Oregon pinot gris satisfies on all levels
Wine columnist Paul Gregutt says that with a history stretching back almost 50 years, it seems a little odd that Oregon winemakers would still be searching for a way to make pinot gris a standout, signature grape.
Special to the Seattle Times
Pick of the week
Acrobat 2009 Pinot Gris; $11
ACROBAT IS the budget label for King Estate, the largest producer of pinot gris in Oregon. This is loaded with pretty pear fruit flavors, lightly dusted with cinnamon spice. It fills the mouth with its body and gentle hint of spritz. A fine summer sipper. (Distributed by Young's-Columbia)
A FEW WEEKS ago I was the featured speaker at an all-day symposium on Oregon pinot gris. It was hosted by Oak Knoll winery and organized by fellow blogger Jo Diaz. The focus on pinot gris was inspired partly by a perceived need for a signature white wine to go with pinot noir, and partly by a sense that much of what is out in the marketplace could be better if pinot gris could command higher prices.
Attendees at the symposium round table I led included roughly three dozen growers and winemakers, a number of speakers with expertise in viticulture, enology and marketing, and a half-dozen members of the media.
I set out to define some of Oregon pinot gris' overriding assets — assets that would bridge a wide range of styles. I've tasted hundreds of these wines over the years, and in preparation for the symposium tasted several dozen more, from a range of vintages. I came away from these tastings more impressed than ever with the style and potential of this wine.
Among its strengths are:
• Higher acidity and lower alcohol than most domestic versions
• Bracing minerality; an underlying sense of wet stone flavors
• Purity of fruit
• Minimal or no new oak flavors
This brief summary nonetheless touches on almost every important trend among both young wine drinkers and restaurant wine buyers. White wines that ripen at lower alcohol levels, that reflect fruit and vineyard flavors rather than new barrel flavors, and that complement a wide variety of regional foods are in vogue. Pinot gris does all of the above.
The grape was pioneered in Oregon. In an interview some years ago with the late David Lett, he explained that he had "brought pinot gris up to Oregon with me in 1964; 160 cuttings taken from the only four vines they had at UC Davis."
Why pinot gris?
"Because they fit the theory of planting early-ripening varieties in the Willamette Valley," he replied. "Oregon had the cool growing season; the idea was to adapt the grapes to the climate."
With a history stretching back almost 50 years, it seems a little odd that Oregon winemakers would still be searching for a way to make pinot gris a standout, signature grape. But as has happened in California with riesling and in Washington with chenin blanc, the marketplace rules. Buyers (so far at least) won't pay more than $15 for a bottle of pinot gris, so growers must overcrop and vintners must cut corners where they can. The amazing thing is that so many of these wines are as good as they are.
In them you will find flavors crisply defined, with fruits running the gamut from citrus through tree fruits and on into tropical. They are acidic without being lean, and that bracing minerality gives the wines texture and life. These are wines made to be drunk young; my impression is that almost without exception they should be consumed within three or four years of the vintage date.
My favorites among the recent releases are listed here (note that you may need to contact the wineries directly to purchase many of these wines):
David Hill 2010 Estate Pinot Gris; $15
Pudding River 2010 Pinot Gris; $16
Wy'East 2010 Pinot Gris; $18
Lange 2010 Reserve Pinot Gris; $22
Lange 2010 Pinot Gris; $16
Terrapin Cellars 2010 Pinot Gris; $13
Left Coast Cellars 2009 The Orchards Pinot Gris; $16
Oak Knoll 2008 Pinot Gris; $14.
About Wine Adviser
My column is all about sharing the joy of exploring all the world of wine. I want to guide people to make inspired choices, and encourage them to try as many different styles of wine as they can. I will always seek out the best wines at the best prices. Wine Adviser runs on Sunday in Pacific Northwest Magazine.