Pinot Grigio may not be a legend, but this dry white wine has recently developed a certain cachet. Tripping neatly off the tongue, the Italian Pinot Grigio sounds more attractive than the French translation, Pinot Gris. Either way, it means a grey Pinot grape, a natural mutation of the black Pinot Noir. Never a particularly dark grape, the paler, pinky mutant was first recorded as far back as the Middle Ages. By the middle of the 19th century Pinot Grigio was being cultivated in north-west Tuscany and further east, in Friuli. Just like its parent, Pinot Grigio has specific soil requirements.
The soils of the Old World are often geologically young, while in the New World they can be very old indeed. In northern Europe, comparatively recent deposits of calcium-rich limestone and chalks are still packed with shells and skeletal remains left behind by long vanished oceans. These alkaline soils are cool and water retentive, ideal for Pinot vines, and exactly the opposite conditions needed by most other grapes. Pinot grapes are also low yielding and a bit tricky to cultivate, but the rewards are well worth the effort and anxiety involved. In Italy, Pinot Grigio is sold as a sparkling as well as a popular dry, crisp white wine. It is also a luscious blush or rosé wine. The wines from the extreme north-east are fruity and aromatic.
In neighbouring Slovenia the same grape produces a somewhat thinner wine. Further east it is one of hungary's best wines, where it is known as Szürkebarat - meaning "grey friar". Romanian Pinot Grigio is generally uneven but always quite drinkable. The Czech version, if you can get it, is good. As is Swiss Pinot Grigio from the Valais, where it is called Malvoisie, but it seldom leaves the country. A sweeter Pinot Grigio, known as Ruländer, is bottled in Austria and Germany. A dry German expression is labelled as Grauburgunder. These European countries provide ideal conditions to grow Pinot vines. Pinot Grigio has made little impact in the New World, they just have the wrong type of soils.
A little Pinot Grigio is grown in California and Oregon produces a small amount of crisp white from the grape. There is one more country where Pinot Grigio is very much in a minority - France. But where it is cultivated, Pinot Gris wines, to give it the proper name, are superb. In Alsace it is one of four noble varieties, the wines dryer, richer, less acidic and more alcoholic than the neighbouring German expressions. These are wines which will go well with fish, game birds, pâtés, strong cheese and any dessert you can think of. With the alcohol level fixed in 1975, at 11%, Pinot Gris from Alsace is as good as it gets. In Burgundy, the same grape is called Pinot Beurot. It is all good wine, drink and enjoy throughout the summer.