Wine snobs may look down upon Pinot Grigio, but I’m proud to say that I like it—as long as it’s the good stuff. There are extremely good, even excellent Pinot Grigios out there, although finding them can be a challenge.
First launched in the U.S. during the late 1970s, Pinot Grigio rose to become one of the most imported wines from Italy by the mid-1990s. These savory, refreshing offerings were polar opposites to the oaked-up, buttery and often palate-fatiguing Chardonnays that dominated the American market.
Today, finding quality Pinot Grigio is a minefield. Offerings range from bland and dilute to full-bodied and elegant. Prices vary accordingly, as do opinions. As a result, many wine lovers avoid the category altogether, but they’re missing out.
Pinot Grigio, a darkly colored, gray-blue grape, is a mutation of Pinot Noir. It can make clean, zesty everyday whites as well as fine wines with personality and complexity. The best are mineral driven, with mouthwatering pear, peach and apple flavors offset by bright acidity and backed up by just enough weight.
Besides a producer’s commitment to quality, vineyard location is a key factor to finding the best Pinot Grigios. The grape is grown throughout Italy, but has become the flag bearer in the country’s northeast. The best areas for Pinot Grigio are select parts of Friuli and Alto Adige, the finest growing zones for white wine in Italy.
Collio and Friuli Colli Orientali
Located in the northeastern region of Friuli Venezia Giulia, these neighboring denominations produce outstanding Pinot Grigio. Collio, which borders Slovenia, is made up entirely of hillside vineyards. The best sites in Friuli Colli Orientali are also found on the hills.
These steep vineyards have sharp day-night temperature changes that generate complexity and aromas. The zones also benefit from microclimates generated by their vicinity to the Julian Alps and the Adriatic Sea. The mountains protect the vineyards from harsh winter storms, while the Adriatic’s warm breezes encourage ripening.
Once known locally as Rülander, Pinot Grigio is the most planted grape in Collio. It’s also a major variety in Colli Orientali, and has been widely planted in much of the region since the mid-1800s.
The best wines from these denominations are medium to full bodied, and are generally richer and possess more depth than other Pinot Grigios. They’re also fresh and loaded with aromas and flavors that include pear, apple, peach and apricot, with sensations that tip toward tropical in particularly warm vintages.
Perhaps the most important factor behind these superb Pinot Grigios is the soil. Made up of layers of marl and sandstone, this flysch, known locally as ponca and present throughout the hills of Collio and Colli Orientali, gives the wines their hallmark mineral energy and salinity.
According to Robert Princic, owner and winemaker of Gradis’ciutta and president of the Collio consorzio, the ponca is crucial to giving Pinot Grigio its structure and concentration.
“Not only does this unique soil lend mineral flavors, but it naturally limits grape yields, and lower yields produce wines with more body and intensity,” says Princic.
He says that local producers have always made Pinot Grigio as a quality wine as opposed to subscribing to the quantity-driven mentality found in other areas.
A number of Collio Pinot Grigios, and some from Colli Orientali, also boast a unique coppery reflection, which is the result of brief contact between the juice and the dark grape skins.
To enhance complexity and flavor, most producers leave the wine on its lees for several months.
Bordering Austria and Switzerland in the Italian Alps known as the Dolomites, the province of Alto Adige—also called Südtirol (South Tyrol in English)—is Italy’s northernmost wine-producing area. Vibrant and elegantly structured, Pinot Grigios from here rank among the best in Italy.
The grape thrives in the area’s high-altitude vineyards, where warm days and cool nights lead to a long growing season, generating intense aromas that tend to be more floral than fruity. On the palate, these mountain Pinot Grigios deliver white peach, pear, apple and flinty mineral offset by lively acidity.
Overcropping on the hillsides is practically impossible. It’s a major reason why Pinot Grigios from Alto Adige boast more concentration than those from the plains and valley floors, where yields are far higher.
“Not only are yields strictly limited in the Alto Adige DOC regulations, but the very steep slopes, high-density plantings and manual work in the vineyards guarantee the production of high-end Pinot Grigios,” says Karoline Walch, of the Elena Walch winery.
According to Alessandro Righi, managing director of St. Pauls Cooperative Winery in Eppan, soil and altitude are the driving forces behind its Pinot Grigio.
“The vast majority of white wines in Italy are made in low-lying vineyards and are planted in clay and sand,” says Righi. “Our vineyards lie between 300 and 500 meters (984–1,640 feet) above sea level, so grapes benefit from cool evening breezes, while hot summer temperatures encourage ripening.
“Our calcareous soil lends structure and minerality, but it also helps keep fresh acidity in the grapes, which is becoming increasingly important as temperatures heat up during the growing season.”
Alto Adige boasts numerous microclimates. One of the best is the vineyard site of Castel Ringberg, which overlooks Lake Caldaro, where soils are a mix of gravel, moraine deposits and limestone.
“We generally have more mild temperatures, thanks to the lake effect,” says Walch, whose Castel Ringberg is one of the few single-vineyard bottlings of Pinot Grigio in Italy.
To add complexity, some producers ferment and age partly or entirely in wood, like St. Pauls did for its recently launched Passion Pinot Grigio. Elena Walch ferments 15 percent of the firm’s Castel Ringberg in barriques.
Last modified: December 31, 2023