Northwest Wine

Pinot Gris

Pinot Gris moves up to the second most popular varietal white wine

Author: Christina Kelly
Co-Author Jean Yates

After several years of steady growth, Pinot Gris surpassed Sauvignon//Fume Blanc as the second most popular white wine in the country in the first few months of 2002.

Some industry insiders say Oregon's contribution, making upscale wine from the light and fruity grape, contributed to the increase in popularity of Pinot Gris.

Chardonnay continues to dominate the white wine market.

According to Christian Miller, director of research for Motto, Kryla Fisher, a wine industry consulting firm, the Pinot Gris/Grigio category increased 48 percent in dollar sales and 52 percent in volume sales in the first two months of the year.

"Pinot Gris has some powerful market forces at work," Miller said. "This grape has a well-developed market base with solid retail distribution. In addition, there is a fast-growing, upscale Pinot Gris market divided among Oregon and Alsace."

Miller cites Italian Pinot Grigo's affordable price ($6 to $12), with a big emphasis on the wine by the glass in Italian restaurants. He said the market will likely get bigger once California adopts the grape.

"There is an onrush of California supply, (but) it doesn't yet have a clear market niche. The varietal has grown steadily for the past two years across all of these market segments and does not show any signs of slowdown."

Dozens of Oregon wineries produce Pinot Gris-one of Oregon's most popular wines after Pinot Noir. The King Estate winery in Eugene, OR has been producing Pinot Gris since 1992.

"When properly grown and vinified, Pinot Gris produces a delicious white wine with a light but complex aroma and rich mouth feel balanced between fruitiness and acidity," said Brad Biehl, King Estate general manager. "We've made a long-term, multi-level commitment to this variety. We are convinced of the versality of Pinot Gris with food, but I still love to enjoy a glass as an apertif too."

Ray Straughan, owner of Helmick Hill Vineyard, north of Corvallis, says Pinot Gris will become the Cinderella story of Oregon wine.

"This is a fine, fruity wine that can be enjoyed with any food," Straughan said. "We make a Pinot Gris that shows spice and pear-apple flavors, making it especially ideal to accompany seafood, chicken, pork, salmon and even Asian foods."

According to the Oregon Vineyard and Winery Report, 1,467 acres of Pinot Gris were planted in 2001. It is the second largest grape crop in Oregon, after Pinot Noir. However, Chardonnay still out sells Pinot Gris in Oregon.

Pinot Gris - The Wine

by Steve Pitcher, reprinted with permission

Pinot gris is a varietal that delivers distinctive, delicious, fruit-driven flavors, subtle aromas and a rich, yet crisp, texture. Eminently food friendly, a medium-bodied, dry to slightly off-dry Pinot Gris is considered by many chefs as the "perfect" wine to pair with salmon (grilled, as mousse, poached, smoked, as cakes or baked -- any way it's prepared, the interplay of flavors and textures is fabulous), and enhances a vast spectrum of dishes from shellfish to osso buco.

It's comparatively inexpensive, with most New World bottlings selling in the $12 to $20 range. On top of all that, it has a distinguished European pedigree and a French name that's easy to pronounce.

With all that going for the wine, it's surprising that outside Europe, Pinot Gris has been embraced by sizeable numbers of winemakers only in Oregon, where it counts as the state's best white wine. More and more California wineries are now trying their hand with the varietal, too, and if it catches on with the state's savvy wine consumers, it could ultimately give Chardonnay some pretty decent competition.

When tasted for the first time, Pinot Gris usually evokes an immediate positive response. Wine drinkers devoted to Chardonnay are genuinely surprised that anything else could taste that good.

The broad flavor profile ranges from apples, pears and peaches, to melon, citrus, banana and tropical fruit. Occasionally there's also a vaguely smoky, nutty or vanilla taste that suggests French oak, which may be enhanced if oak is actually used in making the wine. It is known for its inherently opulent texture and good acidity. Among dry white wines, few are more unctuous than a good Pinot Gris, meaning that the wine is silky smooth and agreeably weighty as it slides down the throat.

David Lett, The Eyrie Vineyards' owner and winemaker, who was the first to plant pinot noir in Oregon, is also credited with introducing pinot gris to Oregon, and thus to the United States. The 160 vines he planted in his Willamette Valley vineyard in 1966 came from an experimental vineyard at the University of California at Davis, and yielded a mere five cases of wine with the first harvest in 1970. Today, more than 40 Oregon wineries, primarily in the Willamette (will-AM-ett) Valley, make Pinot Gris, and the variety is fast edging chardonnay as the state's most widely planted white winegrape. Certainly the state's fastest growing varietal, Pinot Gris production almost doubles annually, with case production currently exceeding 70,000. In general,

Oregon Pinot Gris tends to resemble the fleshy, fruit-forward, Alsatian style, rather than the lean, sometimes austere Italian Pinot Grigio. According to Chehalem Winery's winemaker, Harry Peterson-Nedry, "We make our Pinot Gris in as close to Alsatian style as possible, attempting to get weight on the palate, while retaining fruit flavors. We do this by harvesting at full ripeness and fermenting to dryness, although we usually leave a little residual sugar, never more than one half of one percent, for roundness."

Steve Pitcher is a freelance writer who, in addition to being wine columnist for Sally's Place, is also a contributing editor for The Wine News magazine.

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