In the timeless tragedy Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare wrote “[a] rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. This generally applies to grape varieties – even if a variety goes by various aliases in different regions or countries, it remains the same. The taste of the final product, of course, depends also on the local terroir, climatic conditions of the vintage in question and not least winemaking process. Another observable trend in the wine world is that the more famous and important the variety is, the fewer aliases it tends to have, e.g. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. This is only logical: after all, who would be so foolish – or contrarian – to forego the halo effect?
Pinot Gris is an interesting exception. Known as Pinot Grigio in Italian, Grauburgunder in German and various aliases across central and southern Europe, it seems producers are using different names to denote certain styles made from the same variety. Italian Pinot Grigio, more often than not produced in large quantities at the IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica) level, tends to be light and refreshing. German Grauburgunder appears across all levels of the wine classification pyramid, and can be either oaked or unoaked, although the latter is gaining traction. Ruländer, meanwhile, refers to an off-dry style, primarily in southern Germany.
Alsace remains arguably the Pinot Gris stronghold; or, to put it otherwise, few other countries apart from Germany and New Zealand take the variety as seriously as Alsace. Not only does Pinot Gris enjoy the lofty Grand Cru status in Alsace, but it is also made into Vendange Tardive (VT) and Selection de Grains Nobles (SGN) wines. Traditionally regarded as the tip of the wine classification pyramid, VT and SGN are respectively equivalent to Auslese and Beerenauslese under the German regime.
Riesling constitutes just under a quarter of hectarage in both Alsace and Germany, the difference is that it does not occupy an untouchable status in the former as it does in the latter, i.e. other Grand Cru varieties – Gewurztraminer, Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains, Pinot Gris and more recently Sylvaner – are not necessarily seen as playing second fiddle to the prima donna in Riesling. German Grauburgunder may no longer be overshadowed by Riesling, but it seems to be defining itself as precisely what Riesling is not, often appearing as the low acidity and oaked alternative.
Italy does not lack high quality Pinot Grigio, produced mainly in northern regions such as Lombardia, Trentino-Alto Adige and Friuli-Venezia Giulia, although such fine expressions are either not widely available on the international market, or are overshadowed by easy drinking IGT level bottlings. On a per capita basis, German consumption of beer is equivalent to a whopping 336.13% of its Italian counterpart, i.e. for casual drinking, it is way more likely for Italians to go for wine than beer, hence the ever-present demand for easy drinking wine.
Domaine Bechtold Cuvée Joseph Pinot Gris 2011
Bright citrine with light golden reflex, the floral nose offers lime peel, pear, musk melon and bouquet garni. Anchored by ample acidity and steely minerality, the expressive palate delivers apricot, mirabelle, sweet ginger and lavender. Medium-bodied at 12%, the fleshy entry continues through a spicy mid-palate, leading to a long finish.
Domaine Charles Sparr Pinot Gris Grand Cru Mambourg 2010
Luminous citrine with saturated golden reflex, the aromatic nose presents grapefruit, apricot, sweet ginger and wet stone. Braced by generous acidity and clear minerality, the redolent palate supplies lemon peel, Williams pear, nectarine and rock salt. Full-bodied at 13%, the corpulent persists through a creamy mid-palate, leading to a lingering finish.
Jacky I.F. Cheong is a legal professional by day and columnist by night. Having spent his formative years in Britain, France, and Germany, he regularly writes about wine, fine arts, classical music, and politics in several languages