Dunne on Wine

Dunne on Wine: Pinot grigio, pinot gris: What’s with the excitement?

How in the world did pinot grigio get to be the fourth-most-popular varietal wine in the United States, behind only chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and merlot in sales?

That makes it more popular than even sauvignon blanc and pinot noir, varietals that almost invariably can be relied upon for something that pinot grigio and pinot gris only occasionally deliver – vitality.

Nevertheless, nearly one in every 10 bottles of wine sold in the United States is pinot grigio or pinot gris, synonyms for “insipid” in both Italian and French.

That isn’t only inaccurate, but also mean, though not far off the mark, I’m afraid. This disappointing conclusion is drawn from the Long Beach Grand Cru International Wine Competition earlier this summer, which drew approximately 1,200 commercial wines, 43 of which were pinot grigio/pinot gris.

The panel on which I sat was assigned them all. It would be a stretch, however, to say we tasted them all. There were a few we didn’t dare put into our mouths, being that they smelled closer to cheese than wine, and not an inviting cheese. Maybe we should have tasted them; at least they seemed to have something to say, however profanely.

The most polite thing we could say of the wines as a group was that they were “delicate.” We have nothing against delicate wines. As a panel, I’d venture to say that we wished there were more delicate wines in competitions. Enough with the rich, warm, dense and heavy fruit bombs that round up the highest point scores and the most lavish praise among the more influential wine critics. They also tend to win the highest awards at competitions. “Delicacy” merely suggests a wine of restraint and refinement; it need not mean the sacrifice of vigor and character.

With our flights of pinot grigio/pinot gris, on the other hand, the delicacy we found was closer to thinness and blandness. Only a handful said anything of varietal integrity. I’ve had pinot grigios that have been vibrant with fruit, balanced in build and refreshing in acidity. Their suggestions of fruit have ranged from the snap of green apples to the juiciness of nectarines and melons, with an occasional spiced pear in the mix.

Winemakers who have been studious in their search for the best source of grapes and who then handled the fruit with equal deliberation have turned out examples of pinot grigio that are downright complex, a rarity for the varietal. And they don’t necessarily come from Austria, Italy or France. Oregon, New Zealand and even California also are quite capable of yielding memorable pinot grigio/pinot gris.

The challenge, as we learned in Long Beach, is finding them. The first obligation of pinot grigio/pinot gris is to be fresh, and a disproportionate share of those we tasted at the Long Beach Petroleum Club just weren’t. They tasted tired. They were shallow. Several were bitter. They amounted to mineral water laced with alcohol. They were balanced mostly in their sameness.

I came away suspecting that growers and vintners who a decade or two ago saw a potential gold mine in the rising sales of pinot grigio from Italy rushed out to plant it, not necessarily giving much thought to where it could show its best side. In the past 10 years, the acreage devoted to pinot grigio/pinot gris in California has nearly doubled, from 7,153 acres to 13,292. Huge chunks of that increase have been in San Joaquin and Fresno counties, much warmer than regions where the grape traditionally has done best.

Nevertheless, by the end of our deliberations in Long Beach we’d found four representatives deserving of a gold medal. Three of the four were from the vintage of 2012; the fourth was a non-vintage. Three of the four were from the kind of cool-climate wine regions where pinot grigio/pinot gris does well – the Finger Lakes district of upstate New York, and the Monterey County and Anderson Valley in Northern California; the fourth bore the unusual appellation “American,” which really doesn’t tell you much other than that the source of the grapes came from more than one state or country.

That wine was the Barefoot Cellars American Pinot Grigio ($7). Usually, the Barefoot pinot grigio bears a “California” appellation, and it will again, says winemaker Jennifer Wall. The pinot grigio for this version was grown in California, but the wine has an “American” appellation because it includes some moscato from Argentina. That’s just what pinot grigio may need to intensify its fruitiness, complexity and body. With 1.2 percent residual sugar, it also was one of the sweeter pinot grigios we tasted.

Our other three gold-medal pinot grigios were comparably dry. They included the lush yet lively 10Span Vineyards 2012 Monterey County Pinot Gris ($13), which prompted me to jot in my notes that “this is a PG I just might buy,” and the Belhurst Estate Winery 2012 New York Pinot Grigio ($20), the heftiest and most complex take on the varietal we tasted all day.

Our overall favorite, thus our best-of-class, was the Navarro Vineyards 2012 Anderson Valley Pinot Gris ($20), an exceptionally assertive interpretation, its fruit clean and citric, its acidity zingy and its finish the longest of the day. (Navarro personnel recommend it be paired with burrata wrapped in prosciuto, or chicken with spaetzle.)

Note that two of those were labeled “pinot grigio” and two “pinot gris.” What’s the difference? The grape is the same, and the designation preferred by individual vintners generally reflects their stylistic aspirations. If it is “pinot grigio,” they have the Italian style in mind. If it’s “pinot gris,” they’re leaning to the French or Alsatian model. Pinot grigio tends to be lighter, simpler and crisper, while pinot gris tends to be more lush and more complex; it’s assertive while pinot grigio is more laid back. Both, however, usually are made dry, with little or no exposure to oak barrels.

At the table, both are versatile, though pinot grigio is best with lighter, simpler dishes while pinot gris customarily has the focus and heft to go with somewhat richer dishes. In Oregon, where all takes on the varietal are labeled “pinot gris,” it may be second only to pinot noir in being chosen to accompany Pacific Northwest salmon, however it is prepared.

A case could be made, I suppose, that pinot grigio and pinot gris should compete in separate classes at wine competitions, but, frankly, their styles overlap so often that a class for each would be essentially meaningless, though given the popularity and numbers of pinot grigio/pinot gris in the marketplace, such separation would be worth at least an experiment.

At the Long Beach Grand Cru, incidentally, I thought a few other takes on pinot grigio/pinot gris warranted gold, but couldn’t talk my panel mates up. They were the citric and minerally Grape Creek Vineyard 2012 Texas Pinot Grigio ($18); the reserved but representative Rex Goliath USA Pinot Grigio ($9); and the pronounced and persistent Handley Cellars 2012 Anderson Valley Pinot Gris ($20).

Aside from the New York and Texas examples, other pinot grigio/pinot gris should be relatively easy to find in the Sacramento area.