What do you think of when I say the words ‘Pinot Gris’? Do you think ripe golden pears gushing sweet juice after that first satisfying crunch? Baking spices sprinkled across warm apricot crumble? Stepping sharp in a well tailored outfit – that poise between lithe fluid movement and crisp defined lines?
Or do you think of rummaging through your Grannies handbag for loose change? Shapeless, ill fitting blouses hanging on the specials rack? That tone deaf person in the office cornering you at the staff party to espouse their love of rocks?
I have always found myself on the fringes of any wine conversation by choosing the former. My friends and colleagues look almost offended when I choose a Pinot Gris from the winelist or bring one to a dinner party – trying to reconcile my professional sensibilities with this most ‘boring’ of wines.
Which made me ask myself; why? When did this most noble of aromatic wines get relegated to the cheapest drink on the glass pour list – the go-to wine when you don’t like Savvy and can’t be bothered picking something interesting. The conclusion I have come to is that the wines that are put in front of us are just not a fair representation of the variety.
Pinot Gris vines at Te Kano
More than any other New World wine producing nation, New Zealanders took to Pinot Gris – at 2593 hectares it is the third most planted white varietal after Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. Combine this with Pinot Gris’ natural tendency to crop heavily and the ease with which it’s production can be mechanised and you create the perfect recipe for bland, innocuous wines. At high yields Pinot Gris loses all flavour and essentially becomes alcoholic water – so much so in fact that it has become common practice for large producers to blend Gewurtztraminer into their Pinot Gris (up to the 14.99% threshold at which it would require listing on the label), in order to create a product that at least tastes like something, even if that something is a soapy, sweet, perfumed forgery.
These high yields have also meant that the cost of production can be screwed right down – guaranteeing that Pinot Gris will be one of the cheapest wines on the list, and available on glass pour anywhere you may find yourself. Cheap, readily accessible, and completely inoffensive – three criteria for fast moving consumer goods.
Then compare this to my own experiences with Pinot Gris. Having had the privilege of living and working around the world in my quest for wine knowledge, I have been exposed to a great many examples of what this wine can be. The crisp, austere Italian Grigio, so fresh and mouthwateringly refreshing on a searing hot day. The rich, oily Alsation Gris, with its layers of texture and complexity derived from long months fermenting in ancient wooden casks. Or “the aromatic punch of Central Otago, with its incredible spectrum of aromas that leap from the glass with such intensity that you need to put it down to regather your senses”.
These experiences have driven me to try and restore the good name of Pinot Gris and defend it’s honour, making the hard decision to restrict it’s production and express the very best of site and soil through small yields of concentrated fruit. Believe me when I say it is not an easy thing to drop fruit to the ground in a low yielding region like Central Otago. Having those tough conversations with the vineyard manager as we put quality above profit and halve our production yet again in pursuit of concentration and balance. But this, ultimately is what elevates these wines from the ‘baked beans’ of the wine world to the aromatic delights that they have become. We strive every year to get the very best from our vines and to make wines that we want to drink, and every year my love for Pinot Gris has grown.
So next time your gaze is hovering over the Pinot Gris section of the shelf or the wines list – shift your gaze slightly higher. Slide it up from the ‘bottom line’ and stretch your boundaries. It could be that you enter into a new world of wine appreciation and find yourself thirsty for more.
This advice should come with a warning however – once you have tumbled down this rabbit hole, you may find it very hard to ever look back.