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Pinot gris is a white wine grape variety of the species Vitis vinifera. Thought to be a mutant clone of the Pinot noir variety, it normally has a grayish-blue fruit, accounting for its name (gris meaning “gray” in French) but the grapes can have a brownish pink to black and even white appearance. The word pinot, which comes from the word meaning “pine cone” in French, could have been given to it because the grapes grow in small pine cone-shaped clusters. The wines produced from this grape also vary in color from a deep golden yellow to copper and even a light shade of pink, and it is one of the more popular grapes for orange wine. The clone of Pinot gris grown in Italy is known as Pinot grigio.
Pinot gris is grown around the globe with the “spicy” full-bodied Alsatian and lighter-bodied, more acidic Italian styles being most widely recognized. The Alsatian style, often duplicated in New World wine regions such as Marlborough, Tasmania, Australia, Washington, and Oregon, tend to have moderate to low acidity, higher alcohol levels and an almost “oily” texture that contributes to the full-bodied nature of the wine. The flavors can range from ripe tropical fruit notes of melon and mango to some botrytis-influenced flavors. In Italy, Pinot grigio grapes are often harvested early to retain the refreshing acidity and minimize some of the overt-fruitiness of the variety, creating a more neutral flavor profile. This style is often imitated in other Old World wine regions, such as Germany where the grape is known as Ruländer. Pinot gris has been known since the Middle Ages in the Burgundy region, where it was probably called Fromenteau. It spread from Burgundy, along with Pinot noir, arriving in Switzerland by 1300. The grape was reportedly a favorite of the Emperor Charles IV, who had cuttings imported to Hungary by Cistercian monks: the brothers planted the vines on the slopes of Badacsony bordering Lake Balaton in 1375.
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The vine soon after developed the name Szürkebarát meaning “grey monk.” In 1711, a German merchant, named Johann Seger Ruland (re)discovered a grape growing wild in the fields of the Palatinate. The subsequent wine he produced became known as Ruländer and the vine was later discovered to be Pinot gris. Until the 18th and 19th century, the grape was a popular planting in Burgundy and Champagne but poor yields and unreliable crops caused the grape to fall out of favor in those areas. The same fate nearly occurred in Germany, but vine breeders in the early 20th century were able to develop clonal varieties that would produce a more consistent and reliable crop.
Researchers at the University of California, Davis, have determined that Pinot gris has a remarkably similar DNA profile to Pinot noir and that the color difference is derived from a genetic mutation that occurred centuries ago. The leaves and the vines of both grapes are so similar that the coloration is the only aspect that differentiates the two. Around 2005, Pinot gris was enjoying increasing popularity in the marketplace, especially in its Pinot grigio incarnation and similar New World varietal wines. A major grape in Alsace, grown on 13.9% of the region’s vineyard surface in 2006, the varietal Pinot-gris d’Alsace (fr) is markedly different from Pinot gris found elsewhere. The cool climate of Alsace and warm volcanic soils are particularly well suited for Pinot gris, with its dry autumns allowing plenty of time for the grapes to hang on the vines, often resulting in wines of very powerful flavours.
Pinot gris is one of the so-called noble grapes of Alsace, along with Riesling, Gewürztraminer, and Muscat, which may be used for varietal Alsace Grand Cru AOC and the late harvest wines Vendange Tardive and Sélection de Grains Nobles. Previously, the Pinot gris wines produced in Alsace were originally labeled Tokay d’Alsace. In the Middle Ages, the grape was popularized in the region by Hungarian traders who were introduced to the grape from Burgundy. During this time, Tokaji was one of the most popular and sought after wines on the market and the name was probably used to gain more prestige for the Alsatian wine. Pinot gris was believed to have been brought back to Alsace by General Lazarus von Schwendi after his campaign against the Turks in the 16th century. It was planted in Kientzheim under the name “Tokay”. However, the Pinot gris grape has no known genetic relations to the Furmint, Hárslevelű, Yellow Muscat and Orémus grapes that are traditionally used in Tokaji wine. In 1980, the European Economic Community passed regulations related to Protected designations of origin (PDOs), and when Hungary started negotiations for European Union membership, it became clear that the Tokay name would have to become a PDO for the Tokaj-Hegyalja region. Therefore, in 1993, an agreement was reached between the Hungary and the European Union to phase out the name Tokay from non-Hungarian wine. In the case of Alsace, Tokay Pinot Gris was adopted as an intermediate step, with the “Tokay” part to be eliminated in 2007. Many producers had implemented the change to plain Pinot Gris on their labels by the early 2000s, several years before the deadline.