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High street Pinot Grigio: consumers deserve better

06 May 2017

High street Pinot Grigio: consumers deserve better

David Gleave writes:

Many people think the wine industry is one long tasting of the great wines of the world.  It is true that we do quite well most of the time, but I recently undertook one of the most difficult – and depressing – comparative blind tastings I’ve done in a long time.

From the UK high street, we bought 30 bottles of Pinot Grigio retailing between £4.50 and £10.50 a bottle.  Almost all were from the very good 2016 vintage, and we organised a comparative tasting of this selection in Italy with a couple of our bigger producers of Pinot Grigio, together with Matt Thomson, our winemaker for Alpha Zeta, Ponte del Diavolo among others.

The high street yield was very disappointing, with too many faulty wines, few with any personality and only one or two would even merit consideration for inclusion in a blind tasting, such was their lack of varietal character.  “Generally, the wines lacked fruit, most displayed the hallmarks of bad winemaking and had way too much sulphur dioxide, quite a few had been carbon fined so they looked paler than mineral water, and most were very hard and tannic on the palate or over sweetened to try to give them a weight they lacked,” said Matt with typical Kiwi directness. 

Why were they so poor?  Almost all were from bottlers who buy bulk wine, and hardly any from growers or co-operatives, where the grapes at least stand a chance of being handled gently.  Why were all from bottlers?  Because of the need to buy the wines so cheaply so they can be sold between £4.50 and £8 a bottle.

This was the reason behind our tasting.  The new DOC for Pinot Grigio delle Venezie will be introduced from the 2017 vintage, which means there will be greater controls on the wines.  While it won’t suddenly result in all Pinot Grigio being transformed into brilliant wines, it should remove from the market some of the more egregious high street wines we tasted, as greater controls will result in increased traceability.  In addition, the yield of wine from grapes will be reduced from the current 80% for Pinot Grigio IGT to 70% for DOC, which means the level of tannins in the wines (which in white wines can come from extracting far too much juice from the grapes) should also be reduced.  That will be a hugely positive step.

The new DOC will result in a fall in production due to lower yields, as will the recent frost across northern Italy.  As a result, grape prices seem likely to increase this year.  It is to be hoped that this will be accompanied by an increase in the quality of Pinot Grigio being sold in the UK, for on the basis of the 30 wines we tasted, the UK consumers are currently being short-changed when they buy Pinot Grigio.