Pinot Grigio, hugely popular around the globe, is as capable of making incredibly interesting wines with layers of complexity, as it is of making the boring, innocuous, crowd-pleasing stuff that prevails on so many supermarket shelves. Great Pinot Grigio is a joy to taste. For me, one of the best sources of very good to excellent Pinot Grigio is Alto Adige, Italy's smallest and most northerly winegrowing region. Come take a quick tour through this lovely little region and its wines.
I've been to Alto Adige a number of times. Breathtakingly beautiful and nestled in the foothills of the majestic, snow-capped Dolomites, purity prevails in the alpine air. It is easy to see why Alto Adige Pinot Grigio is different. The wines are focused, minerally and intensely flavored. Many show great complexity and potential for long aging. A far cry from the voluminous, bland brands that populate so many wine store shelves.
What makes for such excellent Pinot Grigio is a combination of elements. Firstly the climate, with its long, sunny growing season, and cool nights, helps build flavors. Altitude helps retain natural acidity. The diverse volcanic, gravel and limestone soils are responsible for structure, minerality and focus. Finally, the people, Italian by decree, but of Austrian descent, are a force of Mediterranean spontaneity and Germanic order.
The Taste of Pinot Grigio
Pinot Grigio should be flavorful. It is rich in extract. Wines can be quite full-bodied from old, low-yielding vines. Aromas and flavors include floral notes, exotic citrus and stone fruit, and a delightful hint of spice that many call 'brazil nut'. From Alto Adige, add in crispness, liveliness and a defining minerality.
Pinot Grigio is delicate and care is needed during vinification to ensure that you don't end up with harsh phenolics that give a bitter taste to the wine.
In general, Alto Adige Pinot Grigio is fermented in stainless steel or other inert vessels. Some use large, older oak vats, to build structure without adding any oak flavor. Many are bottled and released early, but the best spend time on the lees (dead yeast cells) building palate weight, texture and flavor complexity.
Pinot Grigio at the Table
Pinot Grigio is very versatile at the table. Fresh and lively it makes a great apéritif. The more full-bodied styles pair with a range of dishes including fish, chicken, pork or veal and vegetables. Lightly spicy dishes are fine; just watch for very rich, heavy sauces, which might overpower the wines.
Today, the US is a very important export market for Alto Adige Pinot Grigio, so the wines are widely available around the country. Below are some producers and wines to look for to see how delicious Pinot Grigio really should taste. These are all DOC Alto Adige wines. A number of these producers also Pinot Grigio under the wider geographic designation, IGT Vigneti delle Dolomiti. Lighter-bodied, more easy-drinking and usually cheaper, these wines are quite tasty, and serve as perfect summer sippers.
Alto Adige Pinot Grigio Wines to Try
• 2010 Elena Walch Pinot Grigio, Castel Ringberg, $22 – Substantive, rich palate texture, intensely flavored, complex and very long. Melange of stone fruit, citrus and bosq pear with strong minerality and floral notes.
• 2010 Nals Magreid Pinot Grigio, Alto Adige, $17 - Lively, refreshing and seems to ooze Alpine purity. Nicely defined on the palate showing pear, melon, tangy lemon curd. Vibrant fruity finish.
• 2009 Cantina Valle Isarco Pinot Grigio, $26 – Purity and focus were the first two words that came to mind on tasting this crisp, well-defined wine. Aromas and flavors are an elegant salad of citrus, stone fruit with notes of spice and white flowers. Elegant, taut, minerally finish.
• 2009 Peter Zemmer Pinot Grigio, Alto Adige, $19 - Inviting fragrant nose, lively attack on the palate with very good flavor intensity – stone fruit cocktail, grapefruit, spice and a lovely creaminess that adds texture and weight across the palate. Very minerally with a long smooth finish.
• 2009 St. Michael-Eppan, Pinot Grigio, $15.99 – A little on the lighter side, but delightfully crisp and refreshing with a tangy medley of pear, apple and citrus. Moderately long with a spicy kick on the finish.
• 2009 Alois Lageder Pinot Grigio Benefizium Porer, $23 – Quite rich, yet elegant attack. Layers of ripe fruit – exotic citrus, creamy apricot, spice and lots of minerality. Well defined and focused with a lingering savory finish.
• 2009 Colterenzio Schreckbichl Pinot Grigio Alto Adige - $15 – Lightly fragrant nose with a floral touch. Crisp, lively and packed with refreshing citrus, nectarine, papaya, pear and a hint of creamy spice. Medium bodied with a tangy, vibrant finish.
Until next week enjoy.
Mary Gorman-McAdams, DWS, is a New York based wine educator, freelance writer and consultant. She holds the Diploma in Wine & Spirits from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET), and is a candidate in the Master of Wine Program.
(Images: Mary Gorman and Altoadigewines.com)