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Thoughts on Pinot Gris/Grigio

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Working on an article on Napa white wines for Wine Enthusiast, I realized I’d never blogged on Pinot Gris/Grigio. So I did a little crawling around my reviews over the years (helpfully stored in the magazine’s terrific database) and here’s what I came up with.

If you’d asked me ten years ago what I thought of PG, I’d have said the same thing I’d say today: workhorse white, much as it is in Italy, in places like the Alto Adige. A simple wine to wash food down. I’ve reviewed about 825 PGs since my very first, a Hogue 1998, from the Columbia Valley, which I gave 86 points. I liked its delicacy, fruitiness and acidity, all qualities I still admire in a PG.

My highest score ever was to Chamisal’s 2011, from the Edna Valley, which I awarded an Editor’s Choice even though it wasn’t exactly cheap, $24 to be exact. I thought it deserved the special designation, being the highest-scored of that variety ever for me. Chamisal called it Pinot Gris rather than Grigio. It’s not an ironclad rule, but in general wnemakers call the wine Gris if it had some oak and was stirred on the lees, while they reserve Grigio for steel-fermented ones (which also can be sur lie). But I’ve had oaky PGs that were called Grigio so you can’t really go by this rule.

Certainly the best PGs must come from cool areas. If the wine doesn’t have acidity, it’s flat, and there’s nothing worse than a flabby white wine, especially if it also has residual sugar. The best areas for PG in California are Edna Valley, Sta. Rita Hills (where Carr and Babcock excel), Carneros (Etude is always a standout), Anderson Valley (Navarro defines the crisp, elegant style), and the Santa Lucia Highlands, where Morgan specializes in it. Rick Longoria makes a consistently good PG which he labels with a Santa Barbara County appellation. I don’t know where in the county the grapes are from. Maybe the Los Alamos area? Anyway, Rick’s PG’s go beyond mere lemons and limes into exotic tropical fruits, apricots and honey.

The funny thing is, I don’t think I ever ordered a PG in a restaurant. I don’t know why. I suppose it’s because the variety doesn’t make a really compelling case for any particular type of food. I think a rich, barrel-fermented one would be great with something like the albacore tuna tostada, with crisped leeks, chipotle mayo and avocado, they serve at Tacolicious, in the Mission. But so would their La Sirena cocktail (Ketel One, lime, ginger, cassis), a Corona Familiar, or for that matter an Albariño from Rias Baixas.

That’s the problem with a wine with Pinot Gris/Grigio. They can be good, but they don’t demand to be paired with anything in particular. If you’re having boiled lobster and butter, or Dungeness crab with buttered sourdough bread, there’s really only one wine: Chardonnay, the richer the better. If you’re having a rack of lamb with roasted potatoes, you can’t go wrong with a great Pinot Noir. But what food screams out for PG?

On the other hand, good California PG isn’t very expensive, averaging $15-$24 for a 90-point bottle. I wonder if there are any sommeliers out there who will read this and make some suggestions for individual PGs and what foods to pair them with.

  1. To talk about PinotGris and not say one word about Alsace strikes me as a big oversight. Whenever I have ChacrouteGarnie (Weenies & kraut), it just screams out for PinotGris….from Alsace or Calif or Friuli.

  2. Bob Henry says:

    Steve,

    Alluding to a private e-mail I sent you, I spoke with Oregon Pinot Gris producers when they were exhibiting at a trade and consumer tasting here in Los Angeles back in Autumn.

    I encouraged each to make an experimental barrel of Pinot Gris using carbonic maceration — a red wine fermentation technique used to make Beaujolais.

    The method behind my madness?

    Pinot Gris has skin tannins. Carbonic maceration avoids the extraction of skin tannins — a desired outcome when making (say) Beaujolais.

    This approach — not to be confused with skin contact “orange” wines — might have merit.

    Citing my e-mail correspondent with Randall Grahm on the subject:

    “I have in fact tried it w/ Riesling many years ago (how could I not resist?), and possibly due to winemaking error, or the fact that it was just not a particularly clever thing to do, the resultant wine was among the very worst things I have ever tasted. I still think it’s an incredibly cool idea. But proper carbonic requires a certain amount of technical mastery. Maybe we didn’t put enough CO2 in the tank or maybe the fruit wasn’t quite clean enough. The resultant wine did not have real fruitiness and was just unspeakably astringent. (Perhaps Riesling not the right grape for this technique.) I am all in favor of gonzo experimentation. Where I differ from Abe is that I feel that the resultant wine must give pleasure (at least to someone). If not, it’s best filed away as an interesting experiment that didn’t quite work out.”

