Perfecting Pinot Grigio

Pinot Grigio is everywhere, flooding every supermarket wine aisle and all over the wine lists at restaurants that don’t give much thought to their wine lists. It’s the single biggest (by volume) import category into the US. The annual crop in California has increased by 1000 percent in the last decade, positioning it second only to Chardonnay among premium, varietally-identified whites, far outstripping Sauvignon Blanc. The major wine conglomerates are deep into Pinot Grigio, filling the demand by bringing in tankers full of juice from Italy and Argentina and bottling it here. Pinot Grigio has essentially become the new White Zinfandel.

Which is sort of a problem. Pinot Gris/Grigio is not the most robust version of the Pinot grape, and it has built-in genetic tendencies that can make insipid wine more likely. Worse, the current surge has mostly been in easy-drinking, slightly off-dry, mass-market beverage wine — which is fine for wine drinkers with a sweet tooth or an indiscriminate thirst, but not so fine for those of us who are looking for more character.

Pinot Gris and Grigio doesn’t have to be that way, as stellar examples from multiple continents and regions attest: Alsace, Friuli, Alto Adige, New Zealand, Santa Barbara, Mendocino County, Oregon, Michigan, New York’s Finger Lakes, and the list goes on. Outnumbered, yes, but still very possible. You can view this lopsided situation as a reason to make something else in your garage, or as a challenge. And if your Pinot Gris/Grigio comes out just as a simple, mildly fruity, refreshing beverage, that may be a lot better than the results of your failed attempt at making a killer Cabernet.

Cautionary Notes

It may seem weird to start an article about the joys of making wine with a particular grape by reporting on how far its reputation has fallen, but that’s the story right now with this varietal. There was once a time when Chenin Blanc was dead in the water, but its fortunes are looking up; for that matter, California Pinot Noir used to be the butt of way too many jokes, and now folks are standing in line to buy $100 bottles from near-cult producers. So fret not. You, too, can be part of the Pinot Grigio solution.

In her massive compendium on Wine Grapes, Jancis Robinson’s section on Pinot Gris/Grigio starts with this banner: “Full-bodied and aromatic at its best but much more usually encountered enjoying international fame if not glory as anodyne Pinot Grigio.” If anodyne is not in your active wine descriptor vocabulary, it means deliberately inoffensive. Ouch. “In the mass-market arena,” she writes, “the name Pinot Grigio seems to guarantee sales of a tart, neutral, almost colorless and flavorless white wine.”

“Italy’s Pinot Grigio,” she says, “has been the somewhat unfathomable success story of the early twenty-first century. The area given over to the variety . . . has continued to soar as export markets such as the UK and the US have flourished thanks to the generally fresh but anodyne style of these inexpensive wines.” There’s that word again.

New York Times wine columnist Eric Asimov asked the question, “Can a wine be too popular for its own good? Apparently so. Exhibit A: Pinot Grigio from Italy.” Noting the number of sommeliers who swear at, rather than swear by, the wine, he set up a tasting of wines from the Alto Adige, “in what I hoped would be an effort to rescue a genre from its scoffers.”

“I was still steadfast that Pinot Grigios were being underestimated. That is, until we finished the tasting. Sigh . . . Sure, we found some good wines, . . . but for the most part, we had before us exactly the sort of inexpensive, one-dimensional, bland, citrus-scented refrigerator whites that I was hoping to avoid.”

Still up for this project? More motivated than you were when you started this article? I sure am.

Starting with the Grapes

Any good winemaking starts with good grapes, and that is doubly true with Pinot Grigio. The variety is an early budder and early ripener, and it is wired to be great at accumulating sugar in a hurry and programmed not to hold onto acid very well. So, the problematic tendency that comes with the variety is flab, and once the flab is pronounced, additions of tartaric acid in your garage only go so far.

Enter climate. Pinot Grigio grown in climates that are too warm ripens really, really early, before much flavor and flavor precursor development has had a chance to happen. Destined for the low end of the wine market, really big crops are part of the program. The uncontrollable impulse is to harvest before flavor ripeness, since at least that way there is still some acid to be had; and then if the grapes are too tart, a little residual sugar restores balance. The only good result from this sequence is that the wines made this way are low in alcohol; they are, alas, even lower in aromatics and flavor. This is the recipe for the mass-market Pinot Grigio coming out of California’s Central Valley, where most of the planting expansion has occurred, and the massive bulk import wines are made with the same template.

