Pinot Grigio: Why This Popular White Wine Deserves a Better Rap

Pinot Grigio: Why This Popular White Wine Deserves a Better Rap

McKenzie Hagan |

Long before "rosé all day" became the drinking mantra of a generation, Pinot Grigio established itself as the go-to refresher for a hot summer day. Chances are you've had a glass or two of "Greezh" at a music festival, picnic, birthday party, engagement party, baby shower, bridal shower, or some other celebratory social scenario because, well, it's just so dang quaffable.

Yet despite its incredible popularity, Pinot Grigio still manages to polarize a great deal of wine snobs — er, wine drinkers — who argue it's cheap, overproduced, and lacks character. Much like Chardonnay and Merlot, Pinot Grigio has had to overcome a bad rap for being mass-produced.

In this guide, we'll explore everything you need to know about Pinot Grigio, including where it comes from, how it's made, what it tastes like, and the different types that are out there. (News flash: It's not just a one-note thirst quencher.) We'll also share tips on enjoying this white wine — from the best serving temperature to must-try food pairings.

What Is Pinot Grigio?

Pinot Grigio is the Italian term for the grape used to create its namesake white wine. Fun fact: The term "pinot" means "pine cone" in French, which refers to the shape of the grape's clusters. The name literally translates to "gray pine cone." Unlike other white wine grape varieties that usually have light-green skin, Pinot Grigio grapes have a grayish-blue hue thanks to a mutation of its parent — the dark Pinot Noir varietal.

Although Pinot Grigio originated in the Burgundy region of France back in the Middle Ages, it eventually became ubiquitous in the wine regions of northern Italy, specifically Friuli, Trentino, Lombardy, and Alto Adige (aka South Tyrol). Today, it's grown around the globe, including Old World wine regions ranging from Austria, Germany, Romania, and Switzerland to New World destinations such as Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States (most notably in Oregon and California). 

As for its name, that simply depends on where the varietal is grown. In France, it's called Pinot Gris ("gray pine cone"), and in Germany it's either Ruländer or Grauburgunder ("gray Burgundian").

Pro tip: Although Pinot Grigio and Pinot Gris are the same grape by a different name, Pinot Blanc is not. Granted, Pinot Blanc is also a mutation of Pinot Noir, but it’s an altogether different grape with a much lighter (if not white) skin. 

How Is Pinot Grigio Wine Made?

The winemaking process for Pinot Grigio is much the same as with any wine. Once the grapes are harvested and crushed, the fermentation process begins to turn those squashed grapes into a boozy beverage. When it comes to Pinot Grigio, most winemakers make it in the dry style (i.e. not sweet), so fermenting will run its course and leave very little residual sugar in the wine. However, there are some vintners who want a sweeter result. In this case, they'll halt fermentation before all the sugars have been converted into alcohol.

As with other crisp white wines like Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling, Pinot Grigio is almost always aged in stainless steel barrels to keep those fresh, fruity notes. That said, if you see the name Pinot Gris on the wine label, there's a chance it was aged in oak barrels, especially if it comes from the Alsace region in France.

In general, Pinot Grigio alcohol levels tend to hover in the moderate zone of 12-14% ABV (alcohol by volume).

Pinot Grigio Is Great, So What's With the Negativity?

Pinot Grigio: Usual Wines bottle surrounded with iceIt's worth noting that Pinot Grigio got a bit of a bad reputation starting in the 1970s when wine producers struggled to keep up with demand in the U.S. As with anything that quickly explodes in popularity, quality control dwindled. The result was a surge of subpar vinos that ended up tainting the market for this otherwise wonderful wine. 

Fortunately, there are plenty of good Pinot Grigios to be had — you just have to pay attention to where they're produced. Avoid ultra-cheap, commercially produced brands that aren't transparent about where (or how) the grapes are grown. These are much more likely to lack character and contain chemical additives, sweeteners, and preservatives.

Pro tip: Always read labels and do your research. Look for clean crafted wines that are made in lower yields without chemical ingredients. For a deliciously sparkling dry white wine, you can't go wrong with our Usual Wines Brut, made in small batches from sustainably grown grapes. Just sayin'.

Different Types of Pinot Grigio and Flavors

As mentioned, Pinot Grigio is typically a dry wine, so that's what's familiar to most of us. However, there's more to this gray grape than meets the eye. Here's a quick look at just how diverse this white wine can be.

  • Italian Pinot Grigio Wines: Dry and light with high acidity and fruit flavors, such as lime, lemon, green apple, white peach, and nectarine.
  • French Pinot Gris Wines: Richer and fuller-bodied with fragrant notes of tropical fruit and honeysuckle. Expect musky hints of pear or vanilla with a subtly sweet taste, especially in those from Alsace. If you see "vendanges tardives" on the label, that means it's a late-harvest dessert wine.
  • New World Pinot Grigio Wines: More pronounced, complex aromatics and fruit flavors such as stone fruit and apples with a slightly softer acidity than Old World versions. Pinot Gris from regions like New Zealand and California also tend to have an oily mouthfeel. 

Pro tip: To better understand some of these descriptions (and sound like a pro at your next wine tasting shindig), check out our guide to must-know wine terms.

Best Wine Temperature for Pinot Gris Wine

As with any white wine, you always want to properly chill your bottle of Pinot Gris before sipping. To keep that fresh flavor, zesty acidity, and lovely bouquet intact, the ideal wine temperature is 40-50 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Don’t worry, you don’t need some special thermometer. Keeping it in the fridge for a couple hours should do the trick. Just be sure to take it out about 30 minutes before serving so it can warm up ever-so-slightly before you open it. While you don't want your wine to be warm, if you serve it too cold, it could end up muting the flavors.

Pro tip: When you're short on time, try one of these 8 hacks to quickly chill wine.

Tasty Food Pairings for Pinot Grigio

Usual Wines bottles with different kinds of food on the tableOne of the great things about Pinot Grigio is that it pairs well with a number of dishes. Steer clear of heavy, meaty dishes as these aren't a good match for the light and acidic nature of the wine. Here are some top recommendations for the perfect pairings:

  • Cheeses: For the best cheese pairings, opt for fresh, soft, mild cheeses such as brie, mozzarella, feta, ricotta, and Camembert.
  • Proteins: Shellfish, raw oysters, and fresh seafood are excellent companions for Pinot Grigio, as are light proteins like chicken and pork. Pastas with milder cream sauces — think linguine with clams or shrimp scampi — are also fantastic.
  • Vegetables: Crudités and lightly roasted or grilled spring veggies like asparagus and peas will punctuate your zesty sipper.
  • Dessert: Opt for light, creamy, not-too-sweet finishes like crème brulee, crepes with mascarpone and berries, or fresh stone fruit to bring out the wine's fruity notes. 

Greezh Is the Word

While some naysayers will argue that Pinot Grigio is vino non grata, we say that's just sour grapes. It's true that some Pinot Grigios are better than others, but that's the case with any wine. More than a mainstream favorite that’s affordable and accessible, Pinot Gris is a multi-dimensional varietal that has plenty of personality.

From Italian-style dry versions to surprisingly complex (and even sweet) creations, this easy-drinking white wine is one that's worth the hype after all these years. Because when it comes down to it, the best wine is simply the one that you enjoy — no matter what you call it.

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