If there ever was an “it girl” wine of the past 50 years, it had to be Pinot Grigio.
The wine was everywhere, from dinner tables to TV screens. The ladies of Bravo’s Real Housewives franchise especially loved it — particularly “Real Housewives of New York” star Ramona Singer who often yelled out “Turtle Time!” to indicate that it was officially time for a glass, or bottle, of Pinot Grigio. She created her own line of Italian Pinot Grigio in 2012. Even actor Drew Barrymore has a Pinot Grigio under her eponymous label, which she launched in the early 2000s.
Today, Pinot Grigio is still among the top white wines, coming second to Chardonnay. The variety even saw a boost in sales at the height of the pandemic. However, the category is facing some pressure.
According to Nielsen research, the spike that Pinot Grigio saw at the onset of the pandemic is leveling out. Pinot Grigio sales have declined 7% since, and there’s concern the decrease may continue. As Nielsen said in a statement, “We’re going to see sales revert to pre-pandemic levels as shoppers transition from a pandemic to an endemic mindset.”
But that’s true of all categories. Pinot Grigio may find it particularly challenging to keep its grip on drinkers. “The total wine category is facing pressures from younger generations and multicultural consumers, and Pinot Grigio will feel these pressures as it’s historically one of the top varietals in table wine,” the statement continues.
Where Pinot Grigio originates
Pinot Grigio reached Italy early in the 19th century, according to “The Oxford Companion to Wine.” It gained a foothold in the country’s northeast region in areas like Friuli and Alto Adige, where rich and aromatic styles are commonly found. Today, however, the majority of light and dry Pinot Grigio is found in the Veneto region.
Pinot Grigio’s rise in the U.S. began with the arrival of Santa Margherita’s Pinot Grigio in 1979.
Traditionally Pinot Grigio was — and still is — made in the Ramato style, during which grapes ferment with the skins to achieve a fuller, richer style and display a faint copper hue. But in the 1950s, Count Gaetano Marzotto of Santa Margherita in the Trentino-Alto Adige region of Italy took a different winemaking approach; he fermented the Pinot Grigio grapes without the skins to create a clear, bright wine that showcased freshness and fruitiness. When it was introduced to the Italian market in 1961, the locals loved it.
In 1979 Santa Margherita brought its Pinot Grigio to the USA, where it was an immediate hit.
Pinot Grigio saw a massive surge in the late 1990s. Between 1999 and 2000, Pinot Grigio sales spiked 40%, according to a 2002 Wine Spectator report. That influenced an increase in Pinot Grigio production globally, including plantings in California, which rose from about 140 acres in 1997 to 1,241 acres in 2001. More than 50 years later, the wine is still a hit — but it’s increasingly sharing the limelight.
“Pinot Grigio is still a popular wine for Gary’s shoppers: four Pinot Grigios are in our top 20 most sold wines over the past year,” says Gillian Sciaretta, a wine associate and category manager at Gary’s Wine & Marketplace. “We haven’t necessarily noticed a decline, but we have noticed that there are more customers who want to try other white wines instead.”
“Pinot Grigio is still a popular wine for Gary’s shoppers: four Pinot Grigios are in our top 20 most sold wines over the past year.”
Other whites on the rise
In terms of popularity, Sauvignon Blanc is on Pinot Grigio’s heels. Similar in drinkability, the refreshing, high acidity white wine was the fastest growing variety during the pandemic, seeing a 38% increase in sales in 2020.
“Sauvignon Blanc is a big category for us, be it from France, New Zealand, or California,” Sciaretta says.
However, Sciaretta notes that, in more recent times, shoppers have become more “willing to go well off the beaten path with their choices,” opting for wines like Vermentino, Falanghina, and Soave from Italy, Verdejo and Godello from Spain, Bical and Arinto from Portugal, Chenin Blanc from South Africa, and Grüner Veltliner from Austria.
Pinot Grigio’s other challenge may stem from people becoming more open to paying premium prices for better quality wines and straying away from cheap, mass-produced bottles overall.
“Millennials and younger people seem to be more willing to explore the world through wine and are less brand loyal than the older generations, who are more prone to sticking with the same wine,” Sciaretta continues.
Pinot Grigio will always be a top product for Santa Margherita, though the winery has expanded its portfolio to accommodate drinkers’ varying interests.
