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Pinot Gris: Salmon's Best Wine Friend
One of the advantages of being a member of the Vintners Club is the opportunity to become acquainted with varietals with which one may be unfamiliar -- wines beyond the "chocolate and vanilla" of the wine business, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.
Such an opportunity occurred recently, when the panel had a chance to compare and evaluate in a blind tasting format 12 examples of Pinot Gris from the 1994 vintage in California and Oregon. It was an enjoyable, as well as educational, experience.
The impetus for evaluating lesser-known white varietals stems from the opinion long held by wine and food writers, chefs and other culinary experts that, when it comes to pairing white wine with food, there's more to life than Chardonnay.
In a post-Chardonnay world, people will discover that other white wines really enhance the foods with which they're paired. Of course, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc often go well with fish and shellfish, but to "go well" doesn't necessarily mean the same thing as "enhance." Chardonnay, while enormously popular, is often made to show off in competitions and wine magazine tasting panels, which can make it awkward with food -- too big, too oaky, too high in alcohol; plenty of glitz, easy on the substance. Such a wine can dominate food, not enhance it. And some of the very grassy examples of Sauvignon Blanc (not to mention the oaky styles that are beginning to show up more and more frequently) can be aromatically distracting.
Here's where a wine like Pinot Gris comes in. Pinot Gris (rhymes with "free") is a stylish and distinctly individualistic white wine cousin to Pinot Noir. A pink-skinned variety, it is vinified as a white wine and is known for its inherently opulent texture, a delicate aroma and flavor profile 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.
In a food-and-wine context, Pinot Gris really enhances salmon, for example, because the wine's acidity balances against the oily richness of the fish, and its broad, complex fruit flavors (reminiscent of pears, peaches and citrus) add a flavorful, slightly spicy nuance to the unmistakable taste of the salmon's flesh. Its mild aroma never intrudes.
In addition to salmon, Pinot Gris nicely enhances other meaty types of fish, such as sturgeon, halibut, swordfish and shark. It is also recommended for crab, shrimp, and all kinds of shellfish, especially fresh, raw oysters. Another enjoyable match has Pinot Gris paired with sliced ripe tomato and fennel drizzled with lemon and olive oil, liberally sprinkled with freshly cracked black pepper.
Oregon Pinot Gris
Although popular in Europe, especially Alsace and Italy, Pinot Gris is almost unknown in this country. The major plantings are in Oregon, thanks to the efforts of David Lett, owner of Eyrie Vineyards, who brought cuttings from a U.C. Davis experimental vineyard to the state in 1966.
Lett is on record as claiming that, in the United States, only Oregon can provide the proper growing conditions for Pinot Gris. "California is too hot for Pinot Gris," he asserts. "Pinots don't belong in California, they belong in western Oregon."
Richard Ponzi of Ponzi Vineyards in Oregon's Willamette Valley discovered Pinot Gris during a trip to Alsace. "I had never experienced this variety before, and I was amazed by it," he says. "It has so much character and flavor."
At last year's West Coast Wine Competition held in Reno, Nevada, Knudsen Erath's 1994 Pinot Gris from the Willamette Valley was awarded the prize as White Wine Sweepstakes Winner, the judges' choice as the best white wine in the competition out of hundreds judged. Quite an accomplishment for a $12 bottle of wine. More than 1,300 wines from 250 wineries throughout the western United States vied for medals in that year, in a competition that has become one of the most prestigious in the country. "We knew this was a special wine," commented Dick Erath, "but it's very rewarding to have a highly acclaimed panel of judges reaffirm our opinion. We're very flattered." This wine was among those tasted at the Vintners Club for this report.
More than a dozen Oregon wineries make Pinot Gris, which is the fastest growing varietal in the state. Acreage increased from 69 acres in 1984 to more than 700 acres by 1994, and it is now the third most widely planted variety there. Most examples of Oregon Pinot Gris are bone dry, and most go through malolactic fermentation, which imparts a rich, buttery texture. But while it's safe to say that Pinot Gris is probably Oregon's most consistently excellent white wine, California growers and winemakers might justifiably quibble with Lett's insistence that Pinot Gris doesn't fare well outside Oregon.
