Pinot Gris is a beautiful grape, it has the most outstanding potential, it is easy to grow but difficult to make great wine from, but when done right it is the most adaptive, interesting and re
warding white variety in the world. Sadly though, Pinot Gris is very poorly utilised in most New World countries and especially here in NZ we are guilty of a heinous injustice against what could be the new Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Noir. And what is worst, it sells like hot cakes, so they keep making the bland boring crap that everyone has come to expect from a variety that has greater prospects than bee at a flower show.
Pinot Gris is a chameleon of character. It takes on many guises and I’m not just speaking metaphorically here: The grapes are grey, or pink, or green, sometimes they’re purple and it’s not uncommon to find half green, half red vines, bunches, and even berries. This is rather unique quality comes from the fact that Pinot Gris is genetically identical to Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc. Well that sounds absurd, because they are different colours, so they can’t be the same – right? Wrong. Genetics gives the total array of possible ‘codes’ an organism can use – Epigenetics determines which parts of the ‘code’ are switched on and which are switched off – and it can flip back and fourth seemingly at whim, and even more bizarrely, it can change in half a vine, half a shoot, half a bunch or even half a berry! (The Pictures on the right, taken by me, show Pinot Gris grapes demonstrating this very phenomenon.)
Now, the small perturbations in the colour of a few berries are clearly not going to have a significant effect on any wine made from them – they are only rare anomalies. But that’s not the only strange thing about Pinot Gris – it is known by many different names around the world – Grauburgunder, Malvoisie, Pinot Beurot to name a few. It is also produced in a huge variety of styles; including the ‘Pinot Grigio’ style of Northern Italy, the ‘Alsatian Style’ of Alsace, Sparkling wine in Lombardy and ‘Orange Wine’ in some other regions. This vast array of names and styles leads to a lot of confusion about what Pinot Gris really should taste like – it’s not like a Bordeaux which has a definite bold and rich character or a Marlborough Sav-Blanc which will cause 3rd degree acid burns in your oesophagus. So what’s the problem? Why can’t we just do anything with it?
Well – in every traditional region that produces Pinot Gris they have settled on a distinct style that accentuates the Terroir, and reflects the character of the people. In New Zealand there is no consensus of what Pinot Gris really should be. I’ve had austere Gris that resembles the Grigio style of Italy, sickly sweet Gris that wouldn’t do as cooking wine, Gris that are rich opulent and dense in texture but lacklustre in aroma and palate, and none of them have done the variety the justice it deserves. And New Zealand isn’t alone – Australia and the US are equally guilty of this ‘Trial equals Error’ approach and it’s because we are too busy trying to please everybody and no-one is focusing on what style really expresses the best varietal character.
Here is my suggestion – how bout making great wine, for the love of wine? Forget the balance sheet, forget mass produced plonk for the vox populi, forget trying to be consistent. Someone make me a Gris that knocks my socks off. I want to be indecently assaulted by a Gris that takes me by surprise, something that is as interesting as the variety deserves. Because Pinot Gris has a wonderfully rich history of being great in unexpected ways, and we’ve turned it into just another ‘medium white’.