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March 30, 2010

Identity Crisis

Pinot Gris is a white wine made from a red grape, a sibling of Pinot Noir that goes by at least two other names. No wonder it's a mystery, even to oenophiles.

This wine just reaches out and puts its arms around you," promises David Lett, winemaker at Oregon's Eyrie Vineyards and the bushwhacking pioneer of American Pinot Gris. "I mean, do you really want to drink another cumbersome, flat, oaky, over-alcoholic, sweet Chardonnay?"

At a time when everybody seems to be casting around for a flavor-righteous alternative to the same-old, same-old white wine, Pinot Gris (rhymes with "glee") is capturing palates one glass at a time. It's a demanding wine to produce and for that reason has only come into its own in Alsace and northern Italy over the past generation—and in America just in the last decade. But whatever it lacks in marquee value—which is plenty—Pinot Gris makes up in seductive, palate-flattering pleasure.

"The first reaction seems to be 'Jeez, why would you want to make that?' " says Bob Long of Napa Valley's Long Vineyards, which began producing Pinot Gris under its Italian name, Pinot Grigio, in 1992 and has since seen it become a cult favorite among restaurateurs and wine cognoscenti. Pinot Gris may in fact be the ultimate word-of-mouth wine right now, ignored so far by the mass-market American labels, and tarnished by association with a small sea of cut-price Italian versions. For those who have acquired a taste for Pinot Gris, the ignorance of the marketplace is bliss.

As the cost of every major wine, from middling white Burgundy to Barbera, disappears over the horizon of reasonable-return-on-expectation, the price tags for Pinot Gris are as soothing as the wines are luscious. With the exception of Alsatian icon Zind-Humbrecht, whose Grand Cru, single vineyard Pinot Gris can command prices upwards of $95 a bottle, the best drier-style Pinot Gris largely retails for $15—$40. Moreover, what you get for your dollar with these bottles is an eye-opener.

"Pinot Gris expresses roundness, unctuousness, and power," says Zind-Humbrecht's Olivier Humbrecht. "You have an immediate feel of warmth and pleasure, but there can also be an incredible amount of structure, which enables the wines to age properly and also reflect their origin and culture. You don't have to take ten hours of lessons to learn to enjoy this wine, but for connoisseurs there is a lot to look for."

In fact, connoisseurs often have to look hard just to find the best bottles, which is strange—the grape isn't scarce—until you know the wine's curious history. Pinot Gris actually crops up in vineyards all over Europe, where it has more aliases than a fugitive from Interpol. Alsatian wineries still sometimes label the wines Tokay Pinot Gris, a practice the EU heartily wishes they would repent of, prior claim, after all, going to the unrelated Tokay of Hungary. In Germany, both the grape and the wine are known as Ruländer or Grauburgunder, the latter name often reserved for the drier-style wines; in Switzerland it's called Malvoisie de Valais; in Yugoslavia Rulandac Sivi; in Hungary, Szürkebarát. But it's as Pinot Beurot, a moniker obscure and almost forgotten, that the identity of Pinot Gris snaps into focus.

Pinot Beurot grows in scattered patches in the finest vineyards of Burgundy's Côte d'Or. It's indigenous to the region, in fact a mutation or, in a wonderful bit of genetic parlance, a "color sport" of Pinot Noir itself. The grapes are so closely related that only a specialist can tell them apart until very near harvest time, when Pinot Noir darkens to purplish-blue and Pinot Gris (or "Pinot Gray") to a variation of blue, gray, or pink. Pinot Beurot was traditionally used to soften red Burgundy, which is why the AOC (Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée) regulations still permit its cultivation in the Côte d'Or. Even as great a bastion of Pinot Noir as Le Corton was until recently planted with five percent Pinot Beurot, according to British wine authority Jancis Robinson.

Close as the two grapes are, you wouldn't make a connection between the wines—one red, one white—from tasting them. "Their different tastes probably mean that Pinot Gris grapes have undergone other changes besides losing their ability to make color, but nobody knows what they are," says Dr. Carole Meredith, a professor of Viticulture and Enology at the University of California, Davis. "But flavor's a complex thing, and once you change just about anything about a grape you'll probably change the flavor."

Instead, the traits that Pinot Gris shares as a member of the high-strung Pinot family are its often unpredictable yields, severely adverse reaction to overcropping, and super-responsiveness to terroir. In other words, Pinot Gris is almost as big a pain in the neck to grow well as Pinot Noir, without providing a commensurate payoff. That is one reason Pinot Gris isn't as widely planted as Chardonnay.

