I was asked the other day what the difference is between Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio. A good question. The Pinot family has quite a few members, principally Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc, or Pinot Black, Pinot Grey and Pinot White if you will. In English speaking Countries we generally take the French name for a variety over say the Italian, Spanish or German. So for example we’re more aware of Mourvèdre (fr) than Monastrell (sp), we encounter Grenache (fr) more often than Garnacha (sp) and we certainly find a lot more Pinot Noir (fr) than Pinot Nero (it) or Spätburgunder (g). However, one example where the average punter eschews the French, in this case in favour of the Italian, is the ubiquitous Pinot Grigio.
So why one and not the other and is there a difference? Well, all varieties have different clones, which have slight (or even quite substantial) differences between them. Some varieties are more stable than others, with fewer clones, whereas others are very prone to mutation. The best example of a very unstable variety is probably Pinot Noir, which has mutated not only into scores of different clones but also into different varieties. This brings us back to the question in hand, as in fact Pinot Gris is a mutation of Pinot Noir. It’s one of a small handful of grey varieties, where the berries literally look grey or blush coloured, instead of the more usual green or deep purple. These grey varieties (another example being Gewurztraminer) are used to produce white wines, often with some weight and character. There are two principal clones of Pinot Gris grown in its homeland of Alsace; the Gros Grains, which is high yielding and accounts for nearly all wines from the variety and the smaller berried Petits Grains, which produces top-quality wine but unfortunately is only maintained by a few determined growers. However, both clones can produce superb wine. Although a different clone altogether, the clone used in Italy is very similar to the Alsace Gros clone, so clonal difference doesn’t account for the startling contrast between Pinot Gris from Alsace and Pinot Grigio from Venezia. For the answer we need to look elsewhere.
The big gamble with Pinot Gris for the grower is that as the variety comes to full ripeness and starts to develop more interesting characteristics, the acidity also starts to drop dramatically, which can result in fat and cloying wines that lack nerve. It’s a balancing act. In Alsace they favour playing the risky game, harvesting late enough for the really interesting rich, honeyed, spicy flavours to develop, but hopefully before the acidity plummets. This is enabled by the mild climate and dry autumns that allow the grapes to develop slowly and be picked later. Also the volcanic soils help develop the variety’s spiciness and interest. By contrast the Italians generally go for the pick early option to retain the acidity. This gives wines that are generally clean, crisp and refreshing, but also it means they are sacrificing the extra interest and weight that could have been gained by waiting.
So in essence this is the difference between Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio. It’s different expressions of the same variety coming from different climates and soils (ie different terroirs), harvested at different levels of maturity and treated differently by the winemakers. Although there are most certainly some excellent Pinot Grigios made in the Italian region of Friuli, the ubiquitous bland quaffer normally coming from the Venezia region I can most certainly live without. There are far too many interesting wines to have instead, like a great Pinot Gris from Alsace! In fact I had one with my supper last night, from Josmeyer, one of the finest producers in the region. It was a sensational wine, but that’s another post.