Thursday, April 8, 2021

Deciphering Pinot Gris & Pinot Blanc

It was the Pinot grape that inspired Alexander Dumas to declare that the wines of the Cote d'Or (Burgundy) should be drunk kneeling and bareheaded.

Well, maybe.  But there are other grapes that seek your attention and understanding. For example, there's Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc, two grapes (and wines) that are in the same large pinot family, but couldn't be more different. 

Pierre Galet, the renown French ampelographer, says the pinot family has more than 1,000 clones, including Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Pinot St. George. And while we can't list all 1,000 here, we can talk about Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc. 

Both grapes have a French lineage: gris is French for gray and blanc means white. But here's where it gets fuzzy.  Pinot Gris is more purple than gray and the color of Pinot Blanc is yellow with a green tint, not white.  And, Pinot Blanc is a white mutation of Pinot Gris, which is, in fact, a whiter (or grayer) version of Pinot Noir. 

In France, most of the acreage devoted to Pinot Blanc is in Alsace, which as it happens, also is where you'll find most French Pinot Gris.  Until recently, for some unknown reason, Alsace Pinot Gris was called Tokay d'Alsace.  Problem is, there is a renown fortified wine in Hungary called Tokaj (Tokay in English), so the Hungarians appealed to the EU, forcing the Alsatians to change the name of their wine.                


Pinot Gris PNG and Pinot Gris Transparent Clipart Free Download. - CleanPNG  / KissPNG
Pinot Gris

Alsace Pinot Gris is one of the region's most important grapes, right behind Riesling and Gewurztraminer, while most Pinot Blanc is blended with Auxerrois, replacing Sylvaner, for a popular blend. However, in his reference book "Grape Varieties," Pierre Galet does not include Pinot Blanc or Pinot Gris in the list of 36 "great " wine grapes.  Nor, for that matter does noted English wine writer Jancis Robinson mention either grape under Alsace or Italy, in her book "Vintage Timecharts."                             

Whites Grapes (Pinot Blanc) In The Vineyard, Croatia. Stock Photo, Picture  And Royalty Free Image. Image 62561442.
Pinot Blanc

As for Pinot Blanc, the grape is known by two names in Alsace: Pinot Blanc and Clevner or Klevner.  Alsatian winemakers like Pinot Blanc for sparkling Cremant d'Alsace.  And while Pinot Blanc is at home in Alsace, it is still associated with Burgundy and is allowed in wines labeled Borgogne Blanc and Macon, both more often associated with Chardonnay.                                                           

Unfortunately, that association has caused some confusion.  Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay look similar on the vine and have similar aromatics. Sorting out the two grapes also caused some confusion in northern Italy vineyards, where a lot of Pinot Bianco is grown.            

Digression -- In the late 1990s, one of the most successful importers of Italian wines was native Kiwi Neal Empson, who with his wife, Maria, owned Empson  USA.  I first met Neal in Italy when the northern wines of Friuli-Venezia Giulia were setting sales records in the United States, especially for Pinot Bianco (Pinot Blanc) and Pinot Grigio (Pinot Gris).  Empson is a charming man with a dry wit and a sly smile. "When I first went to northern Italy to look at vineyards, I noticed that they were growing Pinot Blanc but calling it Chardonnay, the grapes were that close," he said with a sly smile, shaking his head.

The mix up in the vineyard eventually got sorted out, although it still takes a knowledgeable grower to tell the difference. Friuli and the surrounding region now export both a Chardonnay and a Pinot Bianco.

How close are the aromatics and flavors of Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris?  Let's take a look.

Appearance -- In the glass, both wines are a golden yellow, with Pinot Blanc the lighter of the two.  Pinot Gris, especially with some bottle age, begins to look and taste like honey.  Depth of color, of course, is also dependent on whether the wine was fermented in oak or aged in oak. 

Aromatics -- Pinot Blanc can be bland, but the best have a subtle spicy note. Pinot Gris is more aggressive and complex on the nose, with honey, spice and traces of musky/funky notes.  Again, oak will make a difference in the aromatics. 

Flavor -- Pinot Blanc has a subtle, non-aggressive flavor with citrus and spicy accents.  Pinot Gris is more exotic and honeyed, with underlying spice. 

These sensory characteristics are for Alsace Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris.  The same two varieties grown somewhere else will be different.  New Zealand Pinot Gris is intensely varietal, while California Pinot Blanc, especially oaked, is often mistaken for Chardonnay.

                                              PINOT GRIS

A few words on Oregon Pinot Gris.  In wine terms, Oregon got a bad rap for a long time for being a one-trick pony, that being Pinot Noir and little else.  For years there wasn't much interest in Oregon Chardonnay, although that has changed.  Both Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris seemed to adapt to Oregon's cool climate growing conditions. 

Buying Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris is easier than identifying them in the vineyard.  There are scores of both wines from Alsace wineries like Lucien Albrecht, Hugel, Zind Humbrecht, Dopff au Moulin, FE Trimbach and Schlumberger, priced between $22 and $96, the more expensive ones being special bottlings. 

California Pinot Gris from McMurray, Folie a Deux, La Crema, Hahn Family, Cline Cellars, Etude and Kendall-Jackson, to name but a few, range in price from $17 to $20. 

In general, Oregon Pinot Gris are priced a few dollars more than those from California.  Look for Elk Cove, King Estate, Montinore Estate,The Eyrie Vineyard, Erath, The Four Graces, Ponzi and Foris.

There is life after Chardonnay and now is the time to live it with a glass of Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris.

Next Blog:  Barbera & Dolcetto

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