Sunday, June 5, 2011

Pinot Grigio and Pinot Gris, The Real Story!

Today at work we had a small wine tasting, four bottles ranging from a white blend by Columbia Crest, two domestic pinot grigios, and the 2010 Nobilo sauvignon blanc from New Zealand. The pinot grigios come from the Central Coast and the Willamette Valley and are under our own label. I won't name names right now for fear of getting fired, but if you know me and/or connect the dots, it should be easy to figure out where I work.

The tasting was interesting in that it showed multiple differences between the two pinot gris (grigio) versions, as would be expected. Those differences were caused (in part) by terroir and by the respective winemakers. During the tasting discussion, I pointed out that pinot grigio and pinot gris were the same grape variety, and the difference in name stemmed from regional preferences. I compared the names to the shiraz/syrah in order to help my crew use a familiar reference to understand the concept. Unfortunately a lot of them are still very intimidated by wine and think it's far too complex to ever comprehend.

img src

After making my comparison, my boss, who considers himself/herself knowledgeable about wine, said I was wrong about pinot gris/grigio and that they were cousins. He claimed to have read it in a book and held up his fingers an inch apart to imply it was somehow an authoritative tome about wine. Now this went contrary to everything I've learned about wine, but I was interested in what he had to say because I've been wrong many times before. He said that in his authoritative tome, the author wrote that pinot grigio and pinot gris were cousins, akin to the zinfandel-primititivo relationship, or at least what we used to think of the zinfandel-primitivo relationship.

I texted my friend Becky at Kramer Vineyards with the question, who confirmed what I originally believed and also pointed out that years ago, pinot grigio was the name used for cheaper versions of the wine whereas pinot gris was an attempt to take it up-market. After relaying this back to my boss, I was now informed that the Italians grow a clone of pinot grigio and he cited Wikipedia as his source. Again this seemed a bit off, something I hadn't heard much if anything about, but I didn't want to challenge him in front of any coworkers.

Back to Becky I went, with the new factoid, then she said she'd ask her sister Kim, the winemaker at Kramer Vineyards. Kim and I went back and forth on Facebook and I'll post that below.

Kim: "Becky tells me you're looking for comments on the difference between Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio?"

Beau: "Yea I was wondering, we had a question about it at work, whether they're the same grape with a different name or are genetic cousins the way Zin and Primitivo are."

Kim: "Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio are the same grape. Although, I believe Pinot Grigio implies a lighter, crisper, and often drier style (Italian grigios are more austere) than most of the Pinot Gris made here.

I believe the US producers who use grigio rather than gris are doing so primarily because of marketing. However, I would expect a wine that is labeled 'Grigio' to be light and crisp as opposed to the textural, fruity Alsatian Pinot Gris."

Beau: "So genetically they're the same, are there any clonal differences like pinot noir has? Reason I ask is that my boss claims to have read a wine book saying that they're cousins, I think he's wrong. I've never heard that before and have always been told it's a regional name difference and an implied stylistic difference."

Kim: "I think he's wrong too. There are different clones of Pinot Gris, but I am unsure as to what they are or where they are grown. I don't know what clones we grow here. I've never heard a single winemaker discuss clonal selection of Pinot Gris, so perhaps they aren't particularly important. My experience with Pinot Noir is that terroir and winemaking style often trump clonal differences in the finished wines anyway. My suspicion is that the Italian grigios are so austere because the Italians prefer them that way, like most of their whites. So, unless there has been some groundbreaking genetic research in the last few years that I'm completely ignorant of, your boss is mistaken."

Kim gave me permission to quote her in this blog post, so I thank her for taking the time to answer my questions. After emailing with Kim I also posted the question to my Twitter followers and got a couple of responses, they are below:

ReturnToTerroir: Transalpine brotha. Same grape.

KramerWine5 (Trudy Kramer): Pinot Gris is the same thing as Pinot Grigio. French vs. Italian wording. PG is a mutation of Pinot Noir.

KramerWine5 (Trudy Kramer): Pinot Gris has many other names throughout Europe.

Grooner: Pinot Grigio is the Italian name for "Grey Pinot"; Pinot Gris is the French. In Austria, it is Grauburgunder.

Again this basically confirmed that pinot grigio and pinot gris are the same grape, not cousins like my boss thinks.

