Pinot Gris is the fifth most frequent variety on the white wine paper of the MW exam (behind Chardonnay, Riesling, Chenin Blanc, and Sauvignon Blanc) and is usually fairly evenly split between New World examples, Alsace examples, and Italian examples. It is also the 3rd fastest expanding white grape variety in the world behind Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. So, it is an important variety to know well.
Pinot Gris can come in a broad range of styles. Below are some general pointers that might help justify Pinot Gris in a blind tasting. This is by no means an exhaustive list — 10 is just a nice number.
Often gently perfumed with blossomy, floral notes (such as lily, honeysuckle, and white blossom). It typically has less terpenes than Riesling. However, under blind conditions the two are often confused.
- Pear-like qualities
Most descriptions of Pinot Gris have some form of pear in them. Naschi pear, bosc pear, ripe pear, green pear, fresh pear, baked pear, pear skins, pear flesh. Cool fermentation can emphasis a ‘pear drops’ character and give the wine more lifted pronounced aromatics due to increased ester production.
- Bread crusts, peanut shell, lager yeast, stale beer
The above are also common descriptors. Interestingly, one of the monoterpenes common in Pinot Gris, nerol, is also found in hops
- Phenolics, textural breadth, bitter edge
Pinot Gris naturally has a high level of phenolics (due to small to very small berry size). This can give the wine some textural mouthfeel and usually a hint of bitterness, which can often be noted on the finish.
- Copper tinge to colour
Pinot Gris skins are a pinky colour. Even if the grapes are pressed immediately a little of this colour comes through. It might not seem obvious in a glass by itself. But it’ll stand out if put next to a glass of young Sauvignon blanc or Riesling (which tend to have a green tinge in their youth).
- Soft, broad acid
Some Pinot Grigio styles can be fairly crisp. However, overall Pinot Gris has lower acidity compared to other whites such as Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc. Pinot Gris is an early ripener and naturally has low to moderate acid levels when fully ripe.
- Dry to off-dry (and occasionally sweet)
Some residual sugar is common. It can be to balance the phenolics or make a more widely appealing style. Some though can be very sweet, for example, Vendage Tardive (can also be dry) and Selection des Grans Noble (SGN) from Alsace.
- Early drinking style. Immediate appeal
Most Pinot Gris is immediately appealing. There’s not many that you’d regret opening too young. Although things like Alsace Grand Cru can age well the vast majority is made to be drunk young and fresh.
- Low level of winemaking inputs
While there’s always exceptions, the vast majority of Pinot Gris doesn’t see new oak or undergo full MLF (it naturally has low acid).
- Lees aging and fermenting in old barrels
Not uncommon for higher quality wines to be fermented in old oak and aged on lees. This can help balance phenolics and add richness and complexity.