Summertime. For many of us that is the time for a cool white wine. Of course many of them are produced in Italy. One of the more commercially successful whites is the Pinot Grigio from Italy. Specifically, those produced in the north-eastern province of Trentino-Alto Adige. Surrounded the Alps and Dolomites, and bordering Austria and Switzerland, this is the northern most region in Italy. The area is mountainous with only about 15% of the land being farmable.
Historically, Trentino and Alto Adige are two separate regions combined into one for political purposes. At the start of the 19th century, both of these areas were ruled by the Austrians. Alto Adige had been a part of Austria’s Tyrol for hundreds of years. It is also known as the Suditrol (or South Tyrol). The main city is Bolzano and much of the city’s population is German speaking (the area is officially bilingual). Trentino, just to the south, was a conquered land ruled by the Austrians. Its capital is Trent and the city is Italian both in language and culture. In 1919, after the defeat of the Austrians in World War I, the lands were annexed by Italy. The two regions have similar geography and both share the Adige River, an important thoroughfare for commerce. Due to this history, the culture and foods of the area have strong Austrian and Germanic influence in addition to the Italian clout.
Trentino-Alto Adige produces quite a bit of wine. About seventy-five percent of the wine meets DOC requirements with the majority being exported. Among the eight DOC’s of the region, there are two large encompassing DOC’s, one named for Trentino and the other Alto Adige, that produce most of the wines. Historically, most of the production has been for red wines which still account for two-thirds of all production. In recent years it is the whites that have garnered the most attention. Not surprisingly, the white wines of Trentino-Alto Adige have more in common with the German and Austrian wine made just to the north. Included in the white varietals are Chardonnay, Pinot Bianco, Pinot Grigio, Manzoni, Muller Thurgau, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Sylvaner, Gewurztraminer, and Kerner. The grapes, grown on steep, often terraced, mountain vineyards can provide lovely aromatic white wines with floral aromas that provide crisp wines that go great with food. There is also a very important IGT classification for much of the Pinot Grigio that is produced called delle Venezia. Wines carrying this IGT designation may be from Trentino-Alto Adige, but also may be from the Veneto or Friuli. Much of the Pinot Grigio, especially on today’s market comes from this IGT.
Ask many wine professionals about Pinot Grigio and they may roll their eyes. That is because many of the multitude of Pinot Grigios available in the United States are often not made to the highest quality standards. Many of these wines are bland and innocuous and produced with more concern over production levels than quality. They are inexpensive and fill lesser wine lists and grocery store shelves. In addition, many “in the business” show their disdain for Italian Pinot Grigios insisting that they are often not “competitive” with the versions of the same wines made in France and more recently Oregon, which use the French name, Pinot Gris. Pinot Grigio and Pinot Gris are in fact the same grape. The grape itself is a member of the Pinot family. It gets its name from the small berries that have a grayish tinge to them when ripe. Many a Sommelier will attempt to talk you out of drinking a Pinot Grigio in favor of a more “interesting” wine. Don’t be dissuaded. There are some very pleasurable Pinot Grigios on the market that are worth trying.
A good place to start when discussing Italian Pinot Grigio is with the wines of Santa Margherita. To the dismay of many a wine snobs, and the delight of even more restaurateurs, this is the most popular wine in America’s restaurants. It has been for over a decade. One of the great commercial wine success stories, Pinot Grigio was practically unknown when Terlato Imports began selling the wine in 1980. It struck a chord with many people though. Santa Margherita is a crisp white wine that has floral aromatics and a pleasant mineral quality. It drinks quite easily with subtle citrus flavors and just a vestige of sweetness that does not over power food. Relatively low in alcohol at around 12%, it is a nice food wine. Just as importantly, despite the enormous quantities produced, it is very consistent. Not inexpensive (at around $20 to $30 retail), consumers have come to trust and enjoy the wine, especially when dining out. The wine is actually made in two versions, one with the Alto Adige DOC and the other from Valdadige DOC. I don’t really detect much difference between the two bottlings. Perhaps a bit more stuffing in the later.
Are the Santa Margheritas’ the best Pinot Grigios? No, they are not. Are they as bad as some would have you believe? I would say no to that question as well. So why do so many wine geeks show their disdain for the wine? In part because they are so successful at marketing and dominate their market niche, that many are jealous. Others “know” of more enjoyable Pinot Grigios out there for less money and want everyone else to know too. It is always easy to take shots at the top dog. But the truth is that Santa Margherita is successful because they are reliable, consistent and enjoyable. For most people, that is exactly what they are looking for in a glass of wine, especially when dining out. It so well saturated in the market that people have come to know and trust what they will get when ordering a bottle.
Another mass marketed Pinot Grigio of note is Cavit Pinot Grigio. This comes from Trentino and carries the IGT delle Venezia designation. It is one of, if not the best selling wine in the United States. While many would credit this to sheer marketing, the fact is, this is a nice simple wine that is also always consistent. It retails for a couple of dollars on either side of $10. Is it likely to be the best wine you ever had? Doubtful. But, it will suffice for large backyard parties this summer.
There are other Pinot Grigios made in Trentino-Alto Adige that are worth exploring. Perhaps my favorite producer is Alois Lageder. Some would say that his Pinot Grigios are not his best work, as he makes a wide variety of wines and that may be true. However, I recently had his 2006 Alois Lageder Pinot Grigio Benefizium Porer. White/green/gold in color, the nose is quite pretty with soaring aromatics of lemons, chalk and minerals. Nothing complicated about it. Full bodied with a silky texture. On the palate, this has a nice bite of acidity with nice lemon and mineral notes and a long finish. While not cheap (around $25) for a Pinot Grigio, it was truly an outstanding wine. The basic Lageder bottling can be had for around $15. Another very reliable producer to look for is Elana Walch. Their basic bottling costs around $12 and the upscale Ringberg version is around $24. One more quality producer is Tiefenbrunner. Their basic IGT delle Venziea Pinot Grigio has apple and pear notes with just a touch of sweetness. It can be found for around $13. One of my go to “cheapie” wines is the Pinot Grigio from Kris. The Kris Pinot Grigio is around $10. Look for the distinctive green hand on the label. It has pear, citrus and floral notes with a clean fresh finish. More than one dimensional, this IGT delle Venezie wine works well for sipping as an aperitif or with light foods and even burgers on the grill.
When purchasing a wine, remember that Pinot Grigios are fermented in stainless steel tanks. They see little or no oak. The wines are best drunk within the first few years. Right now look for 2007’s or even 2006’s. Be wary of anything older. While the wine may hold up another year or two, it is the clean, fresh, vibrant qualities that define the best qualities of this wine. Exhibiting a light pale silvery gold color, they have aromas of pears, apples, peaches and/or citrus. The better ones contain a mineral quality too. They are refreshing to drink with little complexity although again, the better ones do have a mineral/fruit layering that makes them interesting to sip. They are great with most light summer fare food. Don’t be afraid to pair them with burgers or chicken off the grill, seafood, or pasta.
More importantly, don’t be put off by wine experts (snobs) who tell you that Italy cannot make a good Pinot Grigio. While there are plenty of Pinot Grigios that are bland, given the inexpensive pricing, it is worth experimenting. The bad ones are not so much bad wines, as they are boring. There are plenty of good ones out there including the well known ones and the others. I hope you all go out and try some of the ones listed or make some discoveries of your own. Please let me know what you think.
Loren Sonkin is an IntoWine.com Featured Contributor and the Founder/Winemaker at Sonkin Cellars.