Pinot Gris – it’s fresh, fashionable and food-friendly

Pinot Gris is going gangbusters. All over the country grape-growers are planting Pinot Gris in an attempt to keep up with soaring demand. In some cases they’re replacing less popular varieties, such as Chardonnay or Merlot, with Pinot Gris. It’s the same across the Tasman.

When demand is high quality can suffer. Over-cropping vines in an effort to make more wine tends to produce a fairly dilute and lacklustre result. The majority of Pinot Gris labels in this country have been around for less than three years. Most winemakers are still on the lower level of a long, steep learning curve.

My tasting of 86 Pinot Gris samples (73 from New Zealand) showed a wide range of styles and quality levels. The local wines are priced in a remarkably narrow band from $16.95 to $35. Only 4 wines cost more than $30 while 51 wines are priced from $20 to $30. You won’t have to pay a fortune for the best examples but there are few bargains. None of the wines with a price tag below $20 earned a silver or gold medal.

What’s so special about Pinot Gris?

There are a number of theories that might explain the popularity of Pinot Gris:

What’s not to like?

Pinot Gris is dry or dry-ish, has some weight, is relatively low in acidity, has a smooth texture and usually very subtle flavours. It is inoffensive. Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Sauvignon Blanc, by contrast, are more “in your face” wines with strong flavours. Some people love them, others hate them. It’s hard to find anyone who hates Pinot Gris.

It’s got a sexy name

Pinot Noir is currently very fashionable. Pinot Gris is a pale version of Pinot Noir with a similar sounding name. It’s easy to order, unlike Riesling (often called “rise-ling”), Sauvignon Blanc and the wine with the most challenging name, Gewürztraminer.

Pinot Gris is yesterdays Chardonnay

Chardonnay has been number one white for a long time. The reasons are obvious. It’s not particularly fruity, easy to order, dry and food-friendly. Those same qualities apply to Pinot Gris. Chardonnay is dead, or dying, long live Pinot Gris. Wine is a fashion industry. Wine drinkers felt like a change. When I asked a Pinot Gris lover why she didn’t like Chardonnay, she replied, “well … it’s not that I don’t like it, it’s just that Chardonnay’s not the thing to drink”.

Different shapes and sizes

Pinot Gris comes in many different forms. Italian Pinot Gris, known as Pinot Grigio, is typically light, dry and reasonably simple with delicate floral or citrus flavours. It doesn’t make a big statement and is a perfect fit with many Italian dishes.

French Pinot Gris from the north-east region of Alsace is weightier, has more flavour and more complexity with stone fruit flavours and often a noticeable spiciness. It’s bolder, richer, higher in alcohol and frequently sweeter than the Italian model.

New Zealand Pinot Gris varies in style according to region and the whims of the winemaker. Hawke’s Bay Pinot Gris is often soft and rich with flavours that resemble honeysuckle, mango and ripe apple. Marlborough makes finer more delicate wine with pure fruit flavours such as pear, lanolin and apple. Central Otago wine is often more concentrated with pineapple, apricot and guava flavours.

Winemaking influence greatly affects style. Pinot Gris, like its big brother Pinot Noir, is a fickle grape variety as far as flavour is concerned. The winemaker can greatly boost the wine’s flavour by allowing the crushed grape skins to soak in the juice before fermentation. As well as extracting flavour, skin contact extracts grippy, mouth-drying tannins. Tannins promote a coarse texture but that can be hidden to some extent by leaving a little unfermented sugar in the wine. Too little sugar makes the wine too drying and grippy. Too much and the wine can be cloyingly sweet. It’s a fine balancing act.

The winemaker can boost flavour and add richness to the wine’s texture by fermenting it in barrels before allowing the wine to gain complexity from extended contact with dead yeast cells that form a sludgy deposit on the bottom of the barrel. As the yeast cells decompose they add flavour and weight to the wine. Extended barrel ageing can also add unwanted wood tannins and excessive oak flavour to the wine. Once again it’s a fine balancing act.

Would you like sugar with that?

The most common complaint I receive about Pinot Gris (and Riesling) from wine drinkers is that a wine was sweeter or dryer than they expected. I’m often asked why don’t winemakers indicate sweetness level on the label?