    I asked him to elaborate on what was the source of the astringency in the Riesling:

    “White grapes (often aromatic ones) do often contain astringent tannins or other bitter elements. (I’m not sure exactly how much the terpenes might also contribute to perceived bitterness.) And, despite efforts to keep grapes entire, it is very likely that we may have crushed some in the process. I’m not sure if the vessel that we used was really large enough to effect a proper carbonic. (But making more would have thrown more good grapes after bad.) My guess is that pinot gris would have a much more appropriate phenolic profile for this sort of treatment, as compared to Riesling. My guess is that if you are fermenting whites on the skins, you would best treat them as red wines. I’m still ultra-intrigued by the idea of a white grape carbonic fermentation; I’m just not quite willing to risk so much investment on such an experiment, and would never inflict the untoward result on my customers. R.”

    Carbonic maceration is used by some Sauvignon Blanc winemakers in Austria, reports Hiram Simon (Oakland-based importer for Terry Theise’s wines).

    And at least one pioneering winemaker in Oregon — Dan Rinke at Johan Vineyards — has experimented with Pinot Gris and liked the end result:

    “I loved what the carbonic did to the ‘Drueskall’ [bottling] in 2011. I did not do any carbonic in 2012 but I plan on doing it again this year. I also funny enough plan to do it on some Gewurztraminer for my own label Art + Science.”

    Dr. Liz Thach, M.W. queried one of her friends in Bordeaux winemaking academic circles on my behalf. Alain Razungles, Professor of Oenology in the IHEV of Montpellier SupAgro, reported back that it has been done (with unspecified white wine grapes).

    For those with an academic bent [Tom Hill?], these studies were cited:

    Bénard et al., 1971. Ann. Technol. Agric. 20, 199-215

    Fantozzi et Montedoro, 1971. CR Journée Macération Carbonique, INRA Avignon

    Montedoro et al. 1974. Ann. Technol. Agric. 23, 75-95

    Montedoro et al. 1976. Vini d’Italia, 100, 27-42.

    The “natural” and “orange” wine movement partisans don’t have a monopoly on “going rogue” and defying conventional wisdom.

    But the larger challenge (as Sacramento gourmet grocer Darryl Corti opined in an e-mail to me):

    “… Too much is being made by Alice Feiring about orange wines and all these odd people making wines in different ways. They will only conquer the world if they taste good!”

    ~~ Bob

    Postscript. Don’t know who Darryl Corti is — called the “walking wine encyclopedia”? You should — starting by signing up for this store’s periodic free newsletter.

    Profile: http://articles.latimes.com/print/1988-12-18/entertainment/ca-762_1_darrell-corti

  3. Pinot gris is very underrated. I used to make Pinot gris from Anderson Valley. It can be made gray (pink) on the skins, but is most often made white by going straight to press. It’s White Pinot. Pinot is a genetic parent of Chardonnay.

    My view of style is a spectrum from crisp Italian to sweet Alsatian. The subtle aromas and flavors are muted by acid or sugar when taken to extreme. My personal opinion is that the simple, crisp Italian style has hurt the varietal’s reputation for that very reason.

    I don’t include new oak in the equation. The subtle flavors will be muted by the power of the oak flavors. If I wanted that, I’d make Chardonnay. Pinot gris wines are made with quite a range of alcohol level (13 to over 15%). It accounted for a large difference in wines when I first explored the varietal.

    Pinot gris has been a tough sell in the marketplace. Customers don’t have a clue. Retailers don’t need the hassle. Though, Darrell Corti (mentioned above) does carry my wine. (Part of the problem is likely that I was not born with the selling gene!)

    I strongly suggest the upcoming Alsatian Festival in Anderson Valley for those that want to explore the varietal. (Explore Gewurz, too!)

    As for food and wine pairing, I highly recommend: Taste Buds and Molecules: The Art and Science of Food, Wine and Flavor by Francois Chartier. Chartier worked with academics and top restaurants, including the most highly rated, El Bulli. The theory is that foods and wines pair best when they share aroma compounds. With the right addition, the food can be made to match the wine. Fabulous illustrations make it a great resource. Pinot gris was not prominent, but I do believe it shares compounds with cinnamon. Cinnamon is used in Asian five spice as one example.

    Take care.