So, your chances of making good wine are greatly improved if the grapes come from a cooler climate. Plenty of sunlight, which comes with more northerly latitudes, is fine, just not
an excess of heat. (Alsace, Friuli, Michigan, . . . ) Pinot Grigio will also come out best with a moderate-sized crop, not a tiny, restricted one; the clusters are small to begin with, and a very light crop (compared to canopy size) just makes the little critters ripen that much faster. A moderate crop takes longer to ripen, which is what you want.

Ripeness can’t entirely be reduced to numbers, but most good Pinot Grigio comes in between 22 °Brix and 24 °Brix (except for the Alsatian late harvest style). Acid should still be up at 7 grams per liter, and even more is a bonus; pH should be south of 3.5. Beyond the numbers, grapes grown in the right climate and bearing the right crop load will simply have more stuffing, more density of aromatic and flavor material. Low-end Pinot Grigio has had all the goodies cooked out of it (if they ever developed) before it ever gets to the winery.

If you get your hands on good grapes, in reasonable balance, there are several ways to go with Pinot Gris/Grigio and get pleasing results:
• Lean and zippy, with bright acidity and a clean attack in the mouth (imagine Sauvignon Blanc) — think of this as the “good” Pinot Grigio.

• Fatter and richer, more mouthfeel, more body — what might be called the “Pinot Gris” style, more like its clonemate, Pinot Blanc.

• With a little more work you can make a much better version of the slightly off-dry mass-market entry, with more flavor and more snap; or . . .

• With exceptional grapes and even more work, a late harvest (vendange tardive) wine with sweetness and power, as heady as any wine on Earth.

For this article, I’m concentrating on the first two options. The vendange tardive gambit only works with truly exceptional grapes, picked very late, which you probably can’t get your hands on (I know I can’t). And the slightly off-dry style is so popular at the moment that it’s easier to just go buy some a the nearest gas station mini-mart than to worry about stabilizing residual sugar in your garage, without the benefit of sterile filtration.

Crusher and Fermenter

For both the leaner (Pinot Grigio) and fatter (Pinot Gris) styles, the gentler the crush, the better. The reason these grapes carry the modifier “grey” in their name is that the skins show some traces of Pinot color, not so much grey as pinkish brown, and the more the skins get shredded into the must, the more color pickup is possible. Whole cluster pressing, if you can somehow manage it, is the best way to go; otherwise, take it easy on the crush rollers and proceed to pressing as quickly as possible.
Needless to say, Pinot Grigio is not a good candidate among white wines for skin contact — unless you want a trace of rusty hue in your wine.

Cool fermentation is in order, keeping temperatures under 60 °F (16 °C), preferably down closer to 50 °F (10 °C). There’s not much need to search out exotic, aromatic yeast strains, since the raw grape material isn’t likely to have big concentrations of the compounds those strains are maximized to extract. What you need is a yeast strain that ferments slow and steady and is happy at fairly low temperatures.

Try to put a lid on malolactic fermentation: An initial dose of sulfur dioxide right at crushing helps slow down any malolactic bacteria that are hanging around; dosing with lysozyme can significantly degrade any populations that develop; and a good dose of sulfur dioxide at the end of fermentation, based on the wine’s pH, completes the trifecta. Make sure free sulfur levels remain active through maturation, and send the wine to bottle eventually with a final booster addition. Keeping malolactic fermentation at bay in home winemaking isn’t rocket science, but it does require attention to detail and a couple rounds of testing to make sure you understand where your wine is.

In what I’m calling here the richer Pinot Gris style, malolactic fermentation can work. If that’s what you want, do it intentionally by adding a starter culture from a “neutral” malo strain that simply converts acid without producing gobs of buttery diacetyl. With malo, you get thicker mouthfeel, added stability (no danger of the infamous malo-in-the-bottle trick), and slightly reduced acidity.
High quality Pinot Grigio grapes can even be barrel fermented, usually in older, neutral barrels, a step that will practically guarantee that the wine goes through malolactic, too. (Barrels can never be as microbe-free as inert glass or stainless.) Barrel fermentation also makes for fatter, rounder wine, adding some oak tannin to the mix. Chances are that the fermentation temperature will be higher, unless your “barrel room” has very well controlled ambient temperature.

Maturing the Wine — Briefly

Commercial Pinot Grigio is overwhelmingly a tank-aged wine, which means for you a carboy or small-tank wine. In an angular, somewhat delicate wine, a little bit of new oak can take over in a hurry. There are some examples out there in the market of Pinot Grigio that manage to be both over-cropped and over-oaked, and the combo is not pretty.