“We have certainly ramped up Pinot Grigio production since our early beginnings,” says Vittorio Marzotto, Santa Margherita’s senior director of fine wines and business development. He notes that, over the years, the winery has “segued into other categories such as our Santa Margherita Prosecco, Chianti Classico Riserva, Sparkling Rosé, and our newest product to the lineup, our Rosé.”
“I don’t think that Pinot Grigio will ever be replaced necessarily, but it will be increasingly challenged as wine customers continue to be introduced to new white wines,” Sciaretta notes.
It won’t give up without a fight, however. Not only is quality increasing, but it’s a popular wine for a reason: It’s a delicious drink.
Bottles to try:
Mezzacorona Vigneti delle Dolomiti IGT Pinot Grigio (~$8)
Winemakers at Mezzacorona have been dedicated to making refreshing and crisp Pinot Grigio in the foothills of the Italian Dolomites since 1904. Though a considerably simple wine, this bottle of Pinot Grigio is aromatic with green apple and honeysuckle fragrances, while the palate is fresh with minerality influenced by the 400 lakes and glaciers of the surrounding mountains.
Yalumba Y Series South Australia Pinot Grigio 2020 (~$14)
Yalumba uses fruit grown in South Australia to create this light and dry Pinot Grigio. Aromas of fresh pear and white flowers stand out, and the palate radiates with even more stone fruit and floral flavors, while a hint of cinnamon evolves mid-palate. The finish is rich and creamy.
Scarpetta Friuli-Venezia Giulia Pinot Grigio 2020 (~$15)
From Master Sommelier Bobby Stuckey comes this Pinot Grigio, produced under his Scarpetta Wine label. Grapes are sourced from the gravelly soils of Italy’s Grave region, within Friuli-Venezia Giulia, to showcase a crisp and clean Pinot Grigio that’s bursting with mineral nuances and acidity.
Alois Lageder Alto Adige Pinot Grigio 2019 (~$15)
Wine has been a part of the Lageder family history since Johann Lageder established himself as a wine merchant in Bolzano, Italy in 1823. It was his great-grandson Alois III, who saw Alto Adige as a premiere region for producing lively Pinot Grigio, like this one. You can’t miss the fruity lime character oozing out of this bottle of biodynamic Pinot Grigio — it’s in the smell and the taste, along with flavors of orange peel and apple.
Cantina Tramin Trentino-Alto Adige Pinot Grigio 2020 (~$18)
This wine is made by one of the oldest cooperatives in Alto Adige, Cantina Tramin, of which 160 winemaking families are involved. The pale yellow Pinot Grigio exudes floral and peachy fragrances while the palate is rich and velvety in texture. The lingering finish is balanced with bright acidity.
Elena Walch Alto-Adige Pinot Grigio 2020 (~$19)
Now here’s an impressive sustainably-made Pinot Grigio that even the wine critics enjoy. This 90-point wine made by Elena Walch in Alto Adige features fruity, ripe pear aromas and spicy, herbal character. The palate is awash with mineral and saline complexity highlighted by crisp acidity.
Terlato Vineyards Colli Orientali del Friuli Pinot Grigio 2018 (~$20)
From the hills of Friuli comes this Pinot Grigio, produced by the Terlato family, who have worked in the wine industry since the early 1930s. This wine is scented with fragrances of green fruits and flowers, but the palate is a juicy bomb of peach and apricot layered with crisp texture and a mineral finish.
Jermann Venezia Giulia IGT Pinot Grigio 2020 (~$23)
This Pinot Grigio shines with tropical fruit flavors. Produced by Jermann in Italy’s Friuli-Venezia Giulia region, this dry, intensely aromatic, medium-bodied wine displays nuances of pineapple and mango while green fruit plays in the background. The finish is quick but zings with minerality.
Santa Margherita Trentino-Alto Adige Pinot Grigio 2019 (~$24)
Santa Margherita has made wines with charismatic character in the Veneto region of Italy since 1935. The winery’s Pinot Grigio has long been a favorite among drinkers thanks to it’s fruity aroma, bone-dry texture, and noticeable yellow and green apple flavors. The wine is easy to drink and cleans up quickly with a fresh and acidic finish.