. Pinot Gris grapes, which are a mutation of Pinot Noir, retain a grayish-blue color.

If you are pairing a medium-bodied Pinot Gris, try it with grilled fish or roast chicken. Full-bodied Pinot Gris can be matched with creamier sauces, foie gras, or veal. Asparagus, which has a reputation for being the problem child of food and wine pairing, goes quite well mild-mannered Pinot Gris. 

When grown in Italy, you will nearly always see “Pinot Grigio” on the label. When grown in Alsace, you will see “Pinot Gris”. With few exceptions, you will know if you are buying a lighter, crisper style or the fuller, more rich style. If you are lucky, producers from other regions will label their wine Grigio or Gris to let you know what to expect from the bottle but there is no hard and fast rules that govern which name they use. If the wine is labeled Pinot Gris and comes from a cool climate, chances are good it is Alsatian style. If your wine is labeled Pinot Grigio and comes from a warm climate, it it a good bet it will be bright and citrusy. Otherwise…take a chance!

Finding Value in Wine

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You can spend $10 or $100 on a bottle of wine—one is cheap, one is expensive, but the question of value is entirely different. To get value in wine, you want to find where the highest quality meets the lowest price, and that convergence can work in any price range. The quality of the $10 wine may not be able to compete with the $100 bottle but if the $10 bottle of wine drinks like a $20 bottle of wine while the $100 bottle is not discernable from a $50 bottle, then it must be said that the $10 bottle show greater value. 

So how does one get the best bang for his or her buck? Here are four insider tips that you can use regardless of your taste preference or budget:

1.    Choose a non-estate wine. It is generally believed that estate wines are of superior quality because they control every aspect of the wine making process from growing to harvesting to producing. Estate wines, however, have the added cost of managing the estate. Property tax, machinery, utilities, labor, etc. are all costs that are passed on in the price of the bottle. There are many labels ranging from one-man operations to multi-million dollar companies that purchase grapes rather than manage their own vineyard. Most will have contracts with vineyard managers covering how the farming should proceed so they are not completely blind where the viticulture is concerned. If you see a region on the label such as “California” or even “Central Coast” on the label, chances are pretty good the wine is not estate.

2.  Buy wine from less expensive regions. If you are a wine drinker, you know the big names like Napa Valley, Bordeaux, Borolo, and Rioja. Wines from these regions are known for their quality, so they are popular, thus they command higher prices in the market. By looking for wines from regions that aren’t in the spotlight, you can save big. Some of these regions might be long-producing but not in the public consciousness like the Eastern European country of Moldova, or the southern regions of Languedoc in France or it could be an up and coming region such as Uruguay.

3.   Look for unusual varietals. Similar to the above advice, there are certain varietals that may offer similar profiles to wines you know (Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc) but are more suited to local climate and soil. Malbec experienced this story—nearly extinct in France, it found a home in Argentina and together, they were launched onto the international stage. As you explore lesser known regions, explore their lesser known varietals and you might find the next Malbec!

4.    Pick a blend. Blended wines have been critical to the wine world for centuries if not from the very beginning of winemaking. Creating a blend allows the winemaker to showcase the best characteristics while shoring up faults. This can be particularly important when Mother Nature presents a less-than-ideal growing season. The Cabernet Sauvignon may have the acid and tannin while the Merlot has the ripe fruit characteristics. Put them together to get a better wine than each would create on their own. In this way, you can have less-than-perfect grapes but still make a quality wine. In the United States, many blends will carry a brand name on the label such as “The Prisoner”. In the Old World, blends are not only expected but regulated. The buyer has to know the grapes allowed, however, as these wines are most often labeled by the region they are from. 

Sometimes finding a great-value wine means taking a chance on something you’ve never tried before so I would encourage you to take advantage of professional expertise, tastings or a restaurant’s flight choices, the chance to split a bottle among friends, or a by-the-glass option. Keep exploring and you just might find your next favorite!

Terroir: What It Is and Why You Should Care

In the video, “Interpreting Labels,” I mentioned briefly that wines from much of Europe are labeled by their location rather than by varietal. This can present some challenges when trying to sell in the international marketplace, particularly to new buyers, so why do they do it? Essentially, the answer is that you can get even MORE information about a wine than just varietal through these regional labels. Not only do laws dictate what varietals can be grown in a region but some areas control things such as maximum vineyard yields, when grapes are harvested, how much juice can be extracted, oak aging, or even the shape of the bottle.

Furthermore, each region is known for (and exists because of) “terroir”. Terroir (tare-wah) is a French word and while there is no direct translation into English, the concept is how the environment affects the grapes and thus the wine. 

