Dan Berger

Pinot Gris earning some respect

A joke making the rounds of wine makers a decade ago wasn’t so funny: There was a blind tasting between Pinot Gris and Perrier water. And Perrier won.

The distinct implication was that Pinot Gris had less flavor than water. (As far as I know, no one hearing the joke said that Pinot Gris had one important thing going for it: in many cases it was cheaper than Perrier.)

So here we are a decade later and people are still buying Pinot Gris. For a grape variety that most wine makers privately disparage, this is a success story that might be parallel to Kim Kardashian: no talent yet still successful.

It’s easy to see why Pinot Gris can be successful without much distinctiveness. One key reason is that Pinot Gris is following in the footsteps of another spotlighted star, Chardonnay. Neither grape has an awful lot of flavor and yet some 20% of all the wine sold in America today is called Chardonnay (operative word: “called”) and yet both still sell.

Both wines have their supporters, and at the lower end of the price spectrum, what we have done to both grapes makes them as successful as they are.

With Chardonnay, the over-oaked lipsticked pig versions attract buyers based on a soft texture in which acid is deficient. For Pinot Gris, any success is based on the same sort of softness and a lack of acid that makes many a $7 wine buyer swoon.

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And like Chardonnay, Pinot Gris can also make a sublime wine that commands a higher price, and which calls for a far more sophisticated palate to understand. And unlike the cheaper versions of each grape, sugar has little to do with the reason they are sought out.

Chardonnay does have one major advantage over PG: At its best, the stuff can be downright phenomenal. Anyone who has ever had truly great white Burgundy would tell you there is utterly no connection between it and a $2.49 bottle of Two-and-a-half-buck Charles.And I have had some Pinot Grigios that were made from grapes grown in cooler regions that were so astounding as to defy the fact that a supposedly lowly grape was involved, let alone was the only contributor.

What is true about Pinot Gris is that it is so successful that a lot of it is planted in warmer places where it cannot possibly make a great wine. At best, Pinot Gris – similar to its persnickety cousin, Pinot Noir – makes a sublime wine when it is planted in a cool (or better yet cold) region and then is treated most carefully to protect its vital aromatics.

I once heard the author of a successful wine primer refer to Pinot Gris as an ordinary, not-very-aromatic grape. She was dead wrong. Sure, in a warm climate, the grape lacks much distinction. But in cool climates, Pinot Gris’s natural terpenes – wildly floral aromatic properties – are available for freeing up. This is an aromatic grape.

But to make it into a wine that has such qualities, it takes some special tactics, such as the use of certain terpene-sensitive yeasts, a cooler fermentation, and other tactics that lead to a more “spice-based” aroma.

Terpenes are exotic and give some of the top cooler-climate PGs an aroma more like tropical fruit (pineapple, mango, guava, citrus blossoms). And in some cases, the wild aroma of Pinot Gris from cold climates can even mimic cold-climate Sauvignon Blanc with its thiol-based aromas. (Some people think of thiols as the opposites of terpenes.)

However, this propensity of cool-climate PG to display a wildly tropical aroma can be undermined by an aberrant warm vintage or by a wine maker who is insensitive to how to capture the fleeting aromatics.

Then we come to closures. The best way to taste a great and aromatic PG is early in its life, and preferably from a screw-capped bottle. Bottles with corks, and notably those that are bottled in clear glass bottles, can display less of the aromatics than do screw-capped wines since the caps preserve the fermentation esters longer and keep the wines fresher, at least soon after bottling.

So we reach the point where Pinot Gris is a fresh, delightful, and early-consuming white wine that seems to decline in the bottle as it ages. And that is true for many lower-priced wines.

But what has become clear to me in the last few years – and should be better reported – is that when Pinot Gris is made from cool climate grapes that are not left on the vine excessively, the wildly spiced aroma of the resulting wine is only the first of its two lives.Pinot Gris isn’t always very good with bottle age, but we have seen in the last few cooler vintages (2011 was a classic one to watch) that it can take on another form of charm with a bit of time in the bottle.

A bit like other white wines that age nicely for a few years (Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling), Pinot Gris can grow secondary and tertiary aromas and gain measurably in the texture department – as long as the initial acidity was good.

So although it’s easy to disparage Pinot Gris, there are a number of nice things about it. And in the Pacific Northwest (especially Oregon), where vintages often accommodate making a nice wine from it, there is no reason to resurrect the decade-old joke.

-- Dan Berger is a nationally renowned wine writer who lives in Santa Rosa, Calif. He publishes a weekly commentary Dan Berger’s Vintage Experiences (VintageExperiences.com).

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