"Some grapes, like Cabernet or Riesling," notes Olivier Humbrecht, "you can plant on limestone, gravelly soil, sand, silt, loam, whatever you want, and you'll still make an average-to-good wine. With Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir you need a specific site or you make a wine that's flabby and dull." That's why Zind-Humbrecht offers an inexpensive Riesling from a "village" appellation, but its "entry level" Pinot Gris is from a fine single vineyard, Heimbourg.

Among other things, notes Alois Lageder, one of Italy's more highly regarded Pinot Grigio producers, "Pinot Grigio needs warm, but not too warm, daytime temperatures to ripen, but more than other grape varieties it must have cool nights, otherwise it loses its acidity. That combination is hard to find, yes? That is why so many Pinot Grigios from around Italy aren't good. Probably those places are no good for other grapes either, but Pinot Grigio is affected more."

The topnotch Pinot Gris growing regions, Oregon's Willamette Valley, Italy's Friuli and Alto Adige, and, of course, Alsace, share these uncommon climatic conditions. It is unfortunate that these places also share, at least in America, near anonymity. Without an easy-to-understand Old World wine pedigree, Pinot Gris has had to forge its own identity.

The situation is made more difficult by the fact that Pinot Gris is hard to pigeonhole. Much more than Chardonnay, Pinot Gris varies from winery to winery, region to region—although the Chardonnay example may be deceptive, given its common denominator, a background note of vanilla and toasted oak that comes not from the grape but from barrel treatment. Most of the better Pinot Gris producers eschew heavy oak, preferring to let the grape and the vineyard character speak for themselves. As Eyrie Vineyards' Lett puts it, "It costs me so much to grow these grapes in Oregon, and the reason I'm doing it is for flavor. I'm not going to cover that flavor up with wood."

Another thing a lot of producers, Lett included, don't do is wait too long to pick their grapes. In fact, the world of high-end Pinot Gris can be roughly divided between the Alsatian-style "waiters" and the Pinot Grigio-style "pickers." In Alsace the producers wait to allow Pinot Gris to achieve a ripeness level that often pushes the top wines' alcohol content over 14 percent (versus 12.5 percent, for a great Bordeaux red), creating a tier of super-ripe, sweet dessert wines. But Alsace is a rare place, one where generations of trial and error in matching vine to vineyard now allows Pinot Gris to mature slowly without sacrificing the acidity that gives the wine structure and verve.

Then there are the "pickers." In Italy, Pinot Grigio lumbered along for a century or so as a big, undistinguished wine, often blended with other white wines to add body and alcohol. Then, in the early 1960s, pioneering wineries like Alto Adige's Santa Margherita began to harvest Pinot Grigio earlier in the season, when the grapes' acidity was still high. As a result they were able to make a wine with finesse and moderate alcohol.

In the United States, where high-quality Pinot Gris has gained a promising foothold, wineries are mixing and matching the two methods—and a lot else—as they evolve individual styles for a wine with almost no track record in this country. Eyrie only produced our first commercially bottled Pinot Gris in 1970, and Pinot Gris has since undergone a boomlet among Oregon's small, generally quality-oriented wineries. It's also beginning to enjoy a modest vogue in California as the "Cal-Ital" movement, California producers making Italian-style wines, gains momentum.

It's all still new, though: Bob Long took the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms by surprise when he tried to register the first U.S. wine labeled "Pinot Grigio" in 1992. "They told us they couldn't issue label approval because Pinot Grigio wasn't a recognized varietal," Long recalls. "We said, well, does that mean that the Pinot Grigio from Italy you're approving isn't a recognized varietal? 'Oh yeah,' they said, 'maybe so. . . .' "

And it's not just in the New World the status of Pinot Gris is changing. In the Pinot Gris heartland of Alsace, where the grape has been considered a paragon of quality, it's only now beginning to achieve commensurate prominence in plantings. By Olivier Humbrecht's estimates, Pinot Gris vines have expanded from about three percent of Alsace's vineyard acreage 20 years ago to eight or nine percent today. In Italy, where the modern style of Pinot Grigio is little more than a single generation old, experimentation continues. This year prominent producer Lageder will plant a new vineyard to different clones of the grape than he's ever cultivated.

Sales figures suggest that when people try the best Pinot Gris they often come away smitten. Santa Margherita (about $18 retail) was first distributed nationally in 1980, but by 1990 Wine & Spirits magazine ranked it as the number-one imported wine in U.S. restaurants (a position it has held nine of the last 10 years).