California Pinot Gris
In the last couple of years, more than half a dozen California wineries have produced good-to-excellent bottlings of Pinot Gris from new plantings, and more are on jumping on the bandwagon each year. Long Vineyards was the first Napa Valley winery to produce a Pinot Grigio, which is the Italian name for Pinot Gris. According to Long's winemaker Sandi Belcher, "California Pinot Gris will be much richer than Europe and Oregon, because we have much warmer growing conditions here. Some producers, especially in Alsace, leave a little residual sugar to overcome the lack of depth."
At Byron Vineyard in Santa Barbara County, nine acres of Pinot Gris are currently in production in a steep, hillside vineyard in the oldest portion of the estate, where it was grafted onto 30-year-old vines that produce very small berries with intense varietal flavor. Plans call for additional vines to be both grafted and planted over the next several years. According to winemaker Byron "Ken" Brown, "The budwood used for our Pinot Gris vines was sourced from two highly acclaimed Oregon vineyards, Allen Holstein Vineyard in Dundee Hills and O'Connor Vineyard in Eola Hills. These vineyards represent some of the original plantings of Pinot Gris in Oregon and include the two most highly regarded clones of this varietal."
Alsatian Pinot Gris
Alsatian Pinot Gris, consistently one of the best examples of the variety, is traditionally fermented in stainless steel or neutral oak ovals, and rarely sees much oak beyond that. Its sturdy character and deeper flavors, compared to Pinot Gris from other countries, are a result of different soils and much older vines. The Alsaciens consider it the best of all the region's wines as an accompaniment to food; it stands out among powerful varietals of the region (such as Riesling and Gewurztraminer) because of its sturdiness, its lack of distracting floral bouquet, its firm acidity and slightly higher alcohol content (12 to 13 percent). This is serious food wine, often paired with exotic foie gras (goose liver), juicy roast meats and richly sauced dishes.
The wine's name in Alsace is variously rendered as Pinot Gris, Tokay-Pinot Gris and Tokay d'Alsace. "Tokay" in this context has nothing to do with Hungarian Tokay, a sweet dessert wine made from the Furmint grape. Rather, it was what the grape was first called when it was supposedly brought to Alsace from Hungary in the 1600s by Baron Lazare de Schwendi, an Imperial general whose forces captured the Hungarian town of Tokay from Turkish invaders. Under European Community regulations enacted in 1990, "Tokay d'Alsace" may not be used for Alsatian wines, so most Pinot Gris here is labeled under its ampelographic name, sometimes enhanced to Tokay-Pinot Gris (which may be in violation of EC regulations).
Italian Pinot Gris
Pinot Grigio, as the Italians call Pinot Gris, is widely planted in Lombardy and in the northeastern part of the country, primarily in Alto Adige and Friuli-Venezia Giulia. Most Pinot Grigio is made in stainless steel and comes across as pleasant, light-bodied sipping wine. It's often found in liter-size bottles in American supermarkets, and represents a good bargain for casual wine enjoyment.
Oregon versus California
In the recent Vintners Club tasting, Oregon and California were represented by six wines each, all from the 1994 vintage. Prices ranged from $9 to $18. On this occasion, the Oregon wines did extremely well, taking four of the top six places, and reaffirming the conclusion that the consumer can't go wrong with Pinot Gris bottlings from the Willamette Valley.
The 1994 growing season in Oregon was most noticeably affected by unseasonably cool temperatures and rainy weather in June. These conditions led to a disruption in flowering and fruit set; cluster count was near average, but cluster size and weight were down considerably. The balance of the season (July through September) was warm and dry, leading to ideal conditions at harvest.
1994 Oak Knoll Pinot Gris, Willamette Valley ($10)
Winemaker Ron Vuylsteke says that "Our style of Pinot Gris emphasizes the delicate fruit aromas and flavors, and strives for a balance of creamy texture, weight, and a lingering finish." Mission accomplished. The Oak Knoll Pinot Gris was the most stylish wine in the flight, offering pleasant, intriguing scents of golden delicious apples, talc, minerals and a hint of black pepper spice. The same flavors show up on the palate, with the addition of a note of quince; very tasty. Moderately viscous, with adequate acid.
