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Italy’s Great Pinot Grigios

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.

According to Anthony Terlato, chairman of Terlato Wine Group, Pinot Grigio offered both quality and clarity when he launched Santa Margherita in 1979, which put the variety on the radar of American wine drinkers.

“Italian wines that were popular in the mid-1970s had no ­varietal indication on the labels—they were just ‘Soave,’ ‘Orvieto’ or ‘Frascati,’ ” says Terlato. “I realized that Americans were increasingly looking for varietals in order to better understand wine, and they were also seeking higher-quality wines.”

He first discovered Pinot Grigio in a restaurant in Milan. Terlato asked his Italian partners to recommend producers that made good Pinot Grigio. He narrowed his search to five producers that made, “clean, fresh, aromatic wine with enough nuance to be interesting and delicious to a knowledgeable wine drinker.”

Terlato says that Santa Margherita was the first producer he called. He was so convinced about the quality of the firm’s Pinot Grigio that he positioned it in the luxury wine tier, a first for an Italian white.

“I realized that Americans were increasingly looking for varietals in order to better understand wine, and they were also seeking higher-quality wines.”

The wine was an instant success. Soon, other importers were bringing in a steady supply of Pinot Grigio. As demand surged, however, more and more producers began to turn out mediocre bottlings in industrial ­quantities.

“During the last 30 years, the quality of many Pinot Grigios declined as producers did whatever it took to meet growing demand in the U.S., such as planting on valley ­­­­floors at high yields with a focus on quantity, not quality,” says Terlato.

He recently partnered with Italy’s top viticulturists, Simonit & Sirch, and now imports his own Terlato-brand Pinot Grigio. Pinot Grigio’s reputation was further tarnished by rumors of watered-down wines labeled as Pinot Grigio that were actually cut with other grapes like the prolific Trebbiano.

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.

Pinot Grigios
Photo by Mark Lund

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.

Gradis’ciutta 2015 Pinot Grigio (Collio); $22, 91 points. Round and juicy, this opens with aromas of stone fruit, dried herb and a whiff of pear. The ripe, enveloping palate doles out white peach, mature apple, juicy nectarine and a hint of bitter almond. A mineral note closes the lingering finish. Santini Wines.

Jermann 2015 Pinot Grigio (Venezia Giulia); $33, 90 points. Aromas of white peach, flint and a hint of banana carry over to the round, ripe palate along with green apple and a note of juicy tangerine. Fresh acidity brightens the creamy flavors and leads to a clean finish. Empson USA Ltd.

Venica & Venica 2015 Jesera Pinot Grigio (Collio); $25, 90 points. Gold with copper highlights, this elegantly structured wine offers heady scents of white spring flower and orchard fruit. On the juicy, savory palate, nutmeg and mineral notes back up ripe apple, mature pear and apricot that lead to a fresh finish. Grand Cru Selections.

Sturm 2014 Pinot Grigio (Collio); $24, 88 points. This bright, fragrant wine offers aromas of an orchard in bloom, spring flower, peach and a hint of banana. The crisp palate shows crunchy apple, pear and mineral alongside bracing acidity. A light almond note signals the crisp close. Skurnik Wines.

Terlato 2014 Pinot Grigio (Friuli Colli Orientali); $25, 88 points. Aromas of beeswax, elderflower and white orchard fruit emerge in the glass. On the lively palate, zesty acidity energizes creamy white peach, green pear and citrus, while a mineral note backs up the tangy finish. Terlato Wines International.

Pinot Grigio spread
Photo by Mark Lund

Alto Adige

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.

Nals Margreid 2015 Punggl Pinot Grigio (Alto Adige); $30, 91 points. Delicate aromas that recall spring wildflower, orchard fruit, herb and crushed rock lead the nose on this structured white. Aged partly in large casks, the round, full-bodied palate offers ripe pear, nectarine and a flinty mineral note, while fresh acidity provides balance. Massanois Imports.

Elena Walch 2015 Vigna Castel Ringberg Pinot Grigio (Alto Adige); $25, 91 points. White spring blossom, orchard fruit and a whiff of Alpine herb come together on this delicious, structured white. The juicy, full-bodied palate offers white peach, mature pear and tangerine alongside bright acidity that lifts the creamy flavors. A precise mineral note closes the lingering finish and lends finesse. USA Wine West.

St. Pauls 2015 Pinot Grigio (Alto Adige); $22, 90 points. Elegantly structured and savory, this offers aromas of white field flower, orchard fruit and chopped herb. Boasting depth and finesse, the bright, juicy palate delivers mature pear, tangerine zest and flinty mineral alongside fresh acidity that lifts the creamy flavors. ­Ethica Wines.

Abbazia di Novacella 2015 Pinot Grigio (Alto Adige Valle Isarco); $19, 90 points. Structured and elegant, this lovely Pinot Grigio opens with delicate scents of white Alpine flower, citrus and a whiff of herb. The bright palate offers creamy white peach, crisp green apple and juicy nectarine, while a mineral note backs up the finish. Bright acidity provides lift and balance. Abbazia Novacella USA.

Pinot Grigios
Photo by Mark Lund

Cantina Produttori San Michele Appiano 2014 Anger Pinot Grigio (Alto Adige); $22, 89 points. Aromas of Alpine wildflower and peach blossom unfold on this refined mountain white. The balanced palate offers Anjou pear, yellow apple, mineral, tangerine and white almond coupled with crisp acidity. Martin Scott Wines.

Alois Lageder 2014 Porer Pinot Grigio (Alto Adige); $25, 89 points. Partly fermented in oak casks, this linear white offers aromas of white flower, pear, crushed rock and a delicate whiff of oak-driven spice. The elegant palate offers creamy yellow apple, vanilla and mineral alongside fresh acidity. Dalla Terra Winery Direct.

Colterenzio 2014 Puiten Pinot Grigio (Alto Adige); $23, 88 points. Aromas of orchard fruit, nut and a light whiff of toast lift from the glass. The medium-bodied, straightforward palate offers pear, apple and a note of lemon drop. Vibrant acidity gives it a clean finish. Grappoli Imports.

6 Best Buy Pinot Grigios

Many producers make great value Pinot Grigio. Crisp and clean, they offer bright orchard fruit-flavors and tangy acidity, making them ideal as an aperitivo or to pair with everyday fare. These are among the top-rated 2015s for $13 or less.

Alta Luna 2015 Pinot Grigio (Vigneti delle Dolomiti); $13, 88 points. Palm Bay International.

Kris 2014 Pinot Grigio (Delle Venezie); $12 87 points. Leonardo LoCascio Selections – The Winebow Group.

Mezzacorona 2015 Pinot Grigio (Trentino); $10, 87 points. Prestige Wine Imports.

Cantina di Bertiolo 2014 Villa Marchesi Pinot Grigio (Friuli Grave); $11, 86 points. Atlantic Importing.

Anterra 2014 Pinot Grigio (Delle Venezie); $8, 85 points. Prestige Wine Imports.

Cabert 2014 Pinot Grigio (Friuli Grave); $10, 85 points. Ideal Wine & Spirits.