That is the question: Whether 'tis nobler the grape that the masses produce, and we thinks it not be so.
And a few California selections for comparison.
Setting aside the larger-production pinot grigio made by the likes of Cavit, Kris, Mezzacorona and others (even though many of these giants operate as collectives of smaller wineries, some still able to pull off relative quality) the question looms: “What of Italian pinot grigio?”
Many feel the image of the cheap, mass-produced wines – grown in low-lying, high-yielding vineyards – represents the whole of this wildly complex grape's identity. No doubt, with so many big names out there offering rather insipid, yet economical house-pour whites that “go best with chicken.” On top of that, the poor grape is a mutant, resulting from the jumpy genetics of the noble pinot noir.
If you pay attention to the media, from Wine Spectator to Forbes to Ian D’Agata, the high priest of Italian wine knowledge, it’s no secret: There is much more to Italian pinot grigio.
To wit, I’m fresh off the hunt for complex, mind-blowing northern Italian pinot grigio grown on hillsides, planted in marl, limestone and calc. As is usually the case, prophecy comes when it’s least expected, but also when you are ready for it. I was fatigued from a bang-up weekend in Alto Adige at Alois Lageder’s Summa biodynamic wine-growing conference, busy tasting – of all things – mostly Austrian and German rieslings. But late on a Sunday night, bursting forth from a jet lag-induced, wine-sotted power nap, I went out looking for food in a very sleepy, dark and misty town. I found Pizza Jolly barely open and ordered the house pinot grigio, noted as “bio,” short for biodynamic. The Haderburg Hausmannhof Sübtirol Ruländer (the regional Austrian name for pinot grigio) was only 3 euros and 50 cents a glass.
What followed was nothing short of hitting the pinot-g-spot. A fresh, bright and easy entrance followed by incredible juicy apples, creamy pears and strawberries with a vibrancy of acidity that conjured up images of the tall spires of the Dolomiti, from whence the wine was born. That gave way to a luxurious golden mouthful of honeyed ginger and hazelnuts, closing with a tannic, peppery finish, leaving me wanting more.
So I searched the web and found that this “mom-and-pop” outfit was right above town on an airy flank of mountainside, with a view of the iconic, landmark 13th-century Haderburg Castle. Also along the way on this beautiful spring morning I encountered a mama horse and a mama donkey each resting with their one-month-old newborns. The cycle of life.
Haderburg sells 98 percent of their 5,000 bottles (of pinot grigio, pinot noir, gewurztraminer and sparkling chardonnay/pinot noir) in Italy. I humbly left with a six-pack.
Fast forward to my last day in Italy and a drive from Alba all the way back toward Brescia, where my trip started. Claudia Benazzoli, half of a dynamic sister duo, arrived at a friend's winery with her hauntingly beautiful bottles in tow. The labels were designed by a tattoo artist and depict a series of mythic females joined with an animal and mineral element – scintillating images to mirror the “Sparkling Sisters'” journey as fourth-generation family winemakers into a world dominated by the masculine spirit.
Agata is a mature, brilliant-minded world traveler who is often found along the route, baggage full of dreams and precious stones. The Benazzoli Agata Pinot Grigio Veneto IGT 2017 is all that. Clean and pure, vibrant and complex. Delicate, soft, yet intense. Floral aromatics and fruity with fleshy honeydew melons and salty pebbles marking the way. The wine is grown in the hilly, breezy, picturesque moraines on the eastern shores of Lago di Garda, another example of exquisite terroir for Italian pinot grigio.
Lo, I arrived home to a pile of California pinot gris waiting for my Euro senses to come down off jet lag and return to normal. To gris or not to gris?
Gris strikes a certain chord. The French pronunciation (of grey) adopted by most all of California’s winemakers sets up in the mind that these wines are somewhat more weighted, if not as ethereally complex as their Italian counterparts.
Not so fast. Handley Cellars has been pumping out super-fresh, acid-driven pinot gris in a cool-climate landscape dominated by pinot noir. Can you blame a grape for wanting to mutate?! Handley has great sources and keeps its winery really cold to ensure freshness. The finish of the bright Handley Cellars Pinot Gris Anderson Valley 2016 apple-pear-macadamia nut medley is lengthened by crazy amounts of natural acidity. All that’s needed is a porch and some sun.
Another venerable Anderson Valley pinot gris is Cliff Lede’s FEL winery, formerly Breggo. They consolidated the operations to the main winery in Yountville a few years ago, but the trademark Lede style breathes complexity where Handley’s freshness leaves off. Richness is the theme, and the wine is loaded with savory herbs and full of that tannic, spicy finish pinot gris offers.
Finally, a gem from winemaker Charles Hendricks. Named for his two daughters, the Hope & Grace Pinot Gris Russian River Valley 2014 is a sleek package of cold-climate perfection set on a stainless steel theme for a “go-to” wine with a nice bit of bottle age. Lime, tropical and white pepper aromas lead to a sumptuous mouthful abundant with citrus, apple and mineral overtones. Visit their beautiful tasting room in Napa’s tony downtown Yountville.
Wow, so thirsty.
Cheers! Remember: Wine reveals truth.
Drew Stofflet lives in Carbondale. Correspond with him at firstname.lastname@example.org