The Pinot Gris Grape Variety
The Pinot Gris – known in Germany as Grauburgunder and in Italy as Pinot Grigio – is a special grape variety. Although it produces white wines, the fruit on the vine is reddish-grey in colour. Pinot Gris grapevines are quite hardy and even thrive in cooler winegrowing regions. In terroirs with good conditions, the Pinot Gris can be used to produce high quality top wines.
Pinot Gris – A Viticultural Classic in Germany
The Pinot Gris has long been one of the classics for German vintners. The wines produced from it are matured in barrique casks but also in steel tanks. Two methods have become established in Baden and the Palatinate: With traditional bulk ageing, the grapes used are very ripe and a portion of them have noble rot. The result is a heavy, sweet wine, which is often marketed as ‘Ruländer’. Since the 1990s, however, the traditional method has been increasingly displaced by the French and Italian practice, i.e. harvesting earlier and including only healthy grapes. In Germany the trend is also leaning clearly toward classic Pinot Gris wines with higher acidity and more elegant complexity.
The History of Pinot Grigio Wine
The roots of both the Pinot Gris grape variety and the Pinot Noir are found in the wild vines of Western Europe. In the 14th Century it first came to Austria and Hungary from the Champagne and Burgundy regions. By 1568 it accompanied the Austrian General Lazarus from Schwendi to Alsace, and finally travelled on to Kaiserstuhl. By the 18th Century it had established itself as a leading grape variety in Germany: In 1711, the merchant Johann Seger Ruland found a Pinot Gris specimen in a neglected vineyard in Speyer (Palatinate). Although he couldn’t identify the subspecies, he did recognise the winemaking potential of the vine and encouraged its propagation in German wineries. He is the namesake for the ‘Ruländer’ wine.
Ancestry and Hybrids of the Pinot Gris
It is believed that the Pinot Gris variety is a mutation of the Pinot Noir, which is almost a direct descendant of a wild grape variety from the North of France. Targeted hybridisation and breeding play a negligible role when it comes to this variety. Pinot Gris tends to mutate, which has brought forth a large number of clones. The latest developments trend toward the breeding of less compact clones to serve as a basis for leaner, fruity-fresh Pinot Gris wines. At the same time, the diverse clones lend the wine specific accents in regard to aroma and colour.
Pinot Grigio: Winegrowing Regions
Pinot Grigio is one of the leading grape varieties in Germany and is cultivated on over 5 800 hectares. It is can be found in all of the German winegrowing regions. It is grown mainly in Baden (1636 hectares), Rhinehessen (1153 hectares) and the Palatinate (1044 hectares). Pinot Gris is cultivated on approximately 15 000 hecatres worldwide. The most important European winegrowing countries for the Pinot Gris are Germany, France, Italy, Austria and Hungary. In the New World, the Pinot Grigio plays a role primarily in the USA, Australia and New Zealand.
Ampelography of the Pinot Gris
The shoots of Pinot Gris grapevines are green-white in colour and have a markedly woolly texture. The new leaves are light green with a light bronze and slightly woolly underside. Mature leaves are dark green and have a palmate shape with wide, arrow-shaped middle lobes and light green veins. They are mid-sized, rough to blistered, have three to five lobes and are usually fairly flat. Stems are V-shaped, and the leaf edge is wavy-toothed. The grapes themselves are of average size, round to oval shaped and can appear in compact to slightly loose bunches, sometimes shouldered. Very ripe Pinot Gris grapes often appear grey, as the name suggests. The grapes are pink to reddish brown with a moderately thick skin. The deviation in the colour of the grapes is due to the Pinot Gris’ tendency to mutate.
Pinot Gris: Crop Yield
The Pinot Gris is a high-yield grape variety but can also be thinned to produce grapes with a high must weight. The less compact and unshouldered Pinot Gris clones have a lower yield than its traditional clone, however they can reach higher must weights depending upon how they have been cultivated. In order to increase quality, many wineries purposely reduce the yield by thinning the plants.
Climate, Soil and Location Conditions
Pinot Gris thrives especially well in locations that are well aerated, have a good water supply and in loamy or chalky soil with good drainage. Its semi-erect growth encourages the production of epicormic shoots and grapes which must be removed in order to produce quality wines. The vine is robust and has a low susceptibility to frost, however, as it reacts poorly to temperature fluctuations, it does require a stable climate and a north-facing slope. Pinot Gris is fairly disease resistant, but it invites botrytis cinerea (noble rot) which prepares a portion of the grapes specifically for Ruländer vinification.
Characteristics of Pinot Gris Wines
Classic Pinot Gris wine is dry, somewhat acidic and medium-bodied, however Ruländer is a heavy wine with emphasised sweetness. A bouquet of green walnuts, almonds and fresh butter are typical for the wine. Many Pinot Gris wines also have fresh to distinctive fruity notes such as pear, pineapple, citrus fruits, raisins or dried fruit. Vegetal notes such as bell pepper or green bean may also be present. Depending upon the method used for bulk ageing, Pinot Gris wines can be pale yellow, golden yellow, and top quality wines may even be amber coloured.
Synonyms for Pinot Gris
There are numerous synonyms for the Pinot Gris grape variety. The most widely-known is Pinot Grigio. In Switzerland the grape is often known as Malvasier or Malvoisie. In Hungary it is called Szürkebarát. Other synonyms are Grauburgunder, Fromentau and Tokay d’Alsace.
Food Pairing with Pino Grigio
Young, dry and light Pinot Gris wines are excellent summer wines. Heavier versions harmonise well with pasta, fish and seafood, as well as light meat dishes. Fruity-sweet or noble sweet variations pair well with creamy, mould-inoculated cheeses, e.g. Roquefort, and other rich cheeses, as well as desserts with almonds, nuts, honey or marzipan.