My point isn't to say that I'm right and he's wrong, it's that there is a lot of false information out there even in wine books. For example, out of the wine books I own, one slightly older version says that primitivo and zinfandel are cousins, whereas a newer book says that they're genetically the same, and I've been told that primitivo is the grandfather of zinfandel by a Master of Wine before. Just goes to show you, there is information out there but you should take it all with a grain of salt.

Beau Carufel


  1. Your boss is I mean mistaken. As you point out, correctly, it's the same variety.
    Its funny, and sad to watch the same marketing copycat implosion that has occurred for Syrah-Shiraz and Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio.

    American wineries marketeers, never seeming to learn that you don't chase short term trends in this industry, rushed into to follow the success of Aussie fruit bomb Shiraz, and damn Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio, which was being swilled at a ridiculous rate...swill being the key word, in the ridiculous volumes this plonk, best served near freezing, was shipping.

    Shiraz SHOULD generally refer to Aussie Syrah and Pinot Grigio to Italian Pinot Gris, but trying to 'catch the wave' US Marketers called domestic products by their foreign name. Both have backfired horribly over time, and both varietals have suffered in sales. Quantity eventually undermines quality and can precipitate a market decline, loss of value.

    We do see the occasional winery with Italian roots use the name Pinot Grigio, especially in NorCal. I try to be open minded and not assume it crapola.

    Its been a sad state for this wonderful, versatile grape. Not unlike Chardonnay, it can be very different based on vinification techniques. Its actually a GREY grape, as the name implies, and does well with some skin contact. Neutral oak, concrete, sur lies, all are variants that stand out.

    Sadly my dear Russian River Valley a decade had a lot more, its been changed mostly to its sister Pinot Noir, which yields a much better price...Pinot Gris/grigio is usually a $15-20 bottle, if lucky, where good Pinot Noir is 2x that.

    Oregon, Willamette Valley as really risen up and makes some incredible Pinot Gris (redeeming themselves for their Chardonnay viticulture fumbles) and I am generally very enthusiastic about OR Pinot Gris...and wish a lot more of it made its way across the border.

    Hmmm maybe its time for a Pinot Gris day and comparative tasting :)

    nice article, cheers!

  2. Agree with you, from everything I've known. "Gris" is French for "grey". "Grigio" is Italian for "grey". Yeah, the Italian ones tend to be lighter and more acidic, because that's very Italian to have a high acid wine with less fruitiness, as it's better with food.

    "Pinot Grigio" in the U.S. has is surely either marketing or a stylistic declaration. I think your "Syrah/Shiraz" comparison is right on.

    Of course, this could all be false information :)

  3. William: We were in Australia, Mornington Peninsula, at a highly sought after winery. The owner told us the same thing. He isn't making Pinot Gris because he gets more for his pinot noir which retailed at $100 Australian. There are a lot of tannins in the skin of the pinot gris. We used to crush and press the fruit and the extracted tannins were overwhelming--an abundance of flintiness. The wine tasted good five years out. We changed to whole cluster pressing and this made such a difference! The flintiness was greatly reduced making the wine more approachable and allowing the fruit to shine. For that reason, I am not a fan of skin contact for pinot gris. We make two, one is traditional tank fermented, the other is barrel fermented in older oak barrels.
    It is true that Oregon had a struggle with the old 108 clones of Chardonnay. We tried to make good wines out of it, and sometimes it was good (hot year) and difficult in late vintages. Our founding fathers did a lot of things right, but they told me that they didn't have access to very many clones in the 1970's so just picked one. It took 15 years to realize it was the wrong one. Oregon and Burgundy are decidedly cool climate growing regions and both do use the same clones. In the early 1990's Dijon Clones of Chardonnay were released to us in Oregon and most people either pulled out their Chardonnay or they grafted over to the new clones which is what we did. Today, the better chardonnays in Oregon are from Dijon Clones which are the same clones used in Burgundy and developed for them at their research station in Dijon. There is still some 108 here. Maybe it's ok for sparkling. It can ripen as much as 2 -3 weeks later than Dijon Clones. The wine quality is so much better every vintage without the highs and lows of the old clones. It is a significant difference.

  4. Thanks for sharing the discussions that went into this. It's nice to see information from a range of sources, and it's great that you get to share your experiences with your co-workers!

  5. Can't tell you how many times I've had to explain that to wine buyers. Thank you!

  6. Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio are just the same variety. The difference cited by others are merely based on their experience with certain brands.

  7. That seems to be the consensus, along with the regional/winemaking style differences others have talked about. I think the crux of the issue, the relationship between pinot gris and pinot grigio has been established as the exact same grape. I think my boss might realized this now.