The richer Pinot Gris style benefits from short barrel aging, in older, neutral barrels. This treatment gives wine the rounding, concentrating effect of barrel time, without the addition of flavors that would likely get in the way. Picking up a little oak tannin could give the finished wine more body.
In either style, body and mouthfeel can be enhanced by retaining and stirring lees. After the first removal of the grossest lees right at the end of fermentation, let the wine sit for two or three months before the next racking, keeping the wine in contact with the dead but still useful yeast lees. Maybe stir the whole business up every couple of weeks. The breakdown of dead yeast cells (autolysis) contributes several kinds of compounds that bolster mouthfeel. For a Pinot Grigio in which the malolactic fermentation has been squelched, lees contact provides another flavorless, non-aromatic route to the perception of weight in the mouth.

However your Pinot Grigio/Gris is aged, it should not be aged for long; get it into bottle in six months or so to hold onto as much of the aromatic and ester yield as possible. Three post-fermentation rackings should do the job. If the wine still needs clarification, a light Sparkalloid fining can move things along. If you have the ability do a careful polish filtration without much oxygen exposure, go for it.

There’s really nothing tricky about making a good example of Pinot Gris or Grigio in either style, or at least there are no magic bullets that I’ve heard of in the decade since I last wrote about it. The only secret is an open one: spend the time and energy and maybe the money to get good grapes. This is true with any variety, however some grapes are more forgiving than others.

If you take the trouble to snag quality fruit, there will be nothing anodyne about your Pinot Grigio.

Pinot Pedigrees and Permutations

Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio are the French and Italian names for the same grape; there are a number of clones, but only one variety. Technically, calling it a “variety” is a bit of an overstatement; from a strict DNA point of view, it’s merely one clone of the Pinot variety, along with Noir, Blanc, Meunier and some very minor others. At the beginning of (Pinot) time, the grapes were red; over many centuries, 50 lighter shades of grey (and pink and white) appeared in vineyards here and there.
It has long been believed that the Pinot grape is particularly unstable, more likely to morph into something different than its fellow vinifera varieties. There may be some truth to that, but the Pinot grape has also been around and under cultivation for a very long time, allowing more opportunity for mutation. In any case, the “grey” form expresses that variability in ways that drive growers to distraction, cropping at erratic levels from year to year, and often showing lots of color variation within a single cluster.

Before the recent mass-market flood, the most distinctive, deeply-flavored examples of Pinot Grigio come from areas with Germanic winemaking histories like Friuli and the Alto Adige, where labels will often say Ruländer (after a grower named Rulnd who discovered it in his vineyard). But in Germany itself, the variety is Grauburgunder (grey Burgundy), and it’s a mainstay of the slightly warmer regions like the Pfalz and Baden. As Szürkebarat (“grey monk”) it’s a key white grape in Hungary, and a significant player all over Eastern Europe.

For sheer prestige, nothing matches the Pinot Gris from Alsace in eastern France, where it used to be called Tokay d’Alsace or simply Tokay — with absolutely no connection to the Hungarian grape that bears that name. Alsatian Pinot Gris is bigger, more alcoholic, more extracted, even ageworthy, sometimes with a hint of residual sugar that makes it even more forceful. The Alsatians claim it’s the best of their food wines because its restrained aromatics (compared to Riesling and Gewürztraminer, the other local specialties) don’t get in the way. Alsace is also home to the vendange tardive (late harvest) style, powerful wines with both high alcohol (15%) and noticeable residual sugar. Australia, New Zealand and British Columbia offer some good examples.

The biggest outpost of Pinot Gris production in the US used to be Oregon, where it has become more or less the official state white grape. (Oregon makes more Chardonnay, but everybody makes Chardonnay.) Calling it Pinot Gris reflects an initial desire by the state’s wine pioneers to pursue a more or less Alsatian style, though what has finally emerged is something in between: rounder, fuller, “sweeter” wines than most Italian versions, but not matching the opulence Alsace can generate. Washington State now grows more acres of Pinot Gris than Oregon. Really good examples, from small plantings, come from a number of states.

California has outflanked all the domestic competition with the industrial-strength output of the last very few years. The flood of bargain wine from the Central Valley hasn’t made life easier for the
handful of serious producers in Mendocino’s Anderson Valley and various nooks and crannies around Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo. They are there, however.