How To Choose Good Cheap Wine from the Big Brands: Pinot Grigio

updated May 3, 2019
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(Image credit: Faith Durand)

Pinot Grigio wines have experienced unprecedented growth in the United States over the past 20 years. After Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio is the second most popular white wine.

Unfortunately, some wine snobs tend to dismiss Pinot Grigio as boring and at best innocuous. But, as the expression goes, “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.” Pinot Grigio does not deserve all the bad press it gets. If produced on an industrial scale, the results can indeed be neutral and forgettable. However, throw in some loving care and attention, and Pinot Grigio can be charming, with delightful aromas and flavors of citrus and stone fruit, with floral notes, hints of spice and minerality.

The wines are generally light to medium bodied, with crisp acidity.

Pinot Grigio (pee noh GREE joe) is actually the Italian name for the French grape Pinot Gris. While French in origin, Pinot Grigio has been planted in Italy for well over a century, particularly in the Northeastern regions of the Veneto, Friuli-Venezia-Giulia and Trentino-Alto Adige. Such is the demand for Pinot Grigio wines, that plantings of Pinot Grigio have rapidly increased all over the wine-growing world, particularly California, Australia, New Zealand and in Oregon, where it is known as Pinot Gris.

Given the huge number of Pinot Grigio producers on the market and the perceivable variance in quality, how can you know whether a particular brand of Pinot Grigio is going to taste nice?

Easy if you happen to know the individual producer, or have a specialist wine assistant on hand to offer advice. But this is not always the case, especially if you are buying from a large store or supermarket.

To make things a little easier we decided to taste through 15 examples of big brand Pinot Grigio wines for less than $15, to see which ones deliver both on quality, and on value. We also included Santa Margherita, (though priced at anything between $18 and $25), because it is one of the top selling brands, and indeed it was the brand that supposedly kick-started America’s love affair with Pinot Grigio in the mid 1970’s.

Pinot Grigio wines should be enjoyed young, while they still retain a lively freshness. For the most part these are not wines for keeping. Hence, we were surprised on our shopping mission to find some 2005 and 2004 wines still on the shelves. We did include one 2005 in our tasting line-up, and alas, it was tired and sad.

So, Tip Number One with these wines: check that the vintage is recent (2007 or 2006). Naturally, our selection weighed in heavy on wines of Italian origin, but we also had a few Californian examples and one from Australia.

Out of the 15 wines tasted, we only rated six that we’d actually enjoy drinking. Many were dilute, lacking fruit and freshness, and distinctly bitter on the finish. This was a big disappointment, as Pinot Grigio, when well made, is a perfect warm weather wine.

Of the wines tasted our six favorites were:

2006 Alois Lageder RIFF, IGT Delle Venezie ($10) – Lovely peachy stone fruit aromas, refreshing with good weight on the palate and clean minerally finish. (17/20)

2007 Ruffino Lumina, IGT Venezia Giulia ($13) – Brimming with ripe youthful fruit, Apricots, apples and some floral notes. Crisp with some spicy herbal notes on the finish. (16.5/20)

2007 Ecco Domani, IGT Delle Venezie ($9) – proving that a huge brand can still deliver. Fresh, peachy aromas and flavors. Light, lively and clean across the palate. Well made (16.5/20)

2006 Kris Pinot Grigio, IGT Delle Venezie ($11) – Apple and citrus on the nose. Fresh and light-bodied. Some stone fruit on the palate and some mineral hints on the finish. (16/20)

2006 Santa Margharita, DOC Alto Adige ($20)- Crisp, dry and fruity with some appealing citrus and golden apple aromas. Clean and fresh across the palate with medium length. (15.5/20)

2007 Woodbridge Pinot Grigio, California ($9) – probably the most fruit forward in a deliberate way, but it worked. Intense aromas of peach and apricot on the nose and lively flavors of citrus zest with a spicy kick on the finish. Simple but perfect for summer evenings (14.5/20)

Most of the wines that we did not rate were at the cheaper end, priced between $6 and $10 and many were 2005 vintage. Perhaps if we had been able to buy the 2007 vintage, these wines would have also been rated more highly. This reiterates the point of seeking out the most recent vintage possible. Another tip would be to try go above $8.

That said, this was only a sample of 15 wines, and if we come across any further Pinot Grigio gems over the summer we will be sure to pass on the names.

Meanwhile, sit back and relax with a glass of Pinot Grigio. Crisp and aromatic, it is very versatile with food. Its lighter body makes it a perfect apéritif. It also pairs wonderfully with soft shell crabs (which are still in my local fish market), crispy spring rolls, sushi, proscuitto, fig and arugula salad, Greek dolmas or even spicy dishes like Mexican enchiladas or Thai green curry.

Until next week, enjoy.