Grigio Style: Pinot Gris Dances with Asian Flavors

Pinot Gris (Grigio)

Chardonnay is the king of white wine in America. Sauvignon Blanc used to be a distant second, but it was passed by Pinot Gris in 2002. Popularity is a double-edged sword though. Any grape variety needs to reach a threshold of consumer recognition and interest for wineries to continue putting money and effort into artistic examples. Consumer acclaim, however, breeds high-volume low-cost imitations (cf: Yellowtail Chardonnay, for God’s sake). The recognition trick was accomplished for Pinot Grigio by Tony Terlato from Paterno Imports in Chicago starting in the early 1980’s. His brand is Santa Margherita from northeastern Italy. By 2006 he was selling 165,000 cases per year in America, and commanding a premium retail price as well. Today Pinot Grigio has become the most frequently imported wine in America (white or red), and accounts for 12% of imported wine sales.

Domestically, King Estate, near Eugene at the southern end of Oregon’s Willamette Valley, deserves credit for popularizing Pinot Gris. They currently have 300 acres in production, which is 10% of Oregon’s total PG acreage. King Estate alone has more acres than Napa, and six times what the Sierra Foothills have planted. King Estate makes some really good wine. Santa Margherita is somewhat more controversial. Wine writers tend to be unenthusiastic, while an army of trendy restaurant patrons are big fans of the brand name. The downside of PG’s growing popularity is a lake of non-descript examples currently showing up in the marketplace. California has nearly 14,000 acres of PG grapes today (versus nearly 100,000 acres of Chardonnay), most planted in the last ten years. The problem is 60% of California’s PG grapes have been planted in the Central Valley in counties such as San Joaquin and Fresno. That is not a recipe for impressive quality wines.

THE VARIETY

The Pinot family has a white version (Blanc, i.e. Bianco) and a black version (Noir, i.e. Nero). Despite California labels you might have seen in the 1960’s, Chardonnay is not a member of the Pinot clan. Pinot Gris is the middle of the family tree (a genetic mutation), and it is actually kind of bronze colored; not really gray. In fact, the wine can often be identified (blind) in your glass by noting a very slight hint of red (pinking it’s called) in comparison to other whites. Gewürztraminer is similar, and in both instances it usually implies a brief bit of skin-soak to extract more smell components. The use of ‘gray’ in the PG name probably refers to how the color of the actual grapes is somewhat obscured on the vine by the waxy ‘bloom’ which covers most berries, and to which dust and yeast tend to stick.

Historically the grape is an old one. It has been noted in the literature since around 1300. It was taken from Burgundy to Hungary by Christian monks early on. Which helps explain why, when it came back to Alsace, it was called Tokay d’Alsace or Tokay Pinot Gris until very recently (Tokay being a widely planted Hungarian variety ~ usually called Furmint ~ to which PG is not related). In Germany PG is called Rulander, after the German merchant who discovered it growing wild in the Palatinate around 1700.

PG is an early ripening variety, which is why many cold-climate regions around the world have been experimenting with it over the last 30 years, and why several of them have had noteworthy success. One characteristic it shares with Pinot Blanc is a tendency toward oily texture when over-ripe. Pinot Blancs in that category need several years of bottle-age to resolve that roughness, and it can make Pinot Gris seem cosmetic. At its best, Pinot Gris displays peachy aromatic notes which are never found in Pinot Blanc.

WINE STYLES

The classical style distinction is between Italy (Grigio) and France (Gris), although none of these points are governed by label regulation, so it is often a mistake to make any assumptions based on what the wine is called. Traditionally Italy makes a crisp, dry, light-bodied wine much beloved by diners in seaside osterie. There is a significant difference though between Italian examples from elevation in the Alps along the Adige River (called Alto Adigo, around the town of Trentino), and those grown in the lower elevations between Veneto and the mouth of the Adige on the Adriatic Sea south of Venice (called Venezie on an Italian PG label). Crispness (i.e. acid bite) and clean flavors are the natural provenance of Alto Adige. Volume production, more earthy flavors, and low price point are hallmarks of Venezie. Neither place gets more than the most delicate and glancing forms of fruity aromatics, which could be explained as a clonal feature. Further east, and somewhat north (toward Trieste) the hillsides (labeled as the Collio districts) of the Friuli region do produce Pinot Grigio with slightly more distinct varietal aroma. The German influence (read scrupulously clean and cool fermentations using stainless steel tanks) in both Alto Adige and Friuli is pronounced. Elena Walch and Alois Lageder are top producers in Alto Adige. Mario Schiopetto is a superb example from Friuli.