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The environment includes the soil, elevation, typography, microorganisms and climate—encompassing rainfall, wind velocity, humidity, tendency to fog, hours of sunshine, average temperatures and temperature swings, and so on. The combination of the environment is critical to the quality of the grapes and through this quality, it is possible to identify the origin of the wine. This sense of place is one of the key reasons why wine is so intriguing. The next step is familiarity with the grapes themselves. Factors such as the root growth, density of grapes in a cluster, thickness of grape skins, and vine vigor will dance with the environment. Some partnerships would be disastrous while others waltz like soulmates. Some grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon are highly adaptable and grow in nearly every wine region. Others, like Sangiovese are highly specialized in their local areas and are rarely seen outside of it. 

The grounding of all wine education is in the concept of terroir. Many of the laws that govern the vineyards and wineries do so largely to preserve the authenticity of the region’s terroir so it is learnable. Once you learn the regions and the typical profiles of the wines that come from that area, you can predict how a wine will taste. This makes it easier to choose a wine from a shelf or a restaurant’s list. 

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Burgundy is perhaps the quintessential example of terrior. While most red Burgundy is Pinot Noir, and most white Burgundy is Chardonnay, there are infinitesimal differences from village to village, domain to domain, even plot to plot. A minerally Chablis (sha-blee) with its laser acidity is worlds away from a rich Puligny-Montrachet (ready for this one? Pu-lee-nee mohnt-ra-shay). If you saw a Chablis, a Montrachet, and a Sonoma Coast Chardonnay together on the shelf, the Montrachet is a sure bet to go with your Maine lobster! It takes some study to learn terroir and varietal typicity but remember: this is the fun part! Seek out wines that show a sense of place, take notes, do some comparison tastings, and in no time, you’ll be able to predict a wine’s profile by the label alone!

Where To Buy Wine

The store you purchase your wine from can greatly impact your wine experiences including the quality of what you are drinking and your exposure to new things. 

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How is Wine Priced? (Part 2)

In part 2 of our How is Wine Priced series, we'll compare the winemaking of two vineyards. This video, which is just under 5 minutes, barely scratches the surface of this complex process where hundreds of decisions can impact the final product. We'll look more in-depth at each of these topics in the future so stay tuned!

How is Wine Priced? (Part 1)

This 2 1/2 minute video looks at the 3-tier system and how it affects the price of wine. As a small caveat, each state is in charge of their own alcohol laws so the structure and functions of alcohol control will look different state to state. Also, I am not trying to pass judgment on or vilify any part of this system, just explain what their roles are. 

Stayed tuned for Part 2 which explains the elements that change cost in the production of wine!

3 Reasons to Learn About Wine

As the old adage goes, there is a difference between knowledge and wisdom. Memorizing wine facts but not understanding the whys, the cause and effects, the contexts, and so on is like a student memorizing dates from a history book but missing the larger historical lessons. Almost every student at some point asks, why study history? So, why study wine? Let’s look at three reasons.

First, wine knowledge is within your grasp. At some point in their lives, most people have stared at rows of wine bottles on the shelf or at a long list of wines at a restaurant and wondered why wine has to be so confusing. I wish I could tell you its not—that there is a trick to understanding wine that makes you an instant master—but I can’t. The wine world is complicated. It is colossal. But it is also fun. Sure, drudging through the chemistry of the winemaking process, memorizing the 500+ recognized regions of Italy, or trying to pronounce some of the grapes (Agiorgitiko, anyone?) can be a bear…but it all offers an excuse to drink wine! The key to having fun with wine is to not take it so seriously. There is no “perfect” wine or pairing so don’t worry about getting it “right”. After a few building blocks are laid in your knowledge base, the mystique around wine is less about snobbery and more about intricacy, inviting you to know more.

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The more you learn about wine the more you will enjoy it!

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This brings us to our second reason to study wine: the better you understand it, the more you enjoy it. You could just drink that Chardonnay but if you know that it comes from a vineyard that has been owned by the same family for seven generations, that each grape that went into it was hand selected, that the vintage was cool so the acidity levels peaked, that the wine was aged on lees for six months in neutral oak barrels, and that it pairs wonderfully with clam chowder, then you are likely to enjoy each sip that much more. Knowing a wine’s story is a key component in appreciating the beauty and art that is wine.

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Finally, wine is part of our culture and heritage. There is evidence that wine has been produced for about 9000 years, predating even our earliest civilizations. Historically, it was often more hygienic than drinking water! It is interwoven in our cuisine, holidays, celebrations, rituals, and religion. It is multidisciplinary and can touch on subjects of globalization, environmental change, economics, and social equality not to mention health and technology. Perhaps most importantly, wine has become a symbol of the best parts of what it means to be human: a congenial gathering of friends, a meal shared with family, or the quiet savoring of an everyday moment.

No matter where you are at in your wine journey, there is always something new to discover in each bottle. I hope that you find your own reasons to pursue wine knowledge. Knowing wine leads to enjoying wine, and enjoying wine is a way to enjoy life.