It’s no surprise that Oregon stood out in this comparative tasting of Pinot Gris, which not coincidentally showcased a number of the Northwest’s top talents.
And this winter will mark the 50th anniversary of the federal government approving the label for the first Pinot Gris produced in the country — The Eyrie Vineyards 1970 Oregon Pinot Gris by the late David Lett in the Dundee Hills.
“We planted Pinot Gris in 1965, and registered the U.S.’s first label under that variety name for vintage 1970,” Lett’s son, Jason, wrote in an email to Great Northwest Wine that proudly included the official Certificate of Label Approval (COLA) dated Jan. 4, 1973.
Another producer in the Willamette Valley who would also become famous, Dick Ponzi, planted Pinot Gris in 1978 at his historic estate vineyard that flanks the Ponzi Vineyards winery in the Chehalem Mountains. Pinot Gris still inhabits about half of those 12 picturesque acres.
“Both should rightly be considered pioneers of the variety,” Jason Lett points out.
History also views David Adelsheim, another renowned Chehalem Mountains winemaker, as a longtime champion for Pinot Gris, particularly after tasting that first effort from The Eyrie Vineyards as an early employee.
“In the fall, André Tchelistcheff — the most important winemaker ever in California, at least if you are looking at the perspective of 1973 — was in his consulting mode for Ste. Michelle,” Adelsheim told Great Northwest Wine during a 2013 interview. “He stopped by The Eyrie in 1973 and was very impressed with the Pinot Gris wine. He tasted from one of David’s stainless steel barrels and said, ‘Good Pinot Gris ought to taste like Winesap apples.’
“That impressed me,” Adelsheim added. “Here was this famous person saying he really liked this Pinot Gris, so I needled David to see if I could get some cuttings.”
Despite the early applause from Tchelistcheff, Adelsheim points out that other Oregon producers were slow to embrace this less-famous grape native to Burgundy.
“Ponzi had made a Pinot Gris in ’83, so in 1984, the three of us did a grand tasting at the Heathman Hotel of all the Pinot Gris available in Oregon at the time — all three of them,” Adelsheim recalled.
Pinot Gris becomes Oregon’s top white grape in 2000
In large part to its nationwide ambassadorship by King Estate, Pinot Gris became the No. 1 white variety in Oregon; however, it wasn’t until the 2000 vintage when Pinot Gris plantings overtook Chardonnay.
King Estate received acclaim in 2016 as North America’s largest Demeter-certified Biodynamic vineyard. Rather than using herbicides, synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, King Estate spreads more than 1,000 tons of compost across the 460 acres of vines. A whopping 300 acres are dedicated to Pinot Gris, and estate fruit still makes up the largest portion of the King family’s flagship wine — the Willamette Valley Pinot Gris that is the most widely available gold medal wine from this tasting.
According to the most recent Oregon Winery and Vineyard Report, there were 5,460 acres of Pinot Gris planted. Chardonnay is a distant second at 2,610 acres. And during the 2019 vintage, vineyard managers on average cropped the two varieties rather similarly with Pinot Gris just a bit heavier at 3.08 tons per acre vs. Chardonnay (2.99), resulting in 15,694 tons of Pinot Gris and 6,780 tons of Chardonnay.
In Washington state, Chardonnay is the focus with 28,100 tons harvested, followed by Riesling (24,680), Sauvignon Blanc (7,700) and then Pinot Gris (7,070).
Umpqua Valley produces top 2 examples of Pinot Gris
Interestingly, the top two wines in our tasting were grown within a short drive of each other in Oregon’s Umpqua Valley. Inspired in part by King Estate’s success less than an hour’s drive north, New Jersey native Stephen Reustle established two blocks of Pinot Gris across his 200-acre estate north of Roseburg. His first planting was in 2003, which marked the second of his four-year project at his initial vineyard, Romancing Rock. That first half-acre of Pinot Gris is populated by two clones first quarantined at Oregon State University and believed to be from Colmar, France — 152 and early-ripening 146. They are in a block sandwiched by his famed Grüner Veltliner and underrated Riesling plantings that look directly down a south-facing slope toward a bucolic pond.