  4. Brad sez: “My view of style is a spectrum from crisp Italian to sweet Alsatian”.
    That, unfortunately, Brad, is a big part of the problem. Back when I started drinking Alsatian PG, they were all tart/bright/crisp/modest alcohol/dry and, best of all, cheap. Then Z-H started picking later, raising the alcohol levels, often leaving some RS. The wines then started to get big scores out of Monktown and the nature of Alsatian whites was changed forever as everyone started to mimic the Z-H style in order to garnish big scores as well. It’s really hard anymore to find an old-timey Alsatian PG. Which is why I drink most PG from Calif & Oregon…and Italy.
    Tom

  5. Tom,

    Give Alsace PG a second shot by sampling a current release Hugel.

    http://www.hugel.com/en/desc.php?N=04BRIE

    ~~ Bob

  6. Bob,
    Already have tried it. Hugel & Trimbach are my go-to’s for old-timey Alsace whites.
    Tom

  7. Tom, Worst of all, cheap. There is no magic in low pricing. Your bargain is due to some compromise – cheap ingredients (grapes), cheap production or the producer has trouble. Of course, that isn’t your problem, unless you actually know and like said producer in trouble.

    Those 15% PG wines I referenced were from CA and OR. While I didn’t leave detectable RS in my PG, dryness is not a measure of a good wine. Good grapes can work very well with RS. See Riesling. New Zealand SB often needs RS to be palatable. Any white can be made crisp/tart. PG is much more.

    I suggest you speak with Jason Lefler at Solano Cellars in Albany, CA regarding Alsatian PG. They specialize in Europe (to my chagrin), their prices are reasonable and his wife is from Alsace. Good luck!

  8. Tom,

    A family that has been making wine for 12 human generations (founded 1639) has got the recipe down by now.

    Everyone else is an “arriviste” by comparison.

    ~~ Bob

  9. Brad,

    Disseminated by Wine Business Monthly’s e-mail news blast, this posting on Wine-Searcher.

    ~~ Bob

    “Price Becoming “No. 1 Weapon” in U.S. Wine Market Says Francesca Schuler, chief marketing officer of BevMo California”

    Summary: Rick Kushman reports from the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium’s most-anticipated session: the State of the Industry seminar

    Link: http://www.wine-searcher.com/m/2014/01/price-becoming-no-1-weapon-in+us-wine-market

  10. Brad sez:”Tom, Worst of all, cheap. There is no magic in low pricing. Your bargain is due to some compromise – cheap ingredients (grapes), cheap production or the producer has trouble. Of course, that isn’t your problem, unless you actually know and like said producer in trouble.”

    Au contraire, Brad. Back in the early ’70′s; Alsace was relatively unknown relative to other French whites and simply couldn’t attract the prices that WhiteBurg or WhiteBdx would then. They were the QPR champs for whites in that era.
    Tom

  11. Bob Henry says:

    Brad,

    Regarding your less-than-sanguine view on falling prices commanded in the marketplace and production shortcuts needed to achieve those lower prices, today’s Wall Street Journal article on Argentina and Venezuela offers this harbinger of increased international supply pressure on domestic winemakers:

    “Inflation Fuels Crises in Two Latin Nations”

    Excerpt: “For Argentina, Bank of America Merrill Lynch forecasts a 3% contraction” in its GDP. [That's a clear-cut recession forecast.]

    Link: http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304851104579362530567845104?mod=wsj_streaming_stream&mg=id-wsj

    As more vineyards come online increasing wine production, and domestic consumption falls due to contracting economy, the export market becomes ever more important to Argentine wineries.

    That tsunami wave of Malbec and Torrontes has to go . . . somewhere. And my bet is that the USA is at the top of their destination list.

    Torrontes could become the “next” Yellow Tail, taking a page from Casella Wines’/W.J. Deutsch’s playbook.

    (Made in a drier style, it could “pass” as Pinot Gris. Made in a sweeter style, it could “pass” as Moscato.)

    ~~ Bob

  12. Bob Henry says:

    Brad,

    Regarding this observation . . .

    “The theory is that foods and wines pair best when they share aroma compounds. With the right addition, the food can be made to match the wine.”

    . . . check out this Wall Street Journal article on Tim Hanni, M.W, and his theory of calls “flavor balancing”:

    Link: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB120069310588201343.html

    Excerpt: “Rejecting the idea that wine pairing is a complex art, Mr. Hanni says that by adjusting the salt, acidity and sweetness in a dish, one can pair it with any wine.”

    Tim also has a book out:

    http://www.wine-searcher.com/m/2014/01/what-kind-of-wine-taster-are-you

    http://www.academicwino.com/2013/02/book-review-why-you-like-the-wines-you-like-tim-hann.html/

    ~~ Bob

  13. Steve and Tom,

    Just returned from a trade tasting hosted by http://mmdusa.net/

    The compelling wines?

    http://www.domaines-schlumberger.com/

    Consider them “halfway” between Hugel and Trimbach on the dry side, and Zind-Humbrecht on the off-dry side.

    Beautiful mouth-feel wines matched by enticing aromatics.

    Pricing in the marketplace:

    http://www.wine-searcher.com/find/dom+schlumberger

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