Pinot Gris, or Grauburgunder
or Pinot Grigio - a Tour
By Don Clemens
About a month ago, I reordered a half case of an Oregon Pinot Gris based on a bottle that I had originally received as part of a shipment of wines from a wine club that I had joined a while back. The single bottle in the original order was intriguing to me, and the club’s “Leader” (for want of a better term) had set aside more of this wine for those who had reacted positively – which I had. It did not even take a month to eradicate this additional wine. I might have said “drink,” but this stuff went down so easily and quickly between my wife, me and a couple of her female friends, that “drink” or “quaff” would have done a disservice. I don’t mean to be sexist here; I’m quite sure that most of my male friends would have enjoyed it very much. Timing is everything!
Thinking about this experience got me to reminiscing about all the years that I have been drinking, selling, buying, and enjoying Pinot Gris/Grigio and its siblings over my many decades in the wine trade.
Just for fun, I decided to do some research about Pinot Gris in the older wine reference tomes in my library. If you want to discover just how rapidly the world of wine changes, reach into what is regarded as a classic wine reference: Jancis Robinson’s “Vines, Grapes and Wines” first printed in 1986.
I was amused to discover that Ms. Robinson did not mention Pinot Gris as being planted anywhere in the United States. The focus was on France, Italy, Germany and a bit about New Zealand. Before this book was printed, my major relationship with Pinot Gris was with a French version of this grape. Back then, it wasn’t even called Pinot Gris. It was known as “Tokay d’Alsace.”
In the late 1970’s, I was hawking the wines of the Alsacienne producer, Dopff & Irion, and, while German Riesling was my first love in white wines, I did find increasing enjoyment of this decidedly non-Hungarian “Tokay.” About a dozen years later, I was representing another very fine producer, Domaine Schlumberger. By then, the name “Tokay” had begun to disappear from the labels, with a nod to the increasing marketing muscle of the Tokajii producers in Hungary and Hungary’s impending entry into an agreement with the European Union. The Appellation d’Origine Controlee rules were amended. In Germany, the grape was called Grauburgunder (Grey Burgundy, because of the skin color), and is still fairly widely planted and appreciated. In Baden and the Palatinate (Rheinpfalz), it is generally marketed as “Ruländer,” named for a landowner who discovered some of this vine growing wild in one of his vineyards. Lucky man...
However, another very significant version of this grape was exploding on the scene. I am still trying to recall if I even had ONE “Pinot Grigio” on the shelves of my retail store in the early seventies. I don’t recall marketing any when I was working for a large international importer in the late 1970’s, and we were selling tons of another very successful Italian white wine appellation, Soave, at the time. I DO know that there was an increasing demand for lighter styled, dry white wines, and that Italy had been successfully growing an answer to that increased demand within that country: Pinot
Grigio. I think that it is safe to say that one very aggressively marketed brand, Santa Margherita, helped pin Pinot Grigio to the American wine drinker’s consciousness. (Note: for a good portion of the late 1990’s and most of the following decade, I was intimately involved with the company that marketed and sold Santa Margherita in the US.)
Stylistically, Pinot Gris wine from Alsace is typically medium to full-bodied, with a rich, somewhat floral aroma. There are often hints of spiciness. Pinot Gris in Alsace is one of the four so-called “Noble Grapes,” with Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Muscat. Alsace is one of the very few regions in the world with the right soils and climate to allow for the development of late harvest or sweet dessert styles of this grape, thus ensuring its “Nobility.”
Its stylistic opposite, I guess, would be the Pinot Grigios of northern Italy. From the Alto Adige to Friulia-Venezia-Giulia, the style is lighter, drier and less tinted. Since this grape can have a distinctive amount of skin color, with its concomitant additional flavor compounds, the Italian style has been to harvest before the development of much skin color or fruit sugar and to ferment with as little skin contact as possible, making for a crisp, slightly tart and refreshing beverage with very little color or the usual floral, medium bodied, slightly oily texture that is common with its cousin from Alsace.
While I suppose that it isn’t surprising that America’s plantings of Pinot Gris are relatively recent, they have been around long enough to develop some significant style developments. The first Pinot Gris planted in Oregon was by pioneering vineyardist David Lett, in 1965. Mr. Lett was quite the optimist, but his hopes have seemed to pay off, particularly in Oregon. In 1991, a major development occurred with the opening of the King Estate Winery. It was founded with a mission to produce enough quality Pinot Gris to make a dent in the consciousness of the American wine consumer. It’s a worthwhile visit; they know how to take care of wine tourists, with tasting rooms, a restaurant and the vista of the world’s largest contiguous organic vineyard. By the way, there are more than 300 acres of Pinot Gris planted on the estate.
California has a significant amount of Pinot Gris, generally in the Central and South Coastal areas. I once was surprised at how often California’s wineries called their versions “Pinot Grigio.” I assumed that it was just smart marketing, given the popularity of that Italian version in the U.S. As I had more and more opportunities to taste those versions, I realized how different they were from the Oregon (and Washington State) versions. They were more like their Italian counterparts, to me at least, in that they were almost colorless, crisp and more tart. The Pacific Northwestern versions seemed to be at a midpoint between the richness often found in Alsace’s version and northeastern Italy’s crisp style.
As I have been writing this article, I have become acutely aware of the fact that I have no more Oregon Pinot Gris in my refrigerator or in my wine cellar. I guess that it’s time to place another order!