Pinots Grigios that stand out from the crowd: our five best bottles
IS THIS A CRITICAL or a compliment to qualify a wine as neutral? The term appears often in descriptions of Pinot Grigio, in magazines and books … and in my own tasting notes.
Neutrality isn’t a characteristic that I particularly like in wine, but many drinkers must think otherwise, as Pinot Grigio is such an incredibly popular grape. But what about oenophiles like me, who prefer wines with more lively aromatic profiles? Are there also Pinot Grigios to please us? After tasting over two dozen examples, I say yes, but with this caveat: they’re not easy to find.
Neutrality is not a characteristic that I particularly appreciate in wine. Are there any Pinot Grigios to make me happy?
This grape is cultivated all over the world; The Austrians and Germans call it Grauburgunder, the French, Pinot Gris. It’s actually originally from France, although the Italians have done a great job of making the grape their own. While wines sold as Pinot Gris, sometimes aged in oak barrels, are often richer and more substantial, Italian Pinot Grigios tend to be light and dry, and much more popular around the world.
Pinot Grigio is particularly dominant in three regions of northeastern Italy: the southern valley of Alto Adige, the Friuli Grave region of Friuli Venezia Giulia and Veneto. The good and indifferent Pinot Grigios come from the first two regions; the third is best known for its large quantities of resolutely commercial products, often produced by cooperatives.
Alto Adige is perhaps the best known of the three regions, thanks in large part to its most famous wine, Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio. When the founder of Santa Margherita, Count Gaetano Marzotto, decided to launch his Pinot Grigio in 1960, he cleverly positioned it as an aspiration at a time when high-quality Italian white was an oxymoron.
He started exporting wine to the United States in the 1970s, and it was successful; Light and crunchy Pinot Grigio of this type was virtually unheard of in the United States until then. Santa Margherita has since retained its great notoriety and remains one of the most expensive Pinot Grigios on the market today. I saw Santa Margherita priced at $ 20 to $ 30 a bottle, easily double the price of most other Pinot Grigios on the shelves. (I paid $ 22 for the bottle I bought for this column.)
Some merchants even rely on the notoriety of this area to praise Pinot Grigios of lesser reputation. Take, for example, the handwritten sign I found in a wine shop above a display of Altanuta Pinot Grigio crates: “From Alto Adige (like Santa Margherita), this Pinot Grigio offers fruit. tropical and a hint of mineral, slate and lemon. At $ 14 a bottle, the Altanuta was $ 8 cheaper, but was it that good? It was not. It was lighter, simpler than its famous counterpart, although both were quite neutral – pleasant enough but far from memorable.
The 24 Pinot Grigios I bought ranged from $ 10 to $ 25 a bottle and came from the three regions of Italy mentioned above (Alto Adige, Friuli Venezia Giulia and Veneto). I deliberately bypassed the really cheap fancy wines or Pinot Grigios in giant bottles (there are a lot of them) and focused on smaller producers and well-known brands. My mission, after all, was not to damn Pinot Grigio but to (hopefully) find something good.
All the wine merchants I visited had a fairly good selection of Pinot Grigios. The Total Wine & More store in West Orange, NJ, had by far the largest: some 100 wines. According to Brian Gelb, Maryland-based senior European wine manager for Total Wine & More, “Pinot Grigio is holding up quite well,” and he also recognized increased interest in other Italian whites among customers. But he has not seen Italian whites like Vermentino or Arneis interfere in the sales of Pinot Grigio. The number of Pinot Grigios in the more than 200 Total Wine & More stores nationwide is still significant, he maintained. “Depending on the size of the store, you will find between 55 and 187 Pinot Grigios,” Gelb said.
When shopping for wines, I was careful to include well-known brands – Cavit, Kris and Maso Canali, in addition to Santa Margherita, where the word “neutral” appeared a lot in the tasting notes – as well as smaller production offers from producers such as Jermann, Peter Zemmer, Scarbolo and Erste + Neue. My selections included wines from the 2019 and 2020 vintages. (By the time this column goes out, there will likely be even more 2020 Pinot Grigios on the shelves.)
An interesting aside: the more commercial and less convincing the wine I have found, the more purple the back label prose. For example, the back label of Cavit Pinot Grigio 2020 ($ 10) read: “This refreshing Pinot Grigio comes from vineyards in the foothills of the spectacular Alps of northern Italy, which are home to some of the best Pinot Grigio in the world. With over half a century of winemaking expertise and a passion for quality, Cavit is proud to present this remarkably versatile wine…. It’s a lot of words for a wine which, in the glass, didn’t have much to say.
The top five wines I favored offered very little back-label verbiage, and all but one were produced in a crisp mineral style. The exception, the Erste + Neue Pinot Grigio 2020 ($ 13), turned out to be a little more ripe, almost tropical, and slightly more alcoholic (13.5% against the usual 12.5%). A Pinot Grigio, perhaps, for those who love Chardonnay. The crispiest offerings included the 2019 Peter Zemmer Pinot Grigio Alto Adige ($ 12), with a pleasant saline note, and the Köfererhof Pinot Grigio Valle Isarco Alto Adige 2019 ($ 22), lively with a herbal citrus note.
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Two Friulian wines stood out: Jermann Pinot Grigio 2019 ($ 20) was fairly full bodied with aromas of stone fruit and a lively finish. And I liked the crunchy and mineral Scarbolo Pinot Grigio “Il Volo” Grave Friuli 2020 ($ 15) so much i went back a few days later and bought three bottles for myself.
The Scarbolo family is particularly devoted to Pinot Grigio, and it shows. They produce four, each vinified differently. Mattia Scarbolo, who handles strategy, sales and marketing for the family winery, explained their singular purpose in an email (while acknowledging the grape’s often dismal reputation): “We hope to do our part to be good ambassadors of this grape variety!
The good Pinot Grigios mentioned above are crisp and fresh with distinct personalities, a pleasure to drink. Neutrality can be helpful when it comes to avoiding conflict, but, in my opinion, not when it comes to enjoying wine.
OENOFILE / Expressive and interesting Pinot Grigios
1. 2020 Erste + Neue Pinot Grigio Alto Adige, $ 13
This ripe and relatively high alcohol Pinot Grigio from a high-quality cooperative in Alto Adige is a medium-bodied, slightly tropical grape, marked by a pleasant persistence on the palate.
2. 2019 Köfererhof Pinot Grigio Valle Isarco Alto Adige, $ 22
Located at the foot of the Dolomite Mountains in the Alto Adige region, the high altitude vineyards of the Köfererhof winery produce this lively, slightly grassy and incredibly mineral Pinot Grigio.
3. 2019 Jermann Pinot Grigio Friuli-Venezia Giulia, $ 20
Marked by notes of citrus, stone fruit and pear, this medium-bodied Pinot Grigio is produced by Friulian master Silvio Jermann, widely regarded as one of Italy’s best wine producers.
4. 2020 Scarbolo Pinot Grigio “Il Volo” Grave Frioul, $ 15
A crunchy, almost tangy take from a great producer in Friuli so determined to make expressive Pinot Grigios that they vinify four different types, from this fresh entry-level wine to an intense offering of Ramato XL.
5. 2019 Peter Zemmer Pinot Grigio Alto Adige, $ 12
Peter Zemmer Pinot Grigio, from vineyards on the hillside and at the bottom of the Alto Adige valley, is a light, fruity and fresh wine with a slight saline note on the finish.
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