Monday, August 6, 2012

Terrace View - What's The Story With Pinot Grigio?

Did you know that pinot gris and pinot grigio are the same grape? It is a mutation of pinot noir, a cousin of chardonnay, and it's most expressive style is produced in Alsace where the wine can be full and creamy, with a smokiness belying it's soft acidity. In Italy, known as pinot grigio, it is made into a different style, and although there are good wines, there are also millions upon millions of bottles of flavorless and vapid examples put into the market by large scale wine companies.

Yet, the grape is immensely popular with consumers. Why? Well, the variety has been branded in the US market for a long time so it has been well known to people prior to the diversity and quality we have seen in the last 20 years. It's what your mother and grandmother drank (and still drink). This Italian style of pinot grigio, which is different from the fuller bodied French versions, is picked earlier which retains a higher level of tart acidity and keeps the wine a clear white or pale yellow color rather than the deep, coppery gold associated with a wine labelled pinot gris. As I mentioned before, there is plenty of poor quality wine made in this style, mostly because of overcropping and overproducing in the vineyard in order to make a cheap and profitable industrial crop. Ironically, a lot of people buy pinot grigio instead of chardonnay when in fact the wines (in unoaked versions) can taste remarkably similar.

It's not the grape's fault, and there are really very beautiful examples of pinot grigio on the shelves. These are wines with flavor, character, and a little of the richer, creamy mouthfeel that represents the grape at it's best. You just have to know what to look for. Here are a few tips:

1. Producer - The most important factor. What we like to see are wines made by thoughtful, quality winemakers who have vines in prime areas and bottle on the property. Ask your salesperson to help you.

2. Region - The most expressive pinot grigio in Italy comes from Alto Adige, Trentino, Friuli, and sometimes the Veneto.

3. Price - It's the same as buying an heirloom tomato from a local farmstand, you are going to pay a little more for it. If a bottle is around $10 or less (or $13 for a magnum) be skeptical, nice wines in the NYC market start at around $12, the better ones start at $15 and they are worth it.

4. Oregon - The Beaver State makes some great examples, labelled pinot gris and in a slightly rounder version than the Italian style. Again, the better wines start at $15.

5. The Santa Margherita Myth - It's exactly that, ubiquitous, over-marketed, not even 100% pinot grigio, and perhaps the most over-priced wine on the market. The average price in stores is about $20, which is just an incredibly bad buy. How did we come to this conclusion? We did a blind taste test, click here to see The Great Santa Margarita Experiment.

I hope this inspires you to try a quality pinot grigio!


The Great Santa Margherita Experiment

Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio is one of the most well known wines in the US and we get requests for it all the time. We don't carry it. We have, in fact, seen customers roll their eyes or even gasp when informed of this fact. Although we never really thought of it as a particularly good wine, especially given the price, I hadn't tasted it in a long time so I decided to see what our staff would think if I brought a bottle in and tasted it with them.

Summarily, I purchased a bottle from another retailer for about $20 and poured samples for the staff, some but not all were able to taste blind, not knowing at all what the wine was. After the initial tasting, we also were able to try two other pinot grigios which we sell, Castelfeder at $17.99 and then Giacomo, which is $11.99. Here are some staff comments:

Bob - "I definitely thought it had an unpleasant after taste.  I thought it shouldn't retail for more than $11."

Evan - "Biting acidity overpowers the wine (Santa Margherita), Giacomo has flavor and I get fruit that balances the acidity and the wine."

Gerald - "It has a bitter herb finish, in a bad way". Comparing to Giacomo, "the nose is so much better on this (Giacomo), has the herby thing too but everything is balanced, sooo much better than the Santa Margherita".

John - "When it warms up it really reveals itself, which is not much, it just doesn't have any flavor, which is why I guess that people like it, it's inoffensive".

Michael  - "It's not that it's a terrible wine, given what I remember about it I was actually expecting it to be worse. The acidity to me is disjointed and there's an odd piney resin bitterness. It's certainly not worth the money and doesn't have the character of something we'd expect for $20. Castelfeder is way more polished and balanced and the Giacomo has better freshness, even at almost half the price."

The results are hardly surprising. Santa Margherita has all the marks of industrial production; they sell about 15 million bottles a year, own almost 3000 acres of vineyard, and the company behind it all is described as a "mini-conglomerate" with production in glass and textiles in addition to wine.

In my experience, better wines are almost always made by small producers doing hard work in the vineyards and in the winery. As with most agricultural products, smaller is most often better.

What does all this mean? Why don't we sell Santa Margherita? Well, our goal here at Windsor Wine Merchants is to offer a wide selection of quality wines at fair prices based on our own judgement by tasting and knowing what's available in the market. We want to feel happy that we gave you a great wine at $20, not something that we think is a rip off. We are not against inexpensive wines (in fact we love them!) and we're not snobby. We just want quality across the board. We are passionate about wines and we care, we really do. Unfortunately, some retailers don't and just put familiar brands on the shelf, making no effort to have a decent selection or to give customers better choices. We won't do that and we are very honest with our customers about the wines. We know that many people appreciate that and that's what makes us feel good.

I hope that you go out and try a quality pinot grigio!