Guy Herbert reflects on Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio, his current white wines of choice.

The first time I ever drank Pinot Grigio was in New York City in 1997. I was working there at the time and in one of those movements in food fashion that flows, peristalsis-like, through the hospitality industry, the discovery was made that Pinot Gris, and its Italian cousin, Pinot Grigio, are excellent food wines. Which is true. What they may lack in varietal flash (wine snobs consider them to be far less aristocratic a grape than say, Viognier) is made up for by their ability to complement all sorts of dishes. And the better ones are very nice to drink on their own. Accordingly, and to the eternal gratitude of the wine producers of Alsace in France and the Veneto region of Italy, restaurants and bars up and down the East Coast of America started serving PG en masse.

Let’s stop for a second to explain the difference between Gris and Grigio, because a lot of people are hazy about it. The eminent Australian wine writer, Huon Hooke, makes the essential distinction between the two wines neatly: Pinot Gris is a characteristic wine of the Alsace region, with generally more body and fruit on the palate than Pinot Grigio, a lighter, drier clone of Pinot Gris that is especially suited to seafood and which is a characteristic grape of the Veneto. New Zealand tends to follow the Alsace style, which suits the fruity character of our white wines. Gris and Grigio mean ‘grey’ in French and Italian respectively, a reference to the frequent grey-blue colour of the grape. Pinot Gris/Grigio is thought to be a mutation of the Pinot Noir grape.

The first place in which I drank Pinot Grigio was Florent, a restaurant on Gansevoort Street in Chelsea (New York City) that I didn’t initially think much of because the Kiwi-made-good-in-Manhattan friend who invited me to dinner there said: ‘I’m taking you to the meat market.’ With New York having well known places of ill-repute such as Spike and The Anvil, what was I to think? All he meant, it turned out, was that Chelsea was transitioning from actually being a meatpacking district into a chic precinct of galleries and restaurants and bars.

I turned up on time and sat at our reserved table with a newspaper because my New York friend is always late. Florent is a narrow storefront with a bar running down one side and a row of banquettes and tables on the other. At 7pm, it was already packed and noisy with a typical New York crowd of suits and tourists and locals. I looked up from my banquette – I have a Jackie Collins-style liking for them – when a deep contralto voice asked if I would like a pre-dinner drink. My interlocutor was a six-foot-two drag queen, and so, I realised, were the rest of the waiting staff.

‘I recommend the Pinot Grigio,’ she husked. ‘It goes with everything.’
I nodded politely.
Ten minutes later my wine was drunk and I ordered another Pinot Grigio.
Ten minutes after that the waitress was back again, hand on hip.
‘You’ve been stood up. We could use the table.’
‘No I haven’t. My friend is always late.’
‘In that case, have another Pinot Grigio.’

I forget what my friend and I ate that night but I do remember the Pinot Grigio. I liked its fruity, floral quality and its characteristic, pleasant earthiness, which has since become my touchstone for the wine. (The earthiness may have had something to do with the clapped-out equipment that European wineries used at the time compared with the clean-as-a-whistle stainless steel vats that we go in for here in the New World, but a touchstone is a touchstone nevertheless.) Shortly after that I went to work in London and the Pinot Grigio/Gris invasion had started there too. Back in New Zealand briefly, I went into a wine shop in Auckland and asked whether they stocked Pinot Grigio.

‘Only if you like an aftertaste of mud,’ sniffed the snippy young male shopgirl. (We all know how they can be.) I bit my tongue in a way that I would  not do nowadays and bought the only, very indifferent Pinot Grigio they stocked. I kept on drinking Gris and Grigio overseas.

I was back in New Zealand when the ‘first wave’ of Pinot Gris popularity arrived in about 2002 – and then quickly faded. Now of course it’s well and truly established, with a surge of local plantings during in recent years. I now drink more Pinot Gris than Grigio (but every now and then I am pleasantly surprised by Grigio with seafood) and I drink Gris year-round as it pretty much goes with everything, as the er, waitress said. It also makes for an easy choice if I’m out somewhere having a drink in the middle of the day.

Since the second wave of PG popularity I have devoted selfless amounts of time to ‘horizontal’ tastings of Gris, guided always by my touchstone. My comment is that like Viognier, another varietal that is capable of many expressions, Gris here could sometimes do with a bit of corralling. It can go all over the place, from sometimes not being recognisable as the actual grape to being super-fruity and yucky. We’re getting there, though, as I find more and more Gris that I like drinking. Here are two that I like and keep drinking:

T
he Ned Pinot Gris 2009. Lots of fruit, good minerality and plenty of body; an extremely satisfying drink and usually very good value.  www.thened.co.nz

Stoneleigh Rapaura Series Pinot Gris 2008. This wine has a pleasant nose of melon, pear and peach, a good full body and a slightly creamy finish, all of which makes you want more!  There’s a bit of spice in there too. www.stoneleigh.co.nz