Pinot Grigio and Pinot Noir are getting a lot of attention these days. You find them on more restaurant lists, at wedding receptions and as part of everyday meals. Americans are discovering what Europeans have been drinking for centuries.
Pinot Grigio has been around since the middle ages and has the same genetic heritage as the Pinot Noir, which the Romans grew to produce wine as early as the first century A.D.
Pinot Grigio is best know as a light and crisp wine with mineral and citrus notes that is great with seafood or an antipasto salad. Many wineries mix in a small amount of a grape called Garganega to give it a fruity off-dry quality, making it a nice by-the-glass cocktail wine. By many accounts, Pinot Grigio is the number two selling white wine varietal behind Chardonnay.
Much of what is consumed in the U.S. is imported from Italy, but many American producers continue to look to be a part of this sales trend. One area in particular that has some solid success is the state of Oregon. Wines made there can be an explosion of ripe fruit with good acidity that makes it a great aperitif. The wines in Oregon will not be labeled as Pinot Grigio, but as Pinot Gris.
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To be clear, whether you say Grigio or Gris, it is still the same grape. Where we put the distinction is the growing climate - cold vs. warm. A cooler climate produces a slightly higher acidity level as well as a style difference with a more rounded fruit extract reminiscent of melon, apples and pear.
In the northeast area of France, known as Alsace, you will also find some wonderful Pinot Gris. The Pinot Gris here show a more floral nose, ripe fruit and good acidity which make them great food wines as well.
Pinot Noir, the parent grape of the two, is mostly known as a light, velvety red with influence of berry fruit, especially cherry. But some of the great Pinots are much deeper and fuller-bodied than what most drinkers have been exposed to. The red grapes in the Burgundy area of France grows almost exclusively Pinot Noir and produces some of the greatest wines which easily sell for hundreds of dollars, such as a bottle of Romanee-Conti. French styles are earthy, plummy and slightly tannic. American styles tend more toward ripe cherry fruit and a velvety easy drinking quality.
Arguably the two best areas for Pinot Noir in the U.S. are the Willamette Valley in Oregon and the Carneros region of Sonoma County, Calif. Oregon styles range from the easy drinking fruit forward style to the deep and earthy types. Carneros is typically a ripe cherry fruit style.
Like many grapes, Pinot is grown in many different areas of the world. Winemakers talk about what a difficult grape it is to grow and get quality juice from. As a consumer, be careful when you buy. Always read the label because many inexpensive brands buy juice from different areas. A brand that you may assume is made in California may be juice imported from Chile or Italy.
The rich history and the variety of styles and profiles make both of these wines worth the time and energy to look for brands that offer everything you want: a price to fit your pocketbook, a style that makes your palate happy, and a drink that fulfills your dining pleasures.