The ubiquitous rep of Pinot Grigio is legendary. Grown in Italy for centuries and quaffed at many a trattoria by the ceramic pitcher-full, this humble grape actually bears French roots, not Italian. Pinot Gris is the name elsewhere in the world, from France’s Alsace region to Australia to New Zealand. But it arrived later to America in the mid-1960s, planted by one of Oregon’s wine country forefathers, Eyrie Vineyard’s David Lett.
Lett, along with Dick Erath and Dick Ponzi, are widely credited with putting Oregon’s Willamette Valley on the world wine map. Wineries in this wholly deserving region still struggle to garner attention but the massive, nay, obsessive popularity of Pinot Noir has given the Willamette Valley (rhymes with “dammit”) a head of laurels worthy of Olympic fame. These bottles are now a darling of sommeliers and wine lovers across our foodie nation.
But Pinot Gris, a result of a genetic mutation from Pinot Noir (according to viticulture DNA research), remains a tough sell. The Italian version is glugged often on couches, dining room and barstools and many of those bottles should really be poured elsewhere – like down the toilet. Alas, the marketing machine has a firm grip on the public’s personal fruit. That doesn’t mean, however, that Oregon shouldn’t fight the Italian power (insert Mafia joke here).
The 2011 vintage should provide more fodder for this full-on mud wrestle, though. A major reason for Willamette’s success is the vast temperature fluctuation during the spring and summer growing season, allowing the fruit to develop acids — a crucial element in creating complexity in wine. But 2011 in the Willamette Valley brought super cold weather which changed the typical style of their wines, resulting in Pinot Gris with ultra-high acidity. As an acid-head, I’m lapping up every drop. The 2009s (if you can still find them) taste more fruity and tropical whereas the 2010 (another cool vintage) and 2011s have zesty lime, fragrant peach and tart grapefruit. Both vintages are quite stunning and make them valiant when served with food.
But these Pinot Gris aren’t all Oregon has going for it. Their wineries are progressive without the fanfare, putting screwtops on many of their wines, and most vineyards subscribe to the “organic” or “sustainable” farming model. By not using pesticides and herbicides, they can maintain the natural nutrients in the soil, preserving its health for generations to come.
And no piece on Oregon Pinot Gris is complete without mentioning King Estate, a winery I’ve written about numerous times on these pages (the most King Estate recent post from 2011). They have unquestionably done the most to push the Oregon Pinot Gris agenda forward. It has paid off for them, and they make three different versions of it: Acrobat, an Oregon AVA version and an estate (or “domaine”) -grown Pinot Gris. Find any of those and you’ll think this grape is a Golden Gloves contender.
Benton Lane 2011 Pinot Gris Oregon Tasty! Almost clear in color with refreshing acid, lime zest. Fuller-bodied with an almost honeyed finish. Delicious and widely available in most states across the nation. Sw=1. $17. More information and to purchase
Alexana 2011 Pinot Gris Dundee Hills A small-production Pinot Gris from a relatively unknown wine region. Beautiful wine with layers of rich, mouth-filling flavors of peaches, ripe red apples with a tart lime, high acid finish. Not a wimpy Pinot Gris at all and one of the best I tried for this column. Sw =2. $26. More information and to purchase.