Pinot Grigio is a grape variety that has become very popular in recent years. The name is easy and pleasant to pronounce and the wine is easy and pleasant to drink. It is popular with new wine drinkers as it is often made off-dry and blandly inoffensive.
Grigio is the Italian word for grey and so Pinot Grigio is the Italian name for the grape the French call Pinot Gris – again Gris meaning Grey.
Pinot Gris is one of the large genetically identical Pinot family. Pinot, meaning pinecone - presumably got its name because its grape bunches resembled a pinecone as the berries are very tightly packed together.
Pinot is one of the oldest of the cultivated wine grape varieties and it mutates at the drop of a hat. The black grape version - Pinot Noir - is the most famous and highly rated family member and is thought to be the original.
The mutation we call Grigio or Gris produces grapes that are not black and not white so presumably that is how it got the name. But Gris is not the only name it has been given over the centuries in different places where it is grown. More than 25 different names are recorded, including in France alone Tokay d'Alsace, Pinot Beurot, Malvoisie, and Gros Cordelier.
Beurot is a name from Burgundy referring to the rough serge cloth habits worn by monks. The Cistercians took Pinot Gris from Burgundy and planted it in Hungary in the late 1300's and the variety is still known there as Szurkebarat, or 'grey monk'.
The EU has banned the use of the Tokay name in Alsace, so they are starting to use Pinot Gris there, and around the world grape names are reverting to the names most popular with the public.
You stand more chance nowadays selling a Pinot Grigio than a Rulander or Klevanjka although they are all the same.
The actual colour of the Pinot Gris grapes is not consistent. Sometimes they are metallic greyish, but the ones I have seen harvested have been mostly pale to deep pink when fully ripe. Like nearly all grapes, the juice is clear and so most Pinot Gris/Grigio are made as white wines but we are now seeing winemakers trying to double the customer appeal of their wines by making the already popular Grigio as an even more popular blush wine. The colour comes from fermenting the juice together with the grape skins for a while.
Don’t dismiss Pinot Grigio as a simple flavourless wine. Try Pinot Gris from Alsace and my favourite Pinot Gris from New Zealand which are stunningly good.
The Pinot mutation with uncoloured grapes is known as Pinot Blanc, and another mutation – the black Pinot Meunier - is the most planted grape in Champagne, France.
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Peter F May is the author of Marilyn Merlot and the Naked Grape: Odd Wines from Around the World which features more than 100 wine labels and the stories behind them, and PINOTAGE: Behind the Legends of South Africa’s Own Wine which tells the story behind the Pinotage wine and grape, also available for the Kindle.