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What is the Difference Between Pinot Grigio and Pinot Gris?

What is the Difference Between Pinot Grigio and Pinot Gris?

franco salzillo arriaga |

Stumble into any bar, restaurant or wine shop you’re bound to see Pinot Grigio or Pinot Gris on a label. While stylistically different, Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio are the same grape. Now grown in wine regions across the globe from Oregon to Australia, Pinot Gris is most recognizable in its home of Alsace, France. 

The Pinot Grigio moniker, on the other hand, is found predominately in Italy. Outside of Italy and France, the name that is chosen on the label usually indicates what style to expect with Pinot Grigio being lighter in style than Pinot Gris. Pinot Gris vs. Pinot Grigio can appear daunting, but it is useful to learn about the history of the grape to understand the difference.

History of the Pinot Gris Grape

Clues to its origin can be derived from the name. Pinot noir mutated into a pinkish-hued grape that now goes by the name of Pinot Gris or Pinot Grigio. It is said that the first mention of Pinot Gris dates back to the 1700s in Germany and France when farmers noticed the pink-skinned grape.

Given pinot noir’s origins in Burgundy, it is more than likely that Pinot Gris’ evolution can be traced back to Burgundy as well. In Germany, this grape is known as Grauburgunder, where ‘Grau’ means grey and ‘Burgunder’ means ‘of Burgundy’.

Modern-day production in Italy of Pinot Grigio now dwarfs that of its French homeland, as the grape is now seen in inexpensive expressions aimed at a lower price-point consumer. Though Pinot Gris is thought to have originated in Burgundy, it wasn’t until the 19th century that it was introduced to Italy. 

Making Pinot Gris

Deep pink to deep purple, this grape can be difficult to pin down. The term pinot comes from the term pinecone, as the grapes of the Pinot family tend to grow into pinecone shaped bunches. On the vine, the grapes are small and can be prone to botrytis. 

In the winery, the use of barrel ageing and contact has existed with varying degrees of success. In leaner styles, stainless steel tends to be favoured, whereas richer versions may be more equipped to handle some time in barrel. However, the acidity must be sufficient, lest the wines taste flabby and overly filling.

The Changing Flavour Profile of Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio

While the mass market Pinot Grigios that line store shelves tend to be lacking in flavour and complexity, higher quality renditions exist as well. Labelled as Pinot Gris, the resulting wine tends to be heavier with richness and spice. As Pinot Grigio, the wine is often lighter in body, more fruit-driven and quaffable.

To understand the difference in flavour profile, it is useful to look at the two classic regions of production. 

Pinot Gris in France

In its classic home of Alsace, Pinot Gris is a wine that shows considerable weight and depth. Formerly known as Tokay d’Alsace, the grape had to switch names due to a dispute with the Hungarian wine of the same name. It is considered one of the four noble grapes of Alsace, alongside Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Muscat and can be found in some of the appellation’s Grand Cru sites. 

Alsace sees a considerable amount of sunshine hours due to the rainshadow effect from the Vosges mountains. This provides the ripeness needed to create the opulent expressions found in Alsace. Though the region itself is a relatively thin stretch of land, the diversity of soils can provide great diversity to the expressions of Pinot Gris found in the appellation.

Verging on medium to full-bodied, with an almost oily quality to the wine, the examples here offer a rich wine with lovely spice notes, a hint of musk and ripe stone fruits. The acidity sits squarely in the medium range for white wines and is typically a dry wine. 

Some examples exist with a touch of sweetness, and in the case of the Vendanges Tardives (Late Harvest) or Sélection de Grains Nobles (botrytis-affected), dessert wines exist as well. The presence of botrytis, or noble rot, provides ginger, honey and spice notes and can be a giveaway for Alsatian Pinot Gris, even in entry-level expressions. 

Pinot Gris may also be found in blends such as Edelzwicker, a simple blended wine, or in Gentil, a higher quality blend with at least 50% noble grapes. In these blends, Pinot Gris provides spice and body.

Some exciting Pinot Gris from Alsace can be found here. For an affordable option to try the style, Gustave Lorentz’s Pinot Gris comes in at $31.99 and over-delivers.

Pinot Grigio in Italy

Pinot Grigio in Italy can be plagued by the reputation of mass-market styles. Plantings of Pinot Grigio exploded towards the beginning of the 21st century. Production grew nearly 5x over from 1990 to 2017, and Italy is the largest producer of Pinot Grigio in the world, with 25 000 ha as of 2017. Pinot grigio is now the 4th most planted grape in Italy. 

Large scale productions produce Pinot Grigio that is simple, light and fruity. With lower yields and a high-quality approach to viticulture and winemaking, Pinot Grigio can show the complexity of stone and orchard fruit, floral aromas and pair quite well with food. The best Pinot Grigio wines come from Alto-Adige and Friuli, where the uniqueness of the site becomes more distinct. Minerality can also be seen in these examples. Some first-rate Italian Pinot Grigio can be found here

To taste the difference of higher quality versions, the Pinot Grigio from Lis Neris in Friuli is a complex, exciting wine that will change the way you perceive this grape. At $47.49, for the depth found in this wine, it should be $20 more than that.

Other important regions

In Germany, under the alias Grauburgunder, the plantings come predominately from the southern regions of the country where they have considerable concentration and stylistically compare to Alsatian Pinot Gris. Germany is also the second-largest producer of Pinot Gris in the world, behind Italy.

In Oregon, Pinot Gris is the most planted white grape. These wines are typically dry with fresh pear, peach and citrus characters, a hint of floral and enough acidity to keep them food-friendly. Eyrie vineyards have one of the most sought after examples here.

Australia has sizeable plantings of the grape as well. With the waves of immigrants of Italian descent, Pinot Grigio has developed a small following, made in the easy-drinking style Italian version. This can be found in regions like King Valley. Cooler climate regions such as the Mornington Peninsula and the Yarra Valley show promise for quality concentrated expressions, created in the Pinot Gris style. 

For a well balanced, complex wine, look no further than Garagiste’s Le Stagiaire Pinot Gris from Mornington Peninsula, which comes in at an affordable $28.99. For the slightly lighter Pinot Grigio style, Dal Zotto’s Pinot Grigio from King Valley offers a food-friendly option at only $21.99. 

In New Zealand, Pinot Gris is the more popular style, focusing on the aromatic quality and enticing orchard fruit in the wine. Again, when labelled as Pinot Grigio, expect a lighter, fruitier version of the grape. 

Food Pairing for Pinot Grigio vs. Pinot Gris

The difference between Pinot Grigio and Pinot Gris is important when considering food. In Alsace, the richness of the wine makes an enticing partner to foie gras, paté and roast chicken dishes. Hard cheese or cheeses with a washed rind make a wonderful accompaniment to Pinot Gris too. Finally, Pinot Gris, with its spicy notes and ripe fruit can pair beautifully with South East Asian cuisines.

Pinot grigio, in the lighter style, is a great aperitif. With food, lighter salads, tomatoes, light cheese and seafood pasta are just a few of the options that pair wonderfully.