Saturday, June 23, 2012

The problem of Pinot Grigio

Last month, MFWC picked up a new member(s), the husband of a couple who are both in sales - call them the Sales Couple. SC has a standing order for Pinot Grigio, which created a challenge and raised a question.

The challenge is that the salespeople at MFWC's favorite haunts tend to regard Pinot Grigio as uninteresting, insipid and overpriced and therefore don't carry a lot of it. Fortunately, SC are flexible folk, which has meant that they've taken a crash course in Austrian whites - not a coincidence, it turns out. Astor Wines started them off with a 2009 Grüner Veltliner from the producer Neumayer that they liked, and then I selected the 2011 Christ Gemischter Satz, a crisp wine with a floral nose that's a field blend of grapes including Riesling, Grüner, Weissburgunder, Gelber Muskateller, Welschriesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. The next week, Chamber St. Wines opted for another Grüner, the 2011 Ott Am Berg. SC seems to have forgotten all about Santa Margherita, the very successful Pinot Grigio that wine geeks love to hate.

That disdain puzzled me, since Pinot Grigio is merely the Italian name for Pinot Gris, a French grape that reaches its apex in Alsace and is also grown in Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Moravia and even Oregon, where it is now the most widely planted white variety and second most widely planted overall after Pinot Noir. Alsace produces full-bodied Pinot Gris, as does Oregon; David Phillips, a sales manager at Astor, mentioned the Ponzi from Oregon's Willamette Valley as a nice, affordable example.  

Historically, Phillips said, Italian Pinot Grigios were similar to their northern cousins. The winemakers often allowed the skins to stay in contact with the pressed grape juice for a time after pressing, which gives the wine more flavor and richness. But in the 1960s and 1970s the popularity in the U.S. of Gavi, a white wine made in the Piedmont, led some Italian winemakers to produce lighter crisper wines. Pinot Grigio was planted primarily in the northeastern provinces of Friuli, Alto Adagio and the Veneto, and those winemakers found models in the wines of neighboring Austria, where Grüner Veltliner is the most commonly grown grape. Santa Margherita was particularly successful at promoting the style in the U.S., where Pinot Grigio became an alternative to Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc, a style so light and ineffectual that it was almost wine for people who didn't want to be drinking wine. Planting of Pinot Grigio in Italy almost doubled from 8,600 acres in 1990 to 16,300 a decade later, according to the Oxford Wine Dictionary, and has continued to rise, according to Phillips. As production went up, quality went down.

As SC has discovered, Grüner is an excellent substitute for Pinot Grigio. Phillips suggested Picpoul, w hite from the south of France. Several MFWC members who asked for Pinot Grigio were very pleased with the Ambra Blanco from Ischia, an island off of Naples. But one MFWC member, a man of Sicilian extraction, echoed the geeks' criticism of Pinot Grigio when he said that Ambra Blanco "tastes like water. Italian soda, is what it is." Maybe he needs an old-school Pinot Grigio.    

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