Going by media coverage, it might be safe to assume Pinot Grigio has had its day. From Twitter to Facebook and across more traditional news outlets, descriptions of ‘PG’, as it’s known to the trade, include Mom’s Wine, the Cougar Cocktail and, perhaps worst of all, with its smug school report overtones: Too Popular for It’s Own Good.
One journalist, Lettie Teague, who decided to drink only Pinot Grigio for a month all the way back in 2005 said, hilariously, she’d “rarely been as embarrassed when ordering wine as I was the month I drank just Pinot Grigio. The withering stare of the sommelier, the hasty retrieval of the wine list (‘Wasted on you’ the gesture seemed to imply).” At the time Teague wrote for Food & Wine magazine - she now writes for the Wall Street Journal – and the treatment was almost enough to make her reconsider her quest.
But she didn’t and nor have many, many other drinkers. So many others, that Pinot Grigio still rates, almost 10 years on, as the second most popular white wine grape varietal in the US after Chardonnay, according to data from research company Wine Intelligence. That ranking has held steady since 2011.
A valuable wine
In value terms, the US Pinot Grigio market was worth $744.5m in 2013, or almost 9% of the US table wine market, which last year totalled $8.7bn, according to Chicago-based research firm IRI. Sales in the US, meanwhile, have been rising at an average rate of 6.4% per year since 2010. Too popular for its own good? Surely not. Or at least, not yet.
The current bestselling Pinot Grigio brand in the US in the $5.00 to $7.99 price range is E&J Gallo’s Barefoot, says IRI. From June 2011 to now, Barefoot has been in the top five bestselling wines each year, mostly hovering around number two. If you type ‘Barefoot’ into Google, one of the first suggestions that pops up is ‘barefoot Pinot Grigio calories’ (good news, only 91 per glass! Chardonnay has 93) which is surely another reliable gauge of popularity, at least in the US.
In the UK, Pinot Grigio is the second most popular white wine after Sauvignon Blanc. It’s ahead of Chardonnay, with the percentage of regular drinkers in the first half of 2014 rising to 57%, compared to 53% in 2011. At the same time there’s been a decrease in the percentage of Chardonnay drinkers, to 53% in 2014 from 65% in 2011.
Both the US and the UK can, however, be described as fairly mature markets. Looking to newer growth areas for Pinot Grigio, Wine Intelligence points to the Netherlands, Australia and Japan. China, it says, is still too small to be a significant market, due to the dominance of red wine, but even here Pinot Grigio ranks as the fifth most popular grape in the first half of this year, with 13% of urban upper-middle class drinkers saying they’d drunk some.
Other new markets include Asia, as well as Travel Retail, says one of the best known producers of Pinot Grigio in the world, Italy’s Santa Margherita.
Santa Margherita’s Pinot Grigio, which sells in the $15.00-plus category, was the first Pinot Grigio on the market in the US back in 1979, courtesy of an enterprising American importer called Anthony (Tony) Terlato. Terlato, so the story goes, was sent to Italy in search of “the next great white wine” and found, in a Milan hotel, his first Pinot Grigio. He cancelled all previous plans and drove to the town of Portogruaro in Northern Italy, found a local inn and ordered 18 different bottles of it. Intrigued, the owner joined him, and by the end of dinner they’d agreed the best Pinot Grigio was the Santa Margherita. The next day Terlato met the owner, Count Gaetano Marzotto and, as a result, the Terlato Wine Group became the sole importer of Santa Margherita in the US and Tony Terlato earned himself the title of ‘father of Pinot Grigio.’
The current CEO of Santa Margherita Wine Group, which turned over €102m ($135m) in 2013, is Ettore Nicoletto. His approach to the “too popular for its own good” concern is partly to point out that, even in mature markets, Pinot Grigio is still growing. At the same time he is targeting new opportunities, like Travel Retail, which, he explained, includes cruises, airport retail and military outlets. That last conjures up pleasant images of soldiers comparing zesty citrus nuances, which should deal a blow to the Mom’s Wine stereotype. Jokes aside though, in 2013, travel retail was one of the top three markets for Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio after the US and Canada, putting it on a par with Australia and Asia Pacific in terms of best potential.
