01/28/09 – Pinot Gris vs. Pinot Grigio

By Jesse on January 26, 2009

Jerry Seinfeld once encapsulated perfectly the uncertainty that many beginning wine drinkers feel as they start to learn about the stuff. “Can’t we just get rid of wine lists?” he asked in his stand-up routine. “Do we really have to be reminded every time we go out to a nice restaurant that we have no idea what we are doing? Why don’t they just give us a trigonometry quiz with the menu?”

Think of the fun he could’ve had if he’d gotten into wine’s unpredictable and perplexing system of nomenclature. “What’s the deal with Montepulciano? Is it a town, or is it a grape? How can it be both?” (You have to do your best Seinfeld voice when you read this paragraph, even if it’s only in your head.) “Why is Syrah called Syrah in one place and Shiraz somewhere else? If it’s only one grape, why does it need two names? And why do they call white zinfandel ‘white’ if it’s actually pink?”

Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio represent another one of these ridiculous areas of confusion. Both names refer to the exact same grape (“Pinot Gris” is the French term and “Pinot Grigio” the Italian). In the Western Hemisphere, though, producers are free to use either name. Here’s the important thing: which name they select may have implications with regard to what style of wine they’re shooting for.

–The Italian version, Pinot Grigio, is a dry wine noted for its crisp simplicity and clean minerality. Many producers in California aspire to this style and use the “Grigio” name rather than the “Gris.”

–In France, Pinot Gris is grown in Alsace, where it makes a spicier and more fruit-forward version with creamier minerality. Producers in Oregon often shoot for this style… and, therefore, call their wine “Pinot Gris.” Oregon is the source of some of the more impressive examples of Pinot Gris to be found in the New World.

–In Germany, Pinot Gris is known as Rulander. If you find a Rulander from California or Oregon, you’ll be my new hero.

Like many grapes, Pinot Gris / Grigio can taste remarkably different depending on where it’s grown, and some people love one style and hate the other. We’ll taste both, and we’ll see if we can figure out both the important differences and our own personal preferences. Watch this video to pregame, in which Gary Vaynerchuk holds a taste-off between a French and an Italian (the result may surprise and disappoint you).

For this meeting, please bring any bottle of Pinot Gris / Pinot Grigio / Rulander. The region of origin doesn’t matter, so be creative — the Venezie region in Italy, the Alsace region in France, and various regions in California and Oregon are all good bets. Ask your friendly wine merchant to help you find a bottle in the style that you think you’ll prefer. And don’t forget to chill your bottle!

We’ll be meeting at Wino HQ in Sherman Oaks. The RSVP system functions like this: if you want in, you click on this link and tell me so (don’t forget your full name, e-mail address, and a cute message conveying to me your intentions). Priority is given to long-term members but seats are also reserved at each and every meeting for new people. If you’re denied entry due to a meeting exceeding capacity, don’t worry — you’ll be at the top of the list the next week.

Once you’ve gotten your confirmation e-mail, go out and find yourself a delicious bottle of Gris or Grigio (or bring a $10 donation, if you prefer). We’ll see you crazy kids on Wednesday at 9pm.