The unfashionable wine that we all secretly love

Mrs Baxter in the school office said she liked pinot grigio. She is not the only one. I like it too – the crispness, the saltiness, the faint lemony tinge – and it’s the white I know I need to have in the fridge when several friends come round. But not all wine people feel the same way.

I’ve heard sommeliers refusing to put it on wine lists “because everyone will order it” and others dismiss it as “boring”. And I can’t remember the last time I saw a wine person posting about pinot grigio on Instagram.

Wine people are more into kvevri wine from Georgia, the liquid equivalent of relaxing with a few minutes of Wagner’s Ring, and “sous voile” chardonnay from the Jura. If I invited any of them round they’d probably only drink a few sips of whatever I poured, then throw the rest into a spittoon (or neck it if they’re in the borderline alcoholic category of wine people) in order to move on to another bottle.

However, the chef Jean-Christophe Novelli once said to me that as January is such a difficult month for eating and drinking he just liked to fill menus with favourite comfort foods, such as tomato soup, and I thought we’d do the same with wine. So pinot grigio it is.

Because the skin of pinot grigio grapes is a mottled brownish, yellowish pink, it’s possible to use them to make wine that is pink. Pinot grigio is also sometimes made in a floral, off-dry style – these wines are often labelled as pinot gris to give the drinker a clue about what they’re buying. Here I want to talk about pinot grigio that is crisp, white (or almost white) and dry. Sarah Knowles is a Master of Wine and also the Italy buyer for the Wine Society. She says: “Pinot grigio is a wine for me that is worthy of note. I think there is a salinity to good pinot grigio and there’s also something to be said about a wine that’s not really loud. You can’t drink sauvignon blanc without thinking of the sauvignon blanc. Chardonnay can be the same. Pinot grigio is a little bit mineral, a little bit chalky, and it’s not shouting – and frankly I think there’s a lot to be said for that.” Too true.

The heartland of crisp, white pinot grigio is north-eastern Italy. Specifically the Veneto, which stretches out from Venice on the coast, up to Austria in the north and across Lake Garda in the west and Trentino-Alto Adige, the Alpine region in the far north. Also, the adjacent region of Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, which produces some of the most precise and finely delineated pinot grigio you will find in the mountains towards the Slovenian border. If you’re after very superior pinot grigio, this is where I would head, although you will pay more for it.

One example is Visintini Pinot Grigio Ramato 2020 (Friuli, Italy; Lea & Sandeman, £14.95). Ramato is a reference to the colour of the wine. I wouldn’t call this pink but it is tinged with bronze. A beautifully precise wine, it also has hints of pear and spice. Perhaps not the more invisible white that some pinot grigio fans will be after but maybe worth a look anyway.

When I spoke to her in December, Knowles was just back from two weeks tasting in northern Italy and had a rare good report about the 2021 wines, which will be landing over the next month or two. The weather in 2021 was not kind to many European wine regions but, says Knowles: “The pinot grigio I was trying from tanks looked really fantastic. The vintage was good. The winemakers are incredibly happy.”

Another point she makes in favour of Italian pinot grigio is that the overall quality has risen over the past decade. “Italy has genuinely improved its agriculture and its winemaking beyond recognition, getting rid of the idea that Italy only made very pale, flavourless, neutral wines.”

Cool, calm pinot grigio goes very nicely with some of Venice’s lagoon food. It is refreshing in between crunchy mouthfuls of seafood fritto – deep-fried squid and prawn. The flavours of a softer pinot grigio elide beautifully with more soupy versions of risi e bisi (rice and peas) and they weave around the gentle greens and marine scents of scallops in white wine with parsley. Pinot grigio is also good with the food you encounter as you head towards the Slovenian border: the potato and pumpkin gnocchi or pumpkin tagliolini, for instance. As Knowles points out, if your view on food and wine matching is that it doesn’t really matter what you drink with what unless either wine or food makes the other taste disgusting, then you could say that pinot grigio will be fine with anything, including a big steak.

What I mainly want from a pinot grigio is for it to be subtle and not to taste of soap, which sadly some of the mass-produced versions do. It doesn’t have to be Italian, it could also be from Romania or Hungary – two countries that make excellent crisp pinot grigios, often cunningly labelled so that at first glance you might mistake them for being Italian.

I used to love the easy-drinkingness of Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Pinot Grigio, which is made in Trentino and costs £7, but couldn’t find a bottle to taste for this. For a very crisp and clean pinot grigio look to St Michael-Eppan Pinot Grigio 2020 (Alto Adige, Italy; Waitrose, £8.99 down from £11.99, until Jan 25). And if pinot grigio lovers want to try a different grape then I recommend picpoul or vinho verde, two wines that also have a subtly coastal salinity.

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