by Bella Volchik
Pinot Grigio is an exceptional wine. Crisp, clean—can be racy—and full of flavors. What should you do to find whether one is worth your attention?
Well, go to Venice, but be careful not to turn south to Rome. Keep north, east, and up to Tyrolean villages, among snowy peaks and along the coast to the border port of Trieste. A step further and you are in Austria and Slovenia; stretch your arm and you are in Germany, Switzerland, and Croatia.
This region produces the best white wines of Italy. They are classic and imaginative. They are made on a crossroads of winemaking cultures. These wines are made with great precision. They are quite different from the wines from Alsace; the techniques of northern Italy’s wine production elevate local grapes to the elegance of the noblest Riesling or Burgundy. Please spare me from all the talk about Santa Margarita and Cavit! You have watched too many ads.
You may experience, within in a taste, cool climate, high altitude, rocky streams, and German techniques, but the complexity comes from the region’s unique human character, history, and mix of nationalities. The people who live in the area are survivors. The characters and blood in their veins remember Julius Caesar, the crusaders, Napoleon, two world wars, and constantly changing borders, alliances, and ideologies.
The people of the region are practical, independent, and flexible. The geography of Pinot Grigio can be very confusing. It’s along the Adige River and in the region of Trentino Alto Adige, bordering Austria. It also stretches to the East Friuli Giulia,which stretches along Slovenia from the mountains and foothills down to plains along the Adriatic.
When browsing the shelves of the wine shop, forget Italian and look for the names that sound German or Slavic: Zemmer, Jermann, Tramin, Attems, Hofstatter, Kupelwieser, Damijan, and Schiopetto. The best bottles of Pinot Grigio are from small wineries, with the most prized coming from Alto Adige and Friuli, especially the Colli/Collio hills. The heirloom grapes meet human savvy and innovation in the winery. A full range of techniques are used, from big Slovenian oak tanks to gleaming stainless steel, to vinify the wine to the winemaker’s taste.
Here, more than anywhere else in the world, winemakers combine modern techniques with ancient ways. Friuli’s most imaginative winemaker, Josko Gravner, gave up on modern stainless steel 20 years ago and switched to small oak barrels. In recent years he has used amphora, huge clay urns from biblical times that he buries in the earth where the wine ferments and ages on its own.
Pinot Grigio is more than the best-known Italian white. Most buyers know little more than the most heavily advertised brands. If you will look beyond those brands, your money will buy more quality than marketing. Just keep in mind geography. Read labels carefully and look for a traditional home in northeastern Italy like Trentino, Alto Adige, and Colli, most specifically Collio. Expect to spend $10 to $25 more than for cheap refrigerator white.
I recommend drinking fresh, recent vintages; older vintages tend to lose the brilliant color and the taste becomes dull. It does not mean Pinots cannot be aged for a few years, but in my experiences, for the best results, drink recent vintages of Pinot Grigio. Styles will range from bright and crisp to ripe and round, the flavors are of fresh apples, pears, and some peaches, with spice and mineral sparkle.
It is because of its geography that this wine matches many foods that aren’t classically Italian. It is paired with cabbage, Savoy, cooked craut, apples, prosciutto, asparagus, beans, and beet salads. Polenta is a staple, and the best pastas are agnolotti dumplings filled with raisins and pears. Don’t forget strudels and hearty soups. Serve very cold and try with smoked meats, pork, hard cheeses, freshwater fish, and shellfish.
Bon appetite and remember, Life is a Matter of Taste!