Thursday, April 7, 2022

Pinot Gris' Ascending Popularity

Pinot Gris is one of those fashionable grapes, versatile enough to reflect a wide range of styles.  Stores are full of Pinto Gris/Grigio, but you needn't look no further than Oregon for a take on Pinot Gris that is attracting a lot of attention.


Pinot Gris is the second-most planted variety in Oregon, behind another member of the pinot family - Pinot Noir.  And there is three times the acreage of Pinot Gris  than Chardonnay, mainly in the Willamette Valley, the state's prime wine region, but also in the Umpqua Valley.

First planted in 1966, Pinot Gris lags behind Pinot Noir in recognition, an irritant that prompted seven wineries (Airlie Winery, Christopher Bridge Cellars, Sartori Springs Estate, David Hill Winery, Oak Knoll Winery, Pudding River Wine Cellars, Terrapin Cellars, Yamhill Valley Vineyards) to form a marketing group to say that Oregon should be known for more than Pinot Noir.

The group's effort is all about promoting the style of Oregon Pinot Gris, focusing on forward and pronounced fruit with bright acidity.  To my taste, honeyed and nutty are the best working descriptors for Pinot Gris.  The sweeter the style, the more the honey comes out, even with a trace of exotic spice. 

Aside: Wine-Searcher, the online wine finder, published two recent articles on Pinot Gris/Grigio.  A close look at both articles shows that consumer preference doesn't necessarily mean quality.  One article lists the "Best Pinot Gris Wines," while the other shows the "Most Wanted Pinot Gris Wines." 

The 10 "best" PGs (no Grigios) were all Alsace wines, seven from Domaine Zind-Humbrecht, and most either Vendage Tardive (late harvest) or Selections de Grains Nobles (a more amped up version of VT).  Domaine Weinbach and Hugel round out the "best" list of Pinot Gris wines. 

Reflecting the market for Pinot Gris/Grigio wines, Wine-Searcher's 10 "Most Wanted Pinot Gris Wines" include nine Grigios and one Pinot Gris: Domaine Zind-Humbrecht Clos St. Urban, $90.  The Grigios range in price from $11 for Voga delle Venezie, to $34 for Vie de Romans Dessimis Fruili.

Pinot Grigio in Italy

Before Oregon discovered Pinot Gris, the wine was enjoying success with white wine fans in France and Italy.  In recent years, the global wine market has been flooded with vast quantities of what the Brits call "cheap and cheerful"  Pinot Grigio, an unoaked medium-dry Italian white wine with pleasant pineapple  and honey aromas. 

Pinot Grigio

In 1990, there were 8,000 acres of Pinot Grigio in Italy. In just 10 years, that number shot up to nearly 43,000 acres.  Most of it is grown in the Veneto, with substantial vineyards in Alto Adige and Friuli.

Italian Pinot Grigio is fresh, with the scent of apple and mango and lightly spiced with a hint of mineral.  Veneto PGs have a faint copper tinge, while PGs from Alto Adige and Friuli are more aromatic.

Pinot Grigio is the "most wanted" style of Pinot Gris.   So well-liked is Pinot Grigio, that it is the most popular white wine in the world, replacing Chardonnay. 

 Pinot Gris in France

Grigio is the Italian take on Pinot Gris, the French wine made almost exclusively  in Alsace, the eastern region in France on the border with Germany. Alsace is rich in French and German heritage, seen in the town names, road signs, cuisine and architecture. 

On any weekend, especially if the weather is good, a common sight at an Alsace vintner are cars with German license plates loading wine in to the trunk.  Germans appreciate the stylistic difference between sweeter German wines and drier Alsace wines, including Pinot Gris.  In Germany, Pinot Gris is known as Grauburgunder. 

Pinot Gris in Alsace

Alsace Pinot Gris, formerly known as Tokay d'Alsace, is more commonly seen as a dry wine, although the high profile fruit of Pinot Gris, often gives the dry style a sweet impression, especially in the finish. 

Richer and more decadent are Alsace Vendange Tardive Pinot Gris.  The Alsatian concept of Vendange Tardive (late harvest) was explained in the last blog (March 25, 2022).  Alsace VT wines are made under strict regulations, including the forbidden use of additional sweetness or chaptalization. One step up are Selection de Gains Nobles, sweeter than VT wines, SdGns also contain botrytis (the "noble rot").

With all that richness, Pinot Gris needs acidity.  In the vineyard, PG tends to be a little low in acidity.  Knowing that, the winemaker must look for a balance between natural acidity and natural sweetness, without the aid of acidification. 

Aside: Acidification is the wine making process of raising the acidity in a wine.  While it sounds easy, knowing how much acid to add and when to acidify is crucial.  Acids that are normally added to wine are tartaric acid, malic acid and citric acid.  As tartaric is the natural acid of ripe grapes, it is the most commonly used. Citric, on the other hand, is less expansive and thus is more commonly used in inexpensive wines. Acidification is not used in cool climates where there is usually sufficient natural acidity.

The opposite of acidification is deacidification, a process that removes excess acidity, sometimes found in cool climate wines, such as those from northern Germany and Tasmania.  

Some wines you need to work with to develop a liking, like Zinfandel, while other wines, like Beaujolais, are not taken seriously by some red wine drinkers.  Pinot Gris, however, is not demanding and has immediate appeal.


Next blog: My Life in Wine Episode 28 

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