Still, it's hard to get people to try something new. In 1990 Eyrie Vineyards produced 2,500 cases of Pinot Gris; in 1998 Eyrie bottled 5,000 cases. "It was so tough to sell in the early years," remembers Lett, "that we traded a lot of it to salmon fishermen, because it tastes so good with salmon. However, after my wife and I had eaten all the salmon we could, I decided to go around and get the wine poured by the glass in restaurants at whatever price I could get. And that's what worked: To this day I have never met a person who didn't instantly love this wine."


A Taste of Pinot Gris

Pinot Gris is a shifty grape, changing characteristics and even names as it crosses national borders. It's Tokay Pinot Gris in Alsace, Pinot Grigio in Italy, Pinot Gris in Oregon. In general the Alsatian-style (which includes some offerings from Oregon and even California ) is rich and fleshy; the Pinot Grigio style taut and crisp. Richer Pinot Gris wines go well with grilled white meats and are a famous match for salmon—poached, grilled, or smoked—and for scallops, shrimp, and lobster. In Alsace Pinot Gris is even drunk with earthy organ meats like foie gras, paté, terrine, kidneys, and sweetbreads. The leaner Italian style wines are delicate enough for white-meat fish. In Alto Adige, Pinot Grigio is savored with the local specialty: tagliatelle pasta with gefelchtes, dried, smoked beef cut into small pieces and tossed with the pasta, cheese, and butter. Alsace also produces very limited amounts of two luxury-priced, late-harvest Pinot Gris styles: Vendange Tardive, powerful, super-rich, and vinified almost to dryness; and Sélection de Grains Nobles, a flamboyantly sweet dessert wine.

Here are some Pinot Gris/Grigios to look for (in order of preference).

Excellent

Zind-Humbrecht 1995 Pinot Gris
Grand Cru Rangen de Thann, Clos Saint Urbain/Alsace ($75). Powerful, flavor-packed, and profound—with ringing elegance.

Zind-Humbrecht 1994 Pinot Gris<
Grand Cru Rangen de Thann, Clos Saint Clos Saint Urbain—Vendange Tardive/Alsace ($95). A late- harvest or dessert wine. Super-intense, balanced, and solid as the Arc de Triomphe.

Zind-Humbrecht 1996 Pinot Gris
Heimbourg/Alsace ($45). Big, fleshy, and exotically spiced.

Ernest Burn 1996 Tokay Pinot Gris
Grand Cru Clos Saint Imer, La Chapelle/Alsace ($32). Powerful, supple, and gorgeously nuanced

Domaines Schlumberger 1996 Pinot Gris
Grand Cru Kitterle/Alsace ($37). Spicy, rich, complex, and vibrant.

Domaine Weinbach 1997 Tokay Pinot Gris
Clos des Capucins, Cuvée Ste. Catherine/Alsace ($54). Intense and tightly coiled; this is a wine to cellar.

Leon Beyer 1995 Tokay Pinot Gris
Reserve/ Alsace ($25). Luscious flavors against a crisp, bright background.

Muré 1996 Tokay Pinot Gris
Grand Cru Vorbourg Clos St. Landelin/Alsace ($27). Rich, with fleshy, ripe fruit and exotic aromas.

Hugel 1997 Pinot Gris
Jubilee, Reserve Personnelle/Alsace ($35). Imagine a super-spicy, ultra-soft peach liqueur. Now imagine it with a dry, clean finish.

Very Good

Josmeyer 1997 Tokay Pinot Gris
Le Fromenteau/Alsace ($27). One big impression at this stage, but a lovely one: creamy and mouth-watering.

Trimbach 1995 Pinot Gris
Reserve/Alsace ($20). Flowers, citrus, and licorice, as well as a full-bore finish.

Alois Lageder 1996 Pinot Grigio
Benefizium Porer/Alto Adige ($19). Crisp, medium-rich, and lively. Serve chilled, not cold.

Eyrie 1997 Pinot Gris
Oregon ($17). Fruity, juicy, irresistible.

Josmeyer 1996 Tokay Pinot Gris
Alsace ($19). Food-versatile; citrusy with a steeliness underneath.

Good

Ponzi 1997 Pinot Gris
Oregon ($14). Ripe, generous, melony.

Vigna Ripetta 1997 Pinot Grigio
Tenuta Villanova/Friuli-Venezia Giulia ($12). Refined, with ripe honeydew melon flavors.

Alois Lageder 1997 Pinot Grigio
Alto Adige ($12). Lemony, touched with smoke and cream.

Zenato 1997 Pinot Grigio
Veneto ($9). Penetrating lemon-apple savor.

Kris 1997 Pinot Grigio
Trentino-Alto Adige ($11). Bright, delicious, and harmonious.—R.N.

Richard Nalley is the contributing editor for Wines and Spirits.