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Sauvignon Blanc vs. Pinot Grigio: What’s the Difference?

Rows of grapes at a vineyard under a blue sky.
Rows of grapes at a vineyard. Image by Christopher Winkler from Pixabay.

Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio are two of the world’s most famous white wines. Pinot Grigio is more widely grown, but only by a small margin. Both wines are characteristically crisp and fresh and affected greatly by things such as the climate that they were grown in, whether it be the warmer, fruitier wines, or the cooler, more crisp, and acidic wines. Keep reading to learn more about each of these popular white wines.

Sauvignon Blanc

Originally discovered and cultivated in the Southwest regions of France, Sauvignon Blanc gained its popularity in the Bordeaux Region of the country. Today, it is grown in most wine regions across the world. This includes South American countries like Chile and Brazil, and Northern American countries like the United States and Canada, to all the way across the planet in New Zealand and Australia, to name just a few.

It’s not uncommon for wines to be heavily influenced by the terroir (or the environmental factors) of the vineyard that it is grown in. Sauvignon Blanc is no different from this. In a warmer climate Sauvignon Blanc can present itself as positively tropical, boasting different types of tree fruits and tropical fruits alike. It is not sweet, but it will have a more neutral acid palate than its cooler counterpart.

This is because the warmer weather will encourage the fruit to ripen much faster than it will in cooler temperatures. Unfortunately, Sauvignon Blanc that is from an extremely warm climate and left to overripen will lose many of the more delicate notes and flavors. Many winemakers will naturally try to avoid this, but it is something to be aware of if you find yourself bored by a Sauvignon in your glass.

In contrast to this, a cooler climate-grown Sauvignon Blanc will have a much crisper and acidic palate, with greener aromatic notes such as green bell peppers, apples, and even nettles. It can also have more floral notes like elderflower and more sour fruits like passion fruit.

Sauvignon Blanc, unlike Pinot Grigio, is produced in a relatively similar style wherever it is made. This means that, unlike Pinot Grigio, much of the differences between the wine come from the terroir of the grapes- not the fermentation process. Sauvignon Blanc is fermented at very low temperatures in stainless steel tanks. This is a conscious decision made to maximize the grapes’ flavor potential.

While the majority of fermentation techniques are the same for all sauvignon blanc, a difference that varies between regions (and of course, between wineries) is the amount of time that a grape is allowed to be in contact with the skin, which gives the wine more natural acidity.

This style of skin contact is particularly prevalent in particular regions of France, where small percentages of the skin are given a longer exposure to the grape. However, in places such as the United States, early skin removal is preferable, as this will allow the wine to age better. This is not common with Sauvignon Blanc, as it is a wine that was made to be drunk young.

To pair a Sauvignon Blanc, you should look for light dishes, as it is a light-bodied wine. It will go very well with white fish dishes, salads, and sandwiches. Thanks to its more green notes, it goes well with dishes that are heavily herbed- like pesto.

Pinot Grigio

Pinot Grigio is a grape that originated from the Burgundy region of France. It, much like Sauvignon Blanc, is a light-bodied white wine with a crisp palate. In contrast to Sauvignon Blanc, it is now grown worldwide, meaning it covers slightly more ground than Sauvignon Blanc does. Unlike Sauvignon Blanc, it has various styles of production, although there are only two that are widely popular.

These two styles of production are the Italian Style and the Alsatian style. The difference doesn’t come from the choice of fermentation, but rather from the timing in which the grapes are harvested from the vines.

The Italian Style of Pinot Grigio production sees the grapes being harvested at a much earlier time than the Alsatian. This gives the wine a more prominent acidic line and allows the drink to maintain its tell-tale crispness. In turn, this also means that the grapes are not very fruity, and Italian-style Pinot Grigio is left with a neutral flavor profile in comparison to most wines.

Alsatian wine on the other hand is harvested much later. This means that the wine has a much lower level of natural acidity, although you can still expect to feel some crispness as you drink. The fruit profile is also much more apparent, boasting flavors of tropical fruits, such as mangoes.

To be able to tell which of these two types of wine you will get when buying, it’s important to know that ‘old world wine’ (so places that have been producing wine for over 500 years) such as Germany and Italy will follow the Italian style of production. ‘New world’ wineries, found in places such as Chile, the United States, and Australia will follow the Alsatian method- as will the Alsace region in France- where this method was developed.

Because of the nature of Pinot Grigio, its acidity, and its light body, the wine pairs very well with light dishes. Things such as fish dishes, and salads with a zesty dressing on them. It will also contrast very nicely with vegetable dishes and kinds of pasta with creamy sauces like chicken alfredo.

What’s the Difference Between Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio?

While there are several similarities between Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio- such as they are both very popular light-bodied crisp white wines, there are too several key differences between the two wines. Sauvignon Blanc has a much more aromatic profile, whereas Pinot Grigio is much more reserved.

Pinot Grigio is more widely grown, so it will have a broader difference in both the terroir and the way in which it is harvested and produced, whereas Sauvignon Blanc producers will typically follow a more uniform approach to production. Both wines are usually made to be dry, although Sauvignon is not always- look for a new world wine if you are more of a fan of sweeter wines.

Final Notes

As always with wine tasting, the most important thing is simply that you enjoy it! With so many different Sauvignon Blancs and Pinot Grigios to try, you will likely find bottles of each variety that you love and others that you are not so fond of. The fun part is tasting many different types of wine in various varietals and vintages and refining your taste over time as you discover what you like. Santé!

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