One of the perks of my job is the Friday tasting. We, as a staff, are invited to taste wine, beer, and sometimes cocktails and spirits with the sommelier staff to open up a dialogue that will hopefully enable us to learn and in turn better help our guests to find what they are looking for. It can be an incredibly constructive experience for us, and I find it helps keep some fresh ideas in my head hearing other people's opinions about wine. At yesterday's tasting, I was floored by a fantastic Pinot Grigio made by Igor Erzetik of Branko.
Unfortunately, when I see Pinot Grigio, I usually run the other way. This grape has a bad reputation amongst wine snobs because of the lakes of insipid wine that are made every vintage devoid of any varietal character or sense of place. The sad reality is that many Italian winemakers think of Pinot Grigio as a cash crop because so many Americans order it by name not really caring if it comes from Italy, France, America, or even Australia. As a varietal, it seldom receives the careful attention in the vineyard and winery that it needs to make really great wine especially in Italy.
In some ways Pinot Grigio has gone the way that Merlot did, becoming a light, easy, fruity wine that one can knock back without thinking about too much. While this may be fine for a hot Sunday afternoon by the pool, Pinot Grigio wouldn't typically be my choice for a special meal. That's why I'm so glad to have tasted the one from Branko. Perhaps, like Merlot, it is making a comeback as a candidate for making thoughtful, complex wines. Afterall, it initially became famous for a good reason.
It seems the Erzetik father and son team have collaborated to make some serious Pinot Grigio that rivals many of the other complex and interesting offerings from Alsace and I might even rate on a scale against some of the very serious Austrian Rieslings that I've had in the past few years. It had the typical coppery gold color with hints of silver that I would expect for a top quality example, but the nose was anything but ordinary.
Pinot Grigio is not a grape that is typically thought of as being terribly aromatic. It really shines in late harvested examples of Alsace when it starts to take on some pretty amazing smells, but in dry examples from Italy, generally it's harvested too early to really develop much phenolic character. I suspect that Erzetik lets his grapes stay on the vine for a very long time because the aromas practically leap out of the glass; the cool mountain climate of Collio allows for this. There were fruit flavors or ripe red apple, guava, passion fruit, and even a little pineapple. I also experienced things like hay, and a touch of butterscotch along with a spicy component that reminded me of coriander and celery salt. It was by far the most unique smelling Pinot Grigio I've ever met. I expected delicious things to come when I finally drank it.
The palete was no disappointment after such a complex nose. It was broad and viscous like a great white Burgundy or Austrian Riesling. The wine tasted fresh and clean and had a pleasantly tart backbone that made me want to eat some buttery gnocchi or grilled lobster. It was full bodied and had a long finish that left me with a pleasant sense of the minerals of the chalk and clay soils of the region. And it lingered - for a long time. WOW!
We can all thank the great Mario Schiopetto for his work many years ago for revolutionizing and modernizing the white wine-making practices of Italy, and of course the Erzetic family for giving us their wonderful wine. It's no wonder that it has received the coveted and prestigious Tre Bicchieri award from Gambero Rosso for the past three years running. I, for one, will think twice about Pinot Grigio next time I see it, and I'm glad to have had my mind opened up and my snobbery challenged by Branko's Pinot Grigio.