I’ve lived in San Francisco for nearly seven years (one year of that in the suburbs). In that time there have been a series of recurring instances that always make me appreciate The Bay Area’s many blessings. I try hard to never take for granted that I can go to my corner store, grab a loaf of fresh baked Acme bread, a couple ripe heirloom tomatoes, a quart of Strauss Farms Cream Top milk, and pick from a selection of reasonably priced, but delicious wines from all over the world. In this manner, I feel blessed. The same journey in your ‘hood may take a little more diligence, but quality local and imported artisan products can be found just about anywhere. You just have to decide for yourself that seeking them out is important.
At our particular corner store, the wine selection is not huge, but it is sensible and well-balanced. Represented on one 8′x10′ grocery rack are wines from France’s Rhone Valley, Germany’s Pfalz and Mosel regions, Rias Baixas in Spain, and Piedmont and Friuli in Italy. There is, of course, a smattering of California wines, but it’s becoming increasingly harder to find tasty wines from our backyard at a reasonable price point. This may very well illustrate insight into a dynamic which hints at shaping the next turn in California’s winemaking frontier. We’ll go further into this subject at a later date.
The DOC and DOCG System:
The wine of focus is Pinot Grigio, long thought of as Italy’s faceless white. Like many of it’s Italian counterparts, Pinot Grigio took a serious downturn in overall quality when, in 1963, then Senator Paolo Desana’s introduced the DOC system. The DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) system, modeled after the French AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée – meaning controlled term of origin) system, was designed to officially recognize wine growing regions that had produced superior quality for a sustained amount of time and to elevate their status. Areas of land were designated to be part of a DOC or DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita – the highest designation) appellation. To label their wines as from an appellation, producers would likewise have to meet additional criteria. For example red wine from Chianti DOCG must be comprised of at least 75% of the red grape Sangiovese and the Nebbiolo grape in Barolo, Piedmont must be aged for three years between barrel and bottle to meet the requirements for Barolo DOCG. Barolo Riserva must be aged for five years. These are good things. As an aside: most appellations in the new world have no stipulations as to the use of the word “reserve.”
Other wines would fall into the Vino da Tavola (table wine) category. In theory, all of this should work to the benefit of the Italian wine industry, and, to some extent, it does. Unfortunately, when defining the scope of the appellations, not only were the top parcels of hillside land included, where most of the upper tier wine was made, but also included were the fertile surrounding flats and valleys more suitable to making volume jug wine than quality fine wine. It was clear that the agricultural ministry was aiming to use the good name of the best grape-growing areas to boost exports. As such, the markets were flooded with oceans of (sub-standard) product. The focus was to make large volumes of easy-to-drink, cheap, easy-to-sell juice. The imminent defamation of Italy’s most renowned wines became reality. Regions like Soave and Frascati became synonymous with plonk jug wine. By making the designated regions so expansive, the perceived quality of a specific region was reduced to the average overall quality of wine in the entirety of its land area.
Subsequent years have seen steps taken to try to remedy this. Without going off on a lengthy tangent, I will say that Italy as a whole is inching in the right direction. Most of the regions that had become idiomatic of the aforementioned plight are experiencing a resurgence of fine wine. I can also state that indeed much of my excitement in the last couple years has come from everyday exposure to the exciting things happening in the nooks and crannies of the far-off reaches of Italy. Maybe someday, Italy’s DOC system will catch up with the talents of its artisan winemakers.
“Pinot Grigio” has suffered the misfortune becoming synonymous with “watered down quaffer,” and, indeed, most of the versions from far corners of the new world and those labeled with the generic Northern Italian regions of Delle Venezie IGT and Valdadige DOC (both of which actually encompass a large landmass that spans all three of the Tre Venezie reagions: Trentino-Alto Adige, Veneto, Friuli Venezia-Giulia) are generally unremarkable. But, don’t worry; this isn’t all doom and gloom. Grown in the proper place with the proper guidance, Pinot Grigio can be absolutely stunning: fruity, minerally, bright. From the best producers they can rival many of the top whites from around the world. The similarities that persist in the wines simple or complex are Pinot Grigio’s racy acidity and precise edges. The good ones can persist on the palate long after being swallowed. What remains true from the watered down “gateway” wines to the more unctuous and noteworthy is that Pinot Grigio remains unrelentingly refreshing.
The appellations of northeastern Italy offer clean, pure, yet complex and outstanding bottlings again and again, and, while these areas represent the lion’s share of production, the Tre Venezie are not the only regions of note. An easy going, but minerally version from Oregon can really hit the spot, and, by all means, sprint for the unctuous and lush Pinot Gris of Alsace – a style that while starkly different can be utterly amazing.
Pinot Grigio is thought to have originated in Burgundy as the sibling of Pinot Noir, where it is called Pinot Gris. The skins tend to range in color from white, to grayish-pink, to brown, to almost black. So much pigment and variation thereof are unique in a grape used to make white wine. Many times the wines made from Pinot Grigio can have a pink hue. Some can even be rosé. As a white wine it also has the unique character of having an elevated tannin structure. Tannins are a polyphenolic compound found in the grape skins and stems that cause wine to have its perceived astringency. If you’ve ever bitten into an under-ripe persimmon, you are likely familiar with tannin.
A really great thing to note about Pinot Grigio is the wide availability; virtually anywhere you are, you can find a good one. But, if at all possible, buy from a notable appellation. As with anything the more delimited the area, the better the chance for quality. Buying from a region that covers most of Northeastern Italy doesn’t come with much guarantee. The hillsides and slopes where the wines are kept at their lowest yields offer richer fruits and greater complexity.
Tasting Notes: Fresh pear and melon rind with glinty mineral. Notes of basil, honey, melon rind, jasmine, and lavender. Medium to high acid with a nice long finish.
Retailer: 26th and Guerrero Market
Importer: Sovereign Wine imports
Verdict: A good offering. Perfectly yummy for an everyday wine.
The Somm’s Note: For the same reason that people drink Pinot Grigio as a gulpable easy wine, wine is all too commonly served inexcusably cold. The only reason to serve a beverage piping hot or super cold is to conceal undesired characteristics and flavors… e.g. Budweiser and Hot Sake….. It’s not sake that gives you a headache; it’s the searingly hot sake sake from the machine that gives you a headache. If a wine has a balanced and bright acidity, it will remain crisp and refreshing with an elevated temperature even as the middle starts to become richer. For the same reason that I recommend letting Alberto Longo’s “Donadelle” Rosé come up a bit in temp, I’d suggest trying the same thing with your next bottle of crisp white. This is the only way to experience the wealth of flavors that can be hidden in the middle of a wine that is otherwise served too cold.