Pinot Gris once was the disparaged stepchild of white wine lovers. And several of us who wrote about wine perpetuated the myth with reproachful remarks that could only be called naïve.
A column I wrote a decade ago called into question the very validity of growing that variety. I was not only unfortunately critical, but shortsighted. When I recently went back to look at that old column, it was clear I had a lot of fun writing such pained remarks about a variety that could not defend itself.
But I was, unknown to me at the time, being unfair.
I have recently tasted several superb examples of Pinot Gris (and its Italian counterpart, Pinot Grigio) that display aromatic and textural qualities that I obviously never perceived in the past. (Or perhaps understood.) And I have only myself to blame — unless you also take into account deadlines.
The demand to get articles to awaiting editors occasionally led me down a rock-strewn path to a fast re-do of an older column of negativity for this grape that does not deserve such undesirable hyperbole.
An Australian wine columnist gave me license to be disrespectful to this grape variety 15 years ago when he told me a joke, in which an alleged taste-off was staged between Pinot Gris and Perrier water.
“Perrier won,” he said with a wink, and I actually told that story in print, which must have elicited groans and winces in places like Oregon.
The Willamette Valley, in particular, has always known of the excellence of this often-overlooked variety, and dozens of Oregon wineries have long produced excellent if not exemplary examples of Pinot Gris on an annual basis.
My first exposure to it came in 1976 when the late David Lett of Eyrie Vineyards poured me one of the very first Oregon Pinot Gris, from 1974. I loved it so much I bought four bottles, none of which, alas, survived a highway encounter with a deer. I was not driving.
A decade ago, a wine educator (I use that term loosely) once reproved me in front of a large audience, “correcting” one of my statements that this was an aromatic grape. I was told it was not. (It is.)
Rather than challenge my accuser, I simply let it go, but have since verified that Pinot Gris is indeed an aromatic variety, kin to Pinot Noir.
However, when it is grown in a warm climate or is fermented warm, most of the delicate aromatics disappear, leaving the wine a near shell of itself.
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So, it is clear that Pinot Gris ought not be planted in warm areas, like Kern County, Lodi, Paso Robles, and even parts of Napa. To do so raises the question: Is this grape happy in such tropical paradises?
However, when it is planted in cold regions, such as Anderson Valley of Mendocino County, British Columbia, and the colder regions of Italy, the result can be sublime and distinctive.
Consumers often don’t pay enough attention to a wine’s appellation, which can be a clue to its quality and idiosyncratic intricacies. Which is really what Pinot Gris is all about. It is rarely a bombastic wine. It usually is subtle and best when nuance-ful.
As such, high alcohol is one of its enemies. So is treatment in oak barrels.
A classic example of where Pinot Gris/Grigio grows best is the Alpian chill-ness called Alto Adige in northern Italy, where many residents have Austrian surnames and where white wines outshine reds by about 9 to 1.
The basic aromatic notes of a great cool-climate Pinot Grigio include wild spice notes related to aromatic flowers (rose petals, carnations, gardenias). The result is that it isn’t radically dissimilar from Gewürztraminer, along with a trace of fresh fennel.
The delicate, but otherwise fascinating, aroma of a top-rate Pinot Gris is evanescent to a degree, and will change in the bottle, but the best from Oregon, Alto Adige, Italy’s Collio, can be utterly sublime four or five years from the vintage.
The most important point I can make in generalizing about Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio is that the location of where the vineyards are determines to a great degree what quality level the wine will display, and that of course depends also on how much fruit was grown in each vineyard.
Pinot Gris seems to depend heavily on low tonnages to produce the best wines.
We’ll have a lot more to say about this underrated grape variety in the coming months, but for now we leave you with one example that displays the cool climate aromatics that are so appealing in a young wine and will help it to develop subtle differences in the next few years.
Wine of the Week: 2018 Zemmer Pinot Gris, Alto Adige ($18): The fennel/anise elements in this wine dominate some of the more subtle basics of the variety, and although the wine is completely dry, it has a kind of succulence that works beautifully with sushi and sashimi with pickled ginger.