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Pinot Gris from California & Oregon: Dry, Opulent and Elegant
Pinot gris is a varietal that delivers distinctive, delicious, fruit-driven flavors, subtle aromas and a rich, yet crisp, texture. Eminently food friendly, a medium-bodied, dry to slightly off-dry Pinot Gris is considered by many chefs as the "perfect" wine to pair with salmon (grilled, as mousse, poached, smoked, as cakes or baked -- any way it's prepared, the interplay of flavors and textures is fabulous), and enhances a vast spectrum of dishes from shellfish to osso buco. It's comparatively inexpensive, with most New World bottlings selling in the $12 to $20 range. On top of all that, it has a distinguished European pedigree and a French name that's easy to pronounce.
With all that going for the wine, it's surprising that outside Europe, Pinot Gris has been embraced by sizeable numbers of winemakers only in Oregon, where it counts as the state's best white wine. More and more California wineries are now trying their hand with the varietal, too, and if it catches on with the state's savvy wine consumers, it could ultimately give Chardonnay some pretty decent competition.
When tasted for the first time, Pinot Gris usually evokes an immediate positive response. Wine drinkers devoted to Chardonnay are genuinely surprised that anything else could taste that good. The broad flavor profile ranges from apples, pears and peaches, to melon, citrus, banana and tropical fruit. Occasionally there's also a vaguely smoky, nutty or vanilla taste that suggests French oak, which may be enhanced if oak is actually used in making the wine. It is known for its inherently opulent texture and good acidity. Among dry white wines, few are more unctuous than a good Pinot Gris, meaning that the wine is silky smooth and agreeably weighty as it slides down the throat.
Pinot Gris is widely planted in Europe, especially in Germany, where the grape is vinified most usually into a dry wine called Grauburgunder (a late-harvest style, often made from botrytized grapes, is labeled Rulander), and in Italy, where it's known as Pinot Grigio. Growers there harvest the grapes early while the acid levels are still high, producing an easy drinking, crisp style of wine with a subdued aroma. While it is planted in less acreage in Alsace than the region's other three principal varieties -- riesling, gewurztraminer and pinot blanc -- pinot gris consistently produces excellent-to-great wine here in styles ranging from bone dry to opulently sweet, and is considered by many winemakers to be the classic Alsatian varietal.
David Lett, The Eyrie Vineyards' owner and winemaker, who was the first to plant pinot noir in Oregon, is also credited with introducing pinot gris to Oregon, and thus to the United States. The 160 vines he planted in his Willamette Valley vineyard in 1966 came from an experimental vineyard at the University of California at Davis, and yielded a mere five cases of wine with the first harvest in 1970.
Today, more than 40 Oregon wineries, primarily in the Willamette (will-AM-ett) Valley, make Pinot Gris, and the variety is fast edging chardonnay as the state's most widely planted white winegrape. Certainly the state's fastest growing varietal, Pinot Gris production almost doubles annually, with case production currently exceeding 70,000.
In general, Oregon Pinot Gris tends to resemble the fleshy, fruit-forward, Alsatian style, rather than the lean, sometimes austere Italian Pinot Grigio. According to Chehalem Winery's winemaker, Harry Peterson-Nedry, "We make our Pinot Gris in as close to Alsatian style as possible, attempting to get weight on the palate, while retaining fruit flavors. We do this by harvesting at full ripeness and fermenting to dryness, although we usually leave a little residual sugar, never more than one half of one percent, for roundness."
Recently, the Vintners Club panel undertook the pleasant task of blind-tasting through a flight of 12 current-release Pinot Gris -- six each from Oregon and California -- all but two of which were from the 1996 vintage. Prices ranged from $11 to $20, with most wines in the mid-teens. Oregon took first place, as might be expected given the state's greater experience with the wine, but California producers did quite well, too, placing second and third. Oregon wines rounded out the top six, taking fourth through sixth place.
1996 WillaKenzie Pinot Gris, Yamhill, Oregon ($14)
Pleasant, somewhat forward scents reminiscent of melon, apricot and peach with a slightly tropical edge -- quite fragrant and appealing. Rich and unctuous on the palate, yet still exhibiting a good acid backbone, the wine's delicious flavors replicate the nose and show some complexity. There's just a hint of residual sugar to account for the roundness.