Domaine Zind Humbrecht

Alsace (in France, but historically back and forth between France and Germany) is an entirely different animal. The clone may be different; the wines surely are. They are riper, higher alcohol, and fruitier. They show much more winemaker influence. They’re more expensive. Sometimes they are even botrytized, which implies concentration into a sweet wine with honeyed overtones. As with all wines in Alsace, Pinot Gris there invariably shows a pronounced gout de terroir: the minerality of schist soils. The most highly regarded vineyard sites show this characteristic most distinctly. For Americans it is a learned preference. Really great Alsatian examples, such as Zind Humbrecht Clos St. Urbain Vyd from the Rangan de Thann district, are transformative for wine aficionados. I was stunned the first time I tasted one. First of all it was eight years old. Second, it cost $85 in a retail store. Third, it was well worth every penny. The wine was deep, and long, and complex, and fruity, and very serious. It was also balanced, exuding both a sense of satisfaction and of refreshment. It grabbed your face and demanded full attention. It stayed in your perception for minutes. It was able to leap, cat-like, onto your lap, and make itself comfortable. Not all Alsatian Pinot Gris is exceptional in this manner, but the ones that are provide a benchmark against which to compare both top Italian examples and the most innovative efforts from America and Australasia.

Lake Okanagan

New World players, such as the south island in New Zealand, are making great headway with PG. I’ve also had several extremely credible wines from mildly surprising areas in the U.S. such as eastern Pennsylvania and the Lake Erie shore of Ohio east and west of Cleveland. However two North American regions have really gotten out ahead of the pack: Oregon; and the Okanagan Valley in Canada’s British Columbia. Both come with credentials. Oregon has an enviable 40-year history with Pinot Noir, and seemed to realize from the beginning that there was considerably more butter on the Pinot Gris side of the bread than on the Chardonnay side. Oregon is not Burgundy. They make great Pinot Noir, but they don’t make Burgundy. Most Oregon winemakers will state that point to you forcefully. The Okanagan Valley is on the inland side of the Cascade Mountains. The Okanagan River flows south across the international border and into the Columbia River of Washington State. The Okanagan Valley was carved by a glacier. At the northern end it is about 52ᵒ of latitude, which makes it just about the northernmost fine wine producing region in the world. Canadian wine commentators in Vancouver have something of a macho streak (think hockey, and outdoorsman skills) which leads them to take offense when Pinot Gris is singled out as Okanagan’s best wine. They scream for recognition of the red varietals. They’re nuts. Okanagan Pinot Gris is consistently, undeniably world-class. Okanagan reds occasionally have their moments, but please… they’re not world beaters. Okanagan Pinot Gris is.

Both Oregon and Okanagan Valley produce Pinot Gris midway between Italy and Alsace in terms of style. They are much more fruity than any Italian example I’ve ever had, but they are not as full-bodied, nor laden with minerality as the Alsatian model. Stated another way, Oregon and Okanagan Valley reliably bring strong fruit and thirst quenching acidity to the table. I’m a big fan. NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) notwithstanding, it isn’t easy to find Okanagan Valley PG in the U.S. Vancouver wine commentators may be very sensitive to any threat from veiled accusations about sissydom, but they also drink a lot of their local Pinot Gris. Look for access to brands such as Mission Hill and Grey Monk. If you are ever in Vancouver, get yourself some Blue Mountain while dining in a restaurant run by a Sikh.

FOOD PAIRING

Pinot Grigio made in the Italian style is traditionally seen as a match for fish. That’s pretty simplistic, although ‘crisp and clean’ is hard to argue against as a palate-cleanser. If you served the fish Caribbean-style with a mango salsa, it would become a boffo match for the best Oregon and/or Okanagan PGs. One of the reasons Pinot Gris became prominent in Oregon in the first place was because it works so well with grilled Salmon, which is line-caught all over the Oregon coast. Salmon is a fatty, strongly flavored fish which stands up really well to cooking over a wood fire. Oregon PG has the acid to cut through the fat, and white peach aromatics to frame the flavor in a complimentary way. It’s a locavore pleasure that travels well. Fried fish, garlic; not so much with PG unless we’re talking about the most unadorned Italian examples. The slight perception of sweetness in shrimp or Dungeness crab works nicely with New World PG, even if there is a little capsaicin heat involved (try it with Camarones Diablo in a good Mexican restaurant).

Laksa penang in a Singapore restaurant

Alsatian-style PG is much more complicated. Think charcuterie and preserved vegetables. That minerality component in the wine does several good tricks, but they are not obvious until someone shows you. It helps to experiment. Something like sauerkraut and sausages would never work with Oregon or Okanagan PG, but can be a real eye-opener with the classic French version of Pinot Gris. Same with east Indian spices. Cut a chicken into about twelve smallish pieces. Put some cumin, a small amount of crushed cloves, some turmeric, and some galangal (a powerful relative of ginger), along with a little salt into a plastic bag. Shake the chicken pieces in the bag. Grill on the BBQ, returning pieces occasionally to the bag to renew your spicing. Be sure to finish on the grill; not in the bag. Serve with rice and a chutney. You can do a lot worse than several bottles of chilled Pinot Gris in any Singapore restaurant.

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