Nicoletto is also well aware that the consumption and production of US-grown Pinot Grigio has been rising faster than imports in the last three years. Plus, there’s the fact that the inevitable influx of cheaper Pinot Grigio has driven prices down, making both the US and Germany tougher for premium producers.
According to Nielsen, US domestic Pinot Grigio production has grown significantly in recent years and now holds, in volume terms, 56.5% of the market compared to imported Pinot Grigio. Imports however still lead on the value end, with 51.8% of market share, although domestic’s share is growing at a faster pace.
Part of the answer to both the influx of domestic Pinot Grigio in the US and the shift by consumers to lower price points, Nicoletto said, is telling existing customers that Santa Margherita is more than just Pinot Grigio.
“We still invest a good portion of our A&P budget in advertising, to keep the brand at the ‘aspirational’ level it deserves,” he said, “but we are exploring digital opportunities more and more, in order attract new consumers or to stimulate existing Pinot Grigio lovers to try other Santa Margherita wines, namely Prosecco Superiore or Chianti Classico.” The aim, he said, is to “transcend” Pinot Grigio and drive customers to new dimensions.
On another level, Nicoletto is working hard to push Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio’s environmentally friendly credentials, which include, “after a year’s hard work”, the first carbon-neutral certified wine “from ground to shelf” in Canada. The wine has been certified by Canadian company Carbonzero.
On the import side, Bill Terlato, Tony’s heir, is of much the same mind. As well as helping customers understand that Santa Margherita is more than just Pinot Grigio, he also believes that the more people examine what they consume – looking for wines that are sustainable and/or chemical-free – the better that is for higher quality producers who can check those boxes. His advice to drinkers who may be bored with Pinot Grigio is to try new wines. “When people say they are bored of Chardonnay I say go drink a good Burgundy. It’s like people saying they don’t like Merlot, but they like Petrus, and that’s Merlot,” Terlato said. “No matter what you are drinking, or where you’re at with a certain wine, there are other versions out there. Try them.” His other pointer is to look for areas that produce good Pinot Noir and see if they have a Pinot Grigio. “They are brother and sister grapes. If an area grows good Pinot Noir it will produce good Pinot Grigio.”
There is a pink version of Pinot Grigio that, members of the trade believe could become mainstream on the back of the growing popularity of rosé. It’s called Ramato, and the colour is, as with any traditional rosé, a result of the wine remaining in contact with the skins for 12 to 24 hours. It may also, for some producers, include a bit of barrel aging.
Export director for Santa Margherita, Massimo Tonini, says he’s had several requests from distributors in the US for a rosé from Santa Margherita. “They say to me, come on, you could lead the way on this one, just like you led the way with Pinot Grigio in the US in the 1980s.”
Given the current demand for rosé in the US it’s definitely a category they are monitoring, Tonini said, but choosing the right way is crucial. “The French have led the way with rosé and we definitely want to play in that category, but we need to think about what direction we are going to take on this. Pinot Grigio Ramato might not be the best way for us and we need to think whether this will be a Ramato or a different rosé, and all of that is still under confidential discussion,” he said.
Pinot Gris? Pinot Grigio?
Pinot Grigio and Pinot Gris are the same white grape. The name comes from the colour of the skin, which is a grey-brown-pink. In French grey is ‘gris’ and in Italian it’s ‘grigio’. The grape originated in France, from the Burgundian Pinot family, and is grown mostly in the northern Alsace region. Most Pinot Grigio comes from northern Italy, however, and is typically dry and light, with mineral flavours. Today, Pinot Grigio is now also grown in Oregon and California in the US, as well as New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, Hungary and Brazil, among others. As a general rule, wines labelled Pinot Grigio are light, crisp and dry with plenty of citrus and green apple flavour. Wines labelled Pinot Gris would be expected to be richer and more complex with more flower and spice aromas. They would also have greater aging potential.