Unfortunately one person’s sweet is another’s dry. It’s all a matter of perception. After I’d spent a day tasting 86 Pinot Gris samples I selected half a dozen wines to re-taste with the evening meal and to discuss with my family. My wife, Marion, complained that three wines I’d described as dry, or nearly dry, were actually medium or sweet.

The problem is that most examples have some sweetness that’s balanced by acidity or drying tannins. When we taste the wine we initially perceive it to be sweet but the sweetness soon fades leaving a dryer sensation of acidity or astringency. Taste a slightly sweet wine and you’ll see what I mean.

Our perception of a wine’s sweetness is often based on a snapshot. Press the shutter when you first taste the wine and “snap” it’s sweet. Press the shutter a little later after the sweetness has faded to leave an impression of acidity or astringency and “snap” it’s dry. I try to take a mental movie of the whole process which averages out the impression of sweetness – “whirr” its medium/dry.

How can the winemaker confidently reveal a wine’s sweetness level when we all perceive it to be slightly different? It’s tough out there.

Should we drink Pinot Gris now, or later?

My tasting revealed a preference for Pinot Gris in its more youthful state. When I’m asked when a Pinot Gris is at its optimum I usually say within the first year after it’s been bottled. There’s no rush, particularly with wines that use screwcaps. One to two years is fine. After three years the fruit flavours may begin to fade and the texture could become slightly coarse.

Tips for the Pinot Gris drinker

  • Experiment with serving temperatures but try not to over-chill the wine
  • Enjoy it within a year or two of the vintage date
  • If you like light, dry Pinot Gris it might be worth buying Italian Pinot Grigio
  • Invite 10 friends to each bring a bottle of Pinot Gris for a tasting. Compare the wines to determine your own favourite producer and region.
  • Serve Pinot Gris with light to medium-flavoured food. Lightly spiced dishes can make an excellent match but avoid very strongly flavoured dishes.
  • September to November is a good time to buy the new season Pinot Gris from that same year but watch for discounted wines from the previous vintage – they can offer excellent value.

Pinot Gris Shopping List

I tasted, rated and described 86 wines to compile the shopping list below. The top wines (all are of silver or gold medal standard) are shown in style categories and then in order of score. Where two or more wines have the same score I’ve put the least expensive wines first because they represent better value. Wines that score 85 to 92 points are of silver medal standard while those with 93 points or more earn a gold medal.

93 Kaituna Valley 2006 The Awatere Vineyard Pinot Gris, Marlborough $24

Succulent, creamy Pinot Gris with ripe stone fruit and hot croisant flavours. Very seductive. Medium/dry.

93 Neudorf 2006 Moutere Pinot Gris, Nelson $29

Serious Pinot Gris in a dry-ish style with a great range of appealing flavours.

93 Blanck 2005 Patergarten Pinot Gris (France) $44.95

Classy French Pinot Gris with appealing floral, stone fruit and spice flavours. Dry and powerful.

91 Neudorf 2006 Brightwater Pinot Gris, Nelson $24

A charmer with quince, brioche and mineral flavours in a medium/dry style.

91 Waimea 2006 Bolithlo SV Pinot Gris, Nelson $24.9

Moderately sweet and deliciously succulent with a drop-dead silken texture.

91 Kathy Lynskey 2007 Pinot Gris, Marlborough $30

Subtle, delicate wine with peach and honeysuckle flavours. Good food wine in a dry style.

90 Forrest Estate 2007 Pinot Gris, Marlborough $24

Delicately luscious – like biting into a freshly-picked Royal Gala apple.

90 Stoneleigh 2007 Raupara Series Pinot Gris, Marlborough $25.95

Soft, luscious wine with pure peach and pear flavours in a slightly sweet style.

90 Chard Farm 2006 Pinot Gris, Central Otago $27

Assertive Pinot Gris in an off-dry style. Lovely apple, honeysuckle and yeasty flavours.

90 Johanneshof 2007 Dry Pinot Gris, Marlborough $27

Masses of flavour and a creamy texture. Dry-ish rather than dry.