In 2009, his final year of planting across the Prayer Rock block, he returned with another half-acre of Pinot Gris, this time devoted to 152, which UC-Davis now refers to as clone 04. Both sections of Pinot Gris are between 500 and 600 feet elevation. (Those two clones also have served as the foundation for King Estate’s Domaine program.)
“I have been experimenting — harvest time, yeast, fermentation temperatures — with Pinot Gris since 2005,” Reustle says. “I’ve always sold out, but I was not overwhelmed with the wine. In recent years, I think I hit the sweet spot, and it had more to do with yeast selection.”
Brandborg crafts 2 styles of stellar Pinot Gris
Arguably the most remarkable entry was that by Trella Vineyards, also in the Umpqua Valley.
Stephen and Susan Williams, physicians in Roseburg who own and tend their vineyard, had the confidence to submit one of their first wines — a 2016 Pinot Gris crafted by Terry Brandborg. The fact that it ranked near the top wasn’t a major surprise because the Elkton winemaker continues to build upon the recognition he’s earned from the New York Times with another aromatic Alsatian variety — Gewürztraminer.
“The Williamses do like a tad of sweetness in their gris and believe that is what their customers prefer, so that is the way we chose to finish that wine,” Brandborg said. “With the pH of 3.25 and (titratable acidity) of 7.0, the wine should have aged well, so I’m glad to hear it is still showing so well.”
Brandborg also received a gold for his 2021 Pinot Gris from the Elkton Oregon AVA where his winery and tasting room are.
The variety’s name stems refers to the shape of the cluster – pine cone in French is pinot. And when the grapes achieve ripeness, the berries take on a bluish gray appearance, which hints at its relation to Pinot Noir. While the juice is white, the amount of contact in the cellar with those slightly tinted skins accounts for the color level in the finished wine.
Now that Americans finally have showed up to the party and embrace the salmon-colored rosés of Provence, it’s allowed those winemakers who are fans of Pinot Gris to use the variety for rosé. Their skill showed in high-scoring entries by two Walla Walla Valley producers — SMAK Wines and Long Shadows Vintners/Nine Hats Wines with the graceful, bowling pin bottle for its Julia’s Dazzle program.
As for the bottle shapes, the top examples of Pinot Gris from Oregon come in Burgundy format. Gård Vintners on Washington’s Royal Slope pours its into one of the tallest hock/flute bottles on the West Coast for its Grand Klasse. The thoughtful and nicely priced SMAK rosés of Pinot Gris take the Bordeaux approach under the gameplan of owner/winemaker Fiona Mak, who developed the concept while working at Artifex in Walla Walla.
“I chose the Bordeaux bottle and everything to match in order to streamline the supply chain and bottling process,” Mak says. “Having been in charge of bottling in my last job for three years, I have seen numerous problems with supply shortage, and the hassle they put on the bottling technicians with label and bottle changes. I want to eliminate this hassle and put the focus on the wine. It’s also a very standard packaging for rosé.”
Some believe that using Pinot Gris on the label signals “serious wine” vs. Pinot Grigio as a “simple quaffer.” While there are stylistic differences, there can be marketing behind the decision, too.
For example, in 2002, The Hogue Cellars in Washington’s Yakima Valley went from “Pinot Gris” to “Pinot Grigio” on the label in light of Italy’s success with selling in the United States. Demand for Hogue’s Pinot Grigio took off and production nearly tripled — from 7,700 cases in 2001 to 22,000 cases from the 2004 vintage.
“I switched to the name Pinot Grigio primarily for the marketing impact,” Reustle says, “and just like Hogue, we experienced increased sales and demand. I did not change style, but I’m constantly tweaking it and, of course, vintage has its impact.
“Our style actually is more in keeping with Pinot Grigio, in particular, one you might find in the Alto Adige region with more acidity than its Pinot Gris counterparts,” Reustle added. “And I don’t use any oak — all stainless steel.”
- Judges for this tasting were Eric Degerman, CEO/president of Great Northwest Wine; Ken Robertson, Great Northwest Wine columnist, Kennewick, Wash.; and Brad K. Smith, retired viticulture/enology instructor, certified sommelier and marketing consultant at CellarDoorConsultants.com in Grandview, Wash. The tasting was staged May 11 at the Clover Island Inn overlooking the Columbia River in historic downtown Kennewick.