A useful way to think about Pinot Grigio and Pinot Gris might be to consider the talking heads of the Big Three television networks: I tend to think of Australian Shiraz, for example, as a Dan Rather—a crusty, somewhat abrasive red wine. The balanced and debonair Peter Jennings is a fine, elegant Chardonnay. That would make Tom Brokaw a Pinot Grigio. Friendly and versatile, Pinot Grigio is a wine that plays well with others. A real crowd-pleaser, like Tom.
Called Pinot Gris in France’s Alsace region and in the United States, the wine is made from a pink-skinned grape known in Italy as Pinot Grigio, in Germany as Ruländer, and as Grauer Gurgunder in Austria. The Swiss call it Malvoisie. But wherever you find it, wines made from the Pinot Gris grape are, above all, versatile. They are easy drinking wines that pair remarkably well with a wide range of foods. In a post-Chardonnay world, everybody should be drinking Pinot Gris.
As with most varietals, Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio come in a variety of styles. They range from bone dry and crisp to slightly sweet, and from being lighter-than-air in body to full and rich enough to eat with choucroute garni (a meat and sauerkraut melange).
Most Pinot Grigio comes from the northeast of Italy and the Lombardy area. Italian Pinot Grigio tends to be lighter in style than Pinot Gris from France or the United States, with no trace of oak and little or no aroma. It’s a terrific wine for parties—eminently “quaffable.” And although it’s crisp, delicate and light-bodied, Pinot Grigio is rarely expensive. If you’re payng $12 or more for a bottle, you may be paying too much.
Pinot Grigio is neither a wine to put away in the cellar for aging nor one to ponder. It should be served rob-the-cradle young, well chilled and without a lot of fanfare. Personally, I’m perfectly content with unassuming Pinot Grigio from producers like Bolla, Ecco Domani, Mezzacorona and Folonari, and refuse to pay big bucks for hoity-toity name-recognition Pinot Grigio like Santa Margherita.
Since it’s light, crisp and acidic, Pinot Grigio enhances salty, spicy and fried foods. It’s a good choice for fried calamari, fettuccine alfredo, and spicy Asian dishes when you don’t want to drink something as sweet as Gewürtztraminer.
I first began to really appreciate Pinot Gris a few years ago in Strasbourg, on the France-Germany border. There I consumed copious amounts of foie gras and choucroute, always accompanied by equally copious amounts of the local wine, Pinot Gris. Although made from the same grape, Alsatian Pinot Gris is a bit bigger and a bit bolder than its Italian cousin. It’s a sturdier wine with more body and higher alcohol content. And it’s known for its distinctive “flinty” flavor and aromas, reflective of the minerals in the rich soil on which the grapes are grown in Alsace. More than Pinot Grigio, Pinot Gris is a serious food wine that can hold its own with the smoked meats and foie gras dishes that are standard fare in cities like Strasbourg.
Closer to home, good Pinot Gris is being made in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, where producers like King Estate, Eyrie, Ponzi, Erath and Oak Knoll are giving the Alsatians a run for their money. And although salmon with Pinot Noir is a default food and wine pairing in the Northeast, I’d suggest that the bright acidity of an Oregon Pinot Gris might just be the perfect thing to balance the oil of a fresh salmon steak.