1997 Swanson Pinot Grigio, Napa Valley ($16)
Wonderfully perfumed for Pinot Gris (which usually shows a comparatively muted nose), the Swanson offers up a complex fragrance of peach blossom, ripe pear, citrus and tangerine framed in mildly toasty oak. Moderately rich with good acidity, this "Grigio" is more "Gris" in character, with nutty citrus-apricot flavors and a crisp, very slightly grassy finish.
1996 Navarro Pinot Gris, Anderson Valley ($14)
My number one choice, the Navarro Pinot Gris shows as much Alsatian influence as the tiny winery's impressive dry Gewurztraminer. Clean, fresh scents of citrus, just-peeled pear and wet pebbles tinged with a hint of botrytis honey. On the palate, the wine is quite generous and delicious, with flavors ranging from juicy pear and citrus to pineapple and an intriguing mineral note. Moderately unctuous and round with good acidity and a hint of residual sugar.
1996 Oak Knoll Reserve Pinot Gris, Willamette Valley ($15)
Very complex, appealing nose of apricot, tangerine, peach, quince and "lemon meringue pie," plus a honey note. Bright and lively in the mouth offering similar flavors that are rich and generous. Almost a late-harvest style, and thoroughly delicious.
1997 Cooper Mountain Pinot Gris, Willamette Valley ($14)
Shy scents of rose petals, peach, citrus and lanolin. Easy to drink and varietally correct with good acidity, the Cooper Mountain Pinot Gris exhibits both grapefruit-like citrus and juicy peach flavors.
1996 Chehalem Reserve Pinot Gris, Ridgecrest Vineyards, Willamette Valley ($19)
Showing some vanilla in the nose, along with golden delicious apple and toasted grain scents. Juicy in the mouth with mostly citrus-like flavors and good acidity.
1996 Rex Hill Pinot Gris, Willamette Valley ($14)
Fine varietal nose of lemon-lime citrus, pear and beeswax, enhanced by flinty mineral-like notes and a hint of wildflowers. Generous, round and unctuous on the palate, with lots of juicy pear-citrus fruit and mineral-tinged flavors. Textbook Pinot Gris.
1996 Byron Pinot Gris, Santa Maria Valley ($16)
Moderately forward aromas of apples and tropical fruit, accented by vanilla and beeswax. Moderately unctuous and round with adequate acidity, the wine's lemony flavors tinged with mild herbaceousness are subdued at this point, but should evolve with a little time in the cellar.
1996 King Estate Reserve Pinot Gris, Oregon ($18)
Moderately forward scents of lemon-lime citrus, sweet pea, almonds and a hint of botrytis honey. Quite dry and very slightly rich with good acidity, the King Estate Reserve offers slightly spicy, citrus-like flavors. From Oregon's largest Pinot Gris producer, this wine would be an excellent choice with salmon or crab.
1996 Di Bruno Pinot Grigio, Sanford & Benedict Vineyard, Santa Barbara County ($11)
Made by Sanford Winery's winemaker, Bruno D'Alfonso, this oak-influenced Grigio is somewhat lacking in fruit, offering more toast than varietal stone fruit or citrus, and is lean and tight in the mouth.
1996 Au Bon Climat Reserve Pinot Gris, Bien Nacido Vineyard, Santa Barbara County ($20)
Jim Clendenen's style with the grape is more like Chardonnay than Pinot Gris, from its albeit fragrant nose of creamy citrus, tropical fruit and honeysuckle, tinged with smoky oak, to a creamy citrus palate that's smooth, rich and buttery, with well-integrated oak. We had to check the bottle later to be sure the wine was Pinot Gris; at least, that what appeared on the label.
This was a corked bottle and thus not representative of the wine produced by the winery. It would serve no purpose to reveal the brand.
Steve Pitcher is a freelance wine writer based in San Francisco. He is vice president of the Vintners Club and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the German Wine Society.