The Other Pinot

Paul Blow

Spring is a great season to eat. The early April trickle starts with delicate, sweetish vegetables like fava beans and sugar snap peas. Scallions start to appear, while arugula and fennel wind down. All these vegetables match extremely well with Pinot Gris, a wine I’ve had a love/hate relationship with for years. I guess I’m entering a love phase again—a recent visit to Oregon reminded me how good the grape can be.

Oregon has had Pinot Gris since 1966, and it has become a staple there, but it’s originally an Alsatian grape. Although it’s put into the category of white grapes and white wines, Pinot Gris actually produces grapes with a bluish-gray tint (gris means “gray” in French). Often the wines have a slightly rose-colored hue. In Italy, the wine is known as Pinot Grigio, and it often (but not always) is made in a lighter, blowsier, completely boring style. There are exceptions, of course, such as some of the finer wines from the Trentino-Alto Adige and Friuli regions, but overall I stay away from mass-market Pinot Grigio. New Zealand growers are starting to take the grape very seriously, since it’s been showing phenomenal growth in the American marketplace: Sales rose 59 percent between 2005 and 2007. Although New Zealand lacks a consistent style, the wines can be quite nice; I’m particularly fond of Huia and Palliser.

When Pinot Gris is good, it has a wonderful natural complexity, displaying floral and herbal characteristics as well as notes of pear, melon, and apple. The grape can also show some red wine characteristics, including spice and hints of cherries and berries. Pinot Gris grapes make a wine that’s medium-bodied—a little heavier than most whites, but certainly lighter than most reds. All this makes it perfect for sunny, slightly nippy spring weather, with days of gradually warming sun.

Now, what do I hate about it? When not grown well, Pinot Gris very easily falls out of its careful balance of opposites. In a warm climate, it makes a thin, watery, utterly soulless wine. Even if it’s grown in cool places, a late-season heat spike can make alcohol levels explode.

Oregon is getting it right. The state’s Pinot Gris tends away from the floral perfume and toward pear and melon, knit together with an underlying mineral note and refreshing acidity. 2006 was a pleasantly ripe (not overripe—just right) year for Oregon, and the wines are lush and pleasant. 2007 was far cooler, so the wines are a little sharper and more structured. Both are delicious. Try this wine with a fresh spring pea soup or toasts with fava bean purée:

2006 WillaKenzie Estate Pinot Gris—A beautiful balance of disciplined Alsatian and lusher, more generous Oregonian styles. Fermented in steel without malolactic fermentation or new oak, the wine is crisp, clean, and redolent of pears and apricots.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow Chowhound too, and become a fan on Facebook.

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