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Pinot Grigio grapes before being picked by a mechanical harvester at the Shady Oaks vineyard of Bronco Wine Co. in Lodi, Calif.

Eric Risberg/The Associated Press

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For a wine recognized around the world for its freshness and easy-to-appreciate style, it’s surprising to recall how Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio was a revolutionary concept upon its inaugural release 60 years ago. The launch of the now popular label represented the first time an Italian winery made a commercial white wine out of pinot grigio grapes, which are naturally gray in colour (pinot gris or grigio meaning grey in reference to the colour of the fruit).

The traditional “ramato” method for making pinot grigio sees pinot grigio grapes fermented with the skins, resulting in a fuller-bodied, rich and spicy wine with a coppery hue, similar to many of the orange wines that are seeing revived popularity today.

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In stark contrast to the rich and aromatic ramato wines, Santa Margherita opted for a more modern take with less skin contact and a low-temperature, prolonged fermentation to preserve freshness and fruit intensity. The wine’s subdued and refreshing style met with success and set the template for one of Italy’s most popular exports.

Introduced to the United States market in 1979, Santa Margherita debuted at twice the price of the then leading Italian brand, Bolla Soave. The product was pushed into the restaurant channels to underscore its simple, food-friendly appeal. It has become a default wine by-the-glass selection ever since.

As pinot grigio took over from chardonnay as the most popular white wine in the global mass market, plantings of vineyards in Italy grew to 24,501 hectares in 2018 from 3,413 hectares in 1990.

The bulk of the production comes from the Veneto region, which produces a raft of neutral white wines with little personality from high yielding vineyards that dilute the grape’s character.

Better quality examples from warmer areas offer more pineapple and peach flavours, while cooler regions show more delicately spicy and zesty examples. Lageder, Lis Neris, Jermann, Schiopetto and Vie di Romans are some top producers.

The grape’s growing popularity also gave rise to increased plantings in Germany and Austria, which grow more of it than France, which is the variety’s native country. It’s a significant player in the British Columbia wine scene and enjoys success in Ontario, too.

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