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Pinot Gris

Pinot Gris cluster.Pinot gris (or pinot grigio, as it is known in Italy) is probably the best-known variant-clone of Pinot Noir. Thriving in cool climates, pinot gris vines tend to produce the most distinctive fruit when grown where weather conditions average between 55° and 60° during the growing season.

Although gris translates to "grey", ripe pinot gris grapes may be described as having colors from light pinkish brown to deep bluish grey. Clusters with a variety of berry colors are not unusual.

In centuries past, pinot gris was sometimes used to add richness and to lighten Pinot Noir, common practice in ancient Burgundy, where pinot gris may be called pinot beurot ("butter").Eighteenth century wine from Domaine Romanée Conti contained 20% pinot gris and/or pinot blanc; a century later, only 6% of their blend was white grapes. Modern fashion favors deep, dark wine, and pinot gris is no longer allowed to be planted in Bourgogne (although vines that pre-date the AOC regulations, finalized in the 1930s, may still be used).1

Where planted in Germany, pinot gris is known as ruländer, in Switzerland malvoise, in Hungary szürkebarat, but under any name this variety is of little commercial significance to these countries.

Italy, produces the largest quantity of Pinot Grigio, but has only a very few estates, in Friuli, who emphasize premium quality. Unfortunately for its reputation, most Italian makers of Pinot Grigio over crop and harvest early, producing clean, lean, even sometimes conspicuously tart, but otherwise bland, vapid wines. Pinot gris/grigio can attain a very high level of sweetness, but begins to lose acid rapidly when near full ripeness.

Pinot Chimera?
Only a single mutation of the outer layer of cells causes the differentiations between members of the ancient wine grape family of pinot (variants pinot noir, pinot gris/grigio, pinot meunier, and pinot blanc). With this single layer removed, plants grown from thus-altered scions would be genetically identical to their pinot noir progenitor.


Only two appellations devote pinot gris the respect and attention to growing and vinification that is necessary to render distinguished wine: Alsace, France, the traditional base of Pinot Gris appreciation, and Oregon, the newest region to produce high-quality Pinot Gris.

In Alsace, some call pinot gris tokay d'Alsace, but EU rules prevent this usage on labels to prevent confusion with Hungarian Tokaji. Pinot gris has grown in Alsace since the 1600s, and is the third most-planted variety after riesling and gewürztraminer. The Alsatians value Pinot Gris as a full-bodied wine that can stand up to food without introducing competing flavors of its own. Vinified to accentuate body and richness while understating fruit, some Pinot Gris also apparently age quite well.

Pinot gris was first introduced to America in 1965, by the late David Lett, Oregon wine pioneer and founder of Eyrie Vineyards. Oregon wineries have had such success with this variety that many have reduced their Chardonnay production while increasing their output of Pinot Gris. The 2000 vintage marked the the first time both the total plantings of pinot gris (1270 acres) and the total quantity crushed (2917 tons) surpassed that of chardonnay (1125 acres, 2523 tons). Pinot gris vines now make up more than half the state's total white varieties planted.

Although pinot gris first arrived in California in the 1980s, some winemakers are putting serious efforts into growing and producing Pinot Gris. Nearly 1,620 acres are planted, mostly in the Central and South coastal areas, and interest seems to be increasing. Three clones are registered and at least five more are undergoing the identification, testing, and treatment process to be registered. Both quality and sales have been erratic thus far, as many producers seem to emulate the Italian rather than the French model.

New Zealand has some pinot gris vineyards.

Pinot Gris Smell and/or Flavor Elements
*Typicity depends upon individual tasting ability and experience and is also affected by terroir and seasonal conditions, as well as viticultural and enological techniques. This list therefore is merely suggestive and neither comprehensive nor exclusive.

Varietal Aromas/Flavors:

Processing Bouquets/Flavors:

Fruit: apple, pear / lemon, melon

Oak: vanilla, toast

Floral: wildflowers /

Mouthfeel: full, rich, round / lean, crisp  

Style variations depend upon ripeness at harvest and vinification technique. Wines modeled on the Italian Pinot Grigio are usually delicately fragrant and mildly floral with lightly lemon-citrus flavors. Those that exemplify French Pinot Gris can be quite rich, round and full bodied.

by Jim LaMar

1 Against AOC odds, a few Burgundy estates actually bottle varietal Pinot Beurot. RETURN

1. Jancis Robinson (ed), Oxford Companion to Wine, 3rd Edition, (Oxford University Press: London) 2006

2. Benjamin Lewin, Wine Myths and Reality, (Vendage Press: Dover, DE) 2010

3. L. Peter Christensen, Nick K. Dokoozlian, M. Andrew Walker, James A Wolpert, et all. Wine Grape Varieties in California (University of California, Agricultural and Natural Resources Publications: Oakland) 2003

4. Julia Harding, Jancis Robinson and José Vouillamoz. Wine Grapes: A Complete Guide to 1,368 Vine Varieties, Including Their Origins and Flavours. London: Allen Lane/Penguin and New York: Ecco/Harper-Collins, 2012

5. Steven Spurrier & Michel Dovaz, Academie du Vin, Complete Wine Course (G.P. Putnam & Sons, New York) 1983

6. Charles Sullivan, A Companion to California Wine: An Encyclopedia of Wine and Winemaking from the Mission Period to the Present (University of California Press: Berkeley) 1998

7. Jancis Robinson (ed), Jancis Robinson's Guide to Wine Grapes, (Oxford University Press: New York) 1996

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Page created October 5, 2001; last updated December 3, 2015
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