Pinot grigio, also known as pinot gris, is rare among wines in that it can draw upon the traditions and romance of two wine countries to sell itself – Italy and France.
That’s a good thing, given that pinot grigio/pinot gris needs all the help it can get. On paper, it’s an ideal summer wine – white, light, fresh, relatively low in alcohol and best served well chilled. But in the glass, it’s also thin and bland, more often than not.
Nevertheless, it has developed a huge fan base in the United States. With 8 percent of the market, it’s the fourth-most-popular varietal wine in the country, behind cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and merlot.
Never mind that much of that pinot grigio/pinot gris originates in a climate that’s all wrong for it, namely California.
When pinot grigio/pinot gris has something to say that is stimulating and entertaining, it almost always comes from a region with the sort of cool climate that it relishes – the Friuli and Alto Adige areas of northern Italy, Alsace in France, Marlborough in New Zealand, and Baden in Germany, where the name of the grape periodically morphs into something else, as if it were a new model of Mercedes-Benz: rulander for awhile, grauburgunder lately.
That pinot grigio has any presence at all in the United States can be credited to one man, Tony Terlato, who as a young importer of Italian wines in 1979 struck a deal with the owners of the estate Santa Margherita of Alto Adige and began to bring in their fruity and spicy take on the varietal.
As sales of Santa Margherita’s pinot grigio soared, farmers and vintners elsewhere took notice and began to plant it like mad. Over the past decade, California vineyard land devoted to pinot grigio/pinot gris has nearly doubled, now standing at almost 14,000 acres. Big plots of it are in areas too warm to retain the acidity that marks the difference between interpretations innocuous and flabby and releases lively and crisp.
But we must be careful about blanket judgments concerning the link between setting and quality. Even in California, even in regions widely seen as too warm for pinot grigio/pinot gris, exceptional takes on the varietal can be found. A few vintners in the torrid Mother Lode, for one, have found stands of pinot grigio/pinot gris at higher altitudes or in cool hollows that with perceptive handling can produce examples of striking fruit flavor, luxurious texture and refreshing acidity. One of them, a 2011 pinot grigio from Oakstone Winery at Fair Play, was judged the best wine of El Dorado County at the El Dorado County Fair wine competition two years ago.
For whatever reason, however, no pinot grigio/pinot gris out of the Sierra foothills was in the class of 29 entries that our panel judged during this year’s Sunset International Wine Competition at Menlo Park. Results won’t be known until publication of the magazine’s October issue, but I can tell you that virtually all of them were from the kind of cooler environment in which pinot grigio/pinot gris shines, when it shines at all.
That could explain why the class was such a pleasant surprise. This was in sharp contrast to my experience at another wine competition last summer, the Long Beach Grand Cru, where our panel judged 43 takes on the varietal, giving just four gold medals. For the most part, the wines there were more tired than vivid, more soft than crisp.
I’ve no idea which of the pinot grigio/pinot gris at the Sunset competition got gold medals, but I do know I had some favorites, which I later found to be:
• King Estate 2013 Oregon Pinot Gris ($17): My notes say “Oregon,” but with a question mark. The wine’s generosity, elegance and balance had me thinking that it came from the state where a disproportionate share of today’s more vigorous and compelling renditions of the varietal originate. Nonetheless, the wine’s floral aroma and unusual heft, the apparent result of having been exposed to lees contact for four months, as well as its 13.5 percent alcohol, made me question my first instinct.
• King Estate 2013 Oregon Acrobat Pinot Gris ($12): This has to be the best buy in pinot gris going these days. The Acrobat is a slightly less weighty and layered pinot gris than the one above, but the apple and citric currents in the flavor and the zesty acidity show the varietal’s potential in a delightfully sunny way.
• Giesen Wines 2013 Marlborough Pinot Gris ($14/$15): Its golden hue is the first indication that this will be an atypically rich pinot gris, a first impression verified by the wine’s luxurious texture, suggestions of fully ripe apple and melon in aroma and flavor, and sweet lingering finish. Despite its heft, its balancing jolt of acidity completes the wine, making it suitable as a stand-alone aperitif or for pairing even with relatively complex and busy dishes.
• Lindeman’s 2013 South Eastern Australia Bin 85 Pinot Grigio: ($18): While South Eastern Australia is a generally warm area, and 2013 was a fairly warm year, the vintners of Lindeman’s apparently picked their pinot grigio in the right places at the right times. Though this pinot grigio is light in color, it is lively in aroma and flavor with the richness of apricot and the lift of melon. It’s also as sharp with acid in the finish as it is sweet with fruit up front. Another example fitting for both sipping on its own or pairing with even hefty summer dishes.
• Tangent 2012 Edna Valley Paragon Vineyard Pinot Gris ($17): If they are made from the same variety of grape, why are some called pinot grigio and some pinot gris? Broadly speaking, pinot grigio has come to indicate that the wine has been made in the Italian style, which tends to the light, crisp, simple; pinot gris leans more toward the traditional Alsatian style – denser and more forward and complex. The Tangent measures up to that standard, with a beguiling complexity, spunky cool-climate acidity, and a vein of pineapple to give it a ray of additional sunshine.
• Hahn Winery 2013 Monterey Pinot Gris ($14): As a variant of pinot noir, pinot grigio/pinot gris customarily has a reddish tone to its skins, which often gives the resulting white wine a coppery or brassy tint, as in this case. I liked the rich fruitiness and plump structure of this wine more than the other panelists, but while it is softer than many of the others we tasted it isn’t flabby. It’s a solid introduction to the genre, offering more depth than usually found at this price point.
• Hendry Ranch Wines 2013 Napa Valley Pinot Gris ($18): Now here’s an oddity, a clean, peachy, medium-bodied pinot gris from Napa Valley, widely seen as too warm for the variety. The Hendry family, however, has been farming grapes in Napa Valley for 75 years, and found a block both well shaded from afternoon sun and well cooled by breezes and fog off nearby San Pablo Bay. The result is a well-balanced pinot gris, sunny but not blinding.
• Arbor Brook Vineyards 2013 Willamette Valley Croft Vineyard Pinot Gris ($20): Another entry that shows by its expansive bouquet, lemony and apple flavors, electric current of spice and snappy acidity just why Oregon is the nation’s epicenter for pinot gris. It has a composure rare for the breed, but doesn’t sacrifice the varietal’s industry and verve when it is at its best. The winery recommends that it be paired with Chilean sea bass topped with mango salsa, pork rillette with sliced pears, and citrus-grilled chicken, or served as an aperitif to kick off a party, sound suggestions for any of these wines.