90 Huia 2006 Pinot Gris, Marlborough $28

Delicious fruit purity with pear and fresh hay characters. Dry and mouthfilling.

89 Bouldevines 2006 The Grid Pinot Gris , Marlborough $27

Attractive spice, quince and honeysuckle flavours with a creamy texture.

89 Jules Taylor 2006 Pinot Gris, Marlborough $27.3

Serious Pinot Gris in a dry style with stone fruit, lanolin, toast a nd brioche flavours.

89 Escarpment 2006 Pinot Gris, Martinborough $29

Bold, flavoursome wine with plenty of weight and character. Food wine with potential for development.

89 Blanck 2005 Pinot Gris (France) $36.95

Medium/dry wine with ripe fruit flavours and a smooth texture. Quite New World in style.

88 Mount Riley 2007 Pinot Gris, Marlborough $21.95

Charming, delicate Pinot Gris with peach and honeysuckle flavours. Medium/dry.

87 Woollaston Estates 2006 Pinot Gris, Nelson $20

Plenty of weight with pear, guava and pineapple flavours. Reasonably dry.

87 Mills Reef 2007 Reserve Pinot Gris, Hawke’s Bay $21

Full-flavoured with appealing fruit purity. A robust dry style.

87 Vavasour 2006 Pinot Gris, Marlborough $26.5

Weighty wine with pear, mineral, clover and honeysuckle flavours. Character and concentration.

87 Van Asch 2006 Pinot Gris, Central Otago $26.9

Gutsy, full-flavoured wine with quince, pear juice, mineral and yeast characters.

87 Johanneshof 2007 Medium Pinot Gris, Marlborough $27

Moderately sweet and concentrated Pinot Gris with guava, pear and honeysuckle flavours.

87 Quartz Reef 2006 Pinot Gris, Central Otago $29

Impressive wine with character and complexity. Pear, mineral, apple and clove flavours.

86 Kathy Lynskey 2006 Pinot Gris, Marlborough $30

Delicately scented food wine in a bone-dry style. Complex flavours include hay, mineral, spice and wildflowers.

86 Nevis Bluff 2006 Pinot Gris, Central Otago $34.95

Bold wine with character. Intense quince, pear and buttered croaisant flavours.

85 Thorn Clarke 2006 Sandpiper Barossa Pinot Gris (Australia) $19.95

A light, fresh and reasonably dry style with charm and drinkability. Italian Pinot Grigio in style.

85 Triplebank 2007 Awatere Valley Pinot Gris, Marlborough $21.95

Delicate and appealing wine with pear and pineapple flavours. Medium/dry.

85 Spy Valley 2006 Pinot Gris, Marlborough $22.95

Ethereal, soft-textured Pinot Gris with pear and melon flavours. Seductive.

85 Burnt Spur 2007 Pinot Gris, Marlborough $23

Delicate and slightly restrained wine with pear, honeysuckle and ripe apple flavours. Medium/dry.

85 Camshorn 2006 Glenmark Gravels Pinot Gris, Waipara $23.95

Concentrated and moderately gutsy Pinot Gris in a medium/dry style. Succulent.

85 Aurum 2006 Pinot Gris, Central Otago $24.5

Flavoursome wine with pear, apricot and brioche flavours. Medium/dry with a creamy texture.

85 Rockburn 2006 Pinot Gris, Central Otago $25

Delicately-flavoured wine with lanolin and yeasty characters. An ethereal texture.

85 Hyperion 2006 Phoebe Pinot Gris, Matakana $25

Hyperion Delicately scented wine with subtle apple, stone fruit and wild flower flavours. Dry.

85 Saint Clair 2006 Godfrey’s Creek Reserve Pinot Gris, Marlborough $25.95

A dry, complex Pinot Gris with plenty of weight and flavour.

85 Vin Alto 2006 Riserva Pinot Grigio, Clevedon $27.9

Rich, fleshy wine in a dry style. Creamy-textured Pinot Gris with character.

85 Odyssey 2006 Pinot Gris, Marlborough $28.95

Fresh and slightly spritzig wine with ripe pear, cloves, apple and nectarine flavours. Medium/dry.

First published in Taste Magazine NZ – Oct 2007.

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