Strike up the bland

Pinot Gris is a much maligned grape, accused of being dull and "white on white", but in the right hands, Joelle Thomson finds, it has potential to wow

It is the wine we love to hate. It is the grape most often derided in wine circles and it is gaining ground ­everywhere from Central Otago to the Languedoc, from Hawkes Bay to Sicily: Pinot Gris.

Held captive to analogous insults at every turn, it still somehow goes from strength to misunderstood strength. Hurl any insult you care to at Pinot Gris - bland, "white on white", "put lipstick on a cow and it's still a cow" - but its growth continues unabated.

Despite its inexpressive personality, usual blandness and its rollercoaster ride of different stylistic expressions, Pinot Gris throws off negative analyses the way most of us dispense with our woollen coats in summer. Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir are growing fast in New Zealand, but from its tiny base Pinot Gris' growth rate is the fastest. And while that growth is strong in our vineyards, it is most pervasive as "the next big thing" in that all-important place - our minds.

The most confounding aspect of Pinot Gris' growth is that no particular style has emerged to which its makers can aspire.

Marlborough winemaker Mike Just, from Clayridge Vineyards, says he sees two distinctly different styles of New Zealand Pinot Gris being made for the UK wine market.

"One of them is the relatively cheap Italian style of Pinot Grigio, which tends to be light, simple, inoffensive easy drinking and is available in your average pub by the glass. The other is the generally richer, more opulent style of New World or Alsatian Pinot Gris that tends to be more expensive," he explains.

As to who these wines are aimed at, Just sees the Pinot Grigio style as a "beginner's wine".

"I believe it would often be purchased on its low-price and easy drinking combination, whereas the more complex and expensive Pinot Gris style is something that people put more thought into."

Just says New Zealand winemakers have the potential to gain a strong placing in the high-quality Pinot Gris market - "but only if we can prove some quality and style consistency".

And therein lies the rub.

Ask New Zealand winemakers the key to unlocking the flavour of Pinot Gris and some will say instantly "residual sugar". Others will posture that residual sugar only works with Pinot Gris when the grapes in question are super-ripe in the first place. By proxy this means the residual sugar theory applies only to Pinot Gris made in an Alsatian style. If you are making Italian-style Pinot Grigio, residual sugar is out, in all but the most restrained of quantities.

Hawkes Bay winemaker Warren Gibson will be bristling. "I get a bit pissed off with all the slagging the variety gets, like saying Pinot Gris is like painting with white paint on a white canvas. There is obviously a lot of rubbish wine out there that is overpriced and still selling, but I would often prefer a glass of good Pinot Gris to one of Sauvignon Blanc," says Gibson, who is winemaker and co-owner of Bilancia Wines as well as winemaker at Trinity Hill Wines.

Gibson is one of the few Kiwi winemakers to eschew the French name Pinot Gris, preferring the Italian nomenclature of Pinot Grigio for his wines. He only ­produces high-quality expressions of Pinot Grigio, and uses little residual sugar - 3-4g at most.

Describing his style as leaner, more savoury and, for want of a better word, Grigio, Gibson sees residual sugar as unnecessary .

Conversely, at Esk Valley Estate in Hawkes Bay, senior winemaker Gordon Russell sees a strong role for residual sugar in Pinot Gris - at least for the grapes he is currently using to make it.

"Our fuller, sweeter styles will be harder to sell than dry Pinot Gris in that market, and need hand-selling to more knowledgeable clients," Russell says.

Further south, Central Otago winemaker Jeff Sinnott, from Amisfield winery, also puts Pinot Gris into two clear categories: "If I could be so bold as to surmise Pinot Gris into two categories, it would be Gris, which is rich, oily, high in alcohol , a residual sugared style and, secondly, Grigio - the tight, refined, lower alcohol, more structured styles," he says.

Both styles occupy a valid position in the UK market, reckons Sinnott.

"The important thing is to target these two diverse and distinct styles into their right venues - the places they will both sell best."

More importantly, they should compete on quality as well as style.

"If we try to compete on price we'll get taken out of the market - anyone can sell wine by giving it away. We need to make wines that command attention, give the trade something to think about, the media something to say and consumers something to offer of serious quality at the appropriate price - not just the cheapest," he says.

Low yields, hand-harvesting and whole-bunch pressing to avoid phenolic pick-up are among the tools many New Zealand winemakers deploy in making their Pinot Gris and Grigio.

Master of Wine and Kumeu River wine-maker Michael Brajkovich says that if New Zealand Pinot Gris is over-cropped it relies on its alcohol and sweetness to give it a little flavour.

"If you're looking for character with Pinot Gris then the key is low yield and getting it really ripe so that some aromatic characters do come through," Brajkovich says, adding: "This is a real challenge."

The regions in which they grow their grapes may be different, but Brajkovich and Russell have similar philosophies regarding the length of time they allow their Pinot Gris to hang on the vines. Both say that a long hang time allows Pinot Gris to shine.

Gibson says a lot of the flavour for Pinot Gris is in the skins.

"Machine harvesting and/or crushing helps extract this flavour, but the wines become too fat, phenolic and pink, and don't age at all. I make a careful pressings cut when the juice begins to become pink and phenolic. Then I use a long press cycle," explains Gibson.

"This is a very important component in the blend but does need some fining to remove phenolics and colour. This is where the "spice" flavour is largely derived for us, but watch out for wines that are overly tricked up with Gew ürztraminer to get spiciness," Gibson adds.

Clayridge's Just sees residual sugar as more important in Pinot Gris than most other grape varieties.

"Its naturally low acidity and high pH mean that Pinot Gris can easily become flabby and lack freshness if balanced residual sugar is not achieved.

"I also think that when sweetness is used in an attempt to make up for lack of concentration, it only does the variety a disservice," Just adds.

In stylistic terms, the use of residual sugar in top-quality Pinot Gris denotes a choice of winemaking style, Just says, citing some of the best Alsatian Pinot