1994 Mosby Pinot Grigio, Santa Barbara County ($9)
Forward nose of spicy apple-pear fruit, plus a hint of oak and buttery notes. Round, soft and viscous, with ripe fruity flavors that replicate the nose; delicious and a good value. This small winery specializes in Italian varietals, and even goes so far as to offer grappa. For a listing of their current offerings, call the winery at (805) 688-2415.
1994 Knudsen Erath Pinot Gris, Willamette Valley ($12)
The terroir of the vineyard shows in this wonderfully fragrant wine, which offers mineral-wet pebble scents that mingle with tropical fruit and notes of shy quince and cherry. Flavors are the same and nicely defined; smooth and nicely viscous, with a crisp, citrus-like finish. By the way, after this vintage, Dick Erath, who has been the sole owner since 1988, changed the name of the winery to Erath Vineyards.
1994 Rex Hill Pinot Gris, Reserve, Oregon ($18)
All the grapes that went into this wine came from the Willamette Valley. Forward, pleasant scents of ripe red apples, peaches and pears, accented by a bit of oak char and butterscotch. Soft and delicately creamy on the palate, showing vibrant fruit tasting of spicy pear and citrus offset by a good dose of oak.
1994 Elk Cove Pinot Gris, Willamette Valley ($12)
Evident oaky notes in the nose, along with fruity scents of quince, grapefruit, white melon and a hint of grass, which come through on the palate enhanced by a note of botrytis honey. Very slightly sweet; adequate acidity.
1994 Navarro Pinot Gris, Anderson Valley ($12)
The second release of Pinot Gris from this outstanding Anderson Valley winery, this proved to be a controversial wine, with some tasters commenting on what appears to be volatile acidity (vinegar-like smells) mingled with nutty-yeasty notes in the nose, and others focusing on peaches, pears and minerals. Moderately weighty on the palate, offering lemon-lime citrus and some tropical fruit notes. Navarro's wines are available primarily by mail order. Telephone 1-800-537-9463.
1994 Byron Pinot Gris, Santa Maria Valley ($18)
The nose focuses on lots of butterscotch, along with cinnamon-clove spice and light peachy fruit. Slightly tart in the mouth, offering ripe, spicy pear fruit and touches of honey. Only moderately viscous, with adequate acidity.
1994 Bethel Heights Pinot Gris, Willamette Valley ($11)
Pleasant scents of minerals and quince jelly, accented by honeysuckle, mint and violets. Moderately viscous and round with adequate acidity, the flavors focus on peach and citrus. Slightly hot.
1994 Long Vineyards Pinot Grigio, Napa Valley ($18)
Fermented and aged in older Francois Freres barrels, the wine's aromas lead off with a Sauvignon Blanc-like grassiness followed by vanilla and shy apple-pear fruit. Tart, light bodied and comparatively short on the palate, this wine really needs food to show its best -- raw oysters, for example.
1994 Elliston Pinot Gris, Sunol Valley Vineyard, Central Coast ($10)
Pleasant nose of apple-pear fruit with citrus highlights and hints of grassiness and ripe banana. Delicious and juicy with fine concentration and crisp acidity, it offers flavors of spicy pear, quince and white melon. The slightly bitter finish took the wine down in the notes of some tasters.
1994 Ponzi Pinot Gris, Willamette Valley ($13)
Interesting, fresh, slightly floral nose of pears and citrus (tangerine plus lemon). Quite viscous in the mouth, almost heavy, with similar flavors that emphasize a rose petal quality. Lacks a certain charm.
1994 Callaway Pinot Gris, Temecula ($10)
Quite flowery, probably too much so: rose petals plus white peaches, so it is atypical of the varietal. Delicate, though with some viscosity, the wine's flavors mirror the nose.
Steve Pitcher is a freelance wine writer based in San Francisco. He is vice president of the Vintners Club and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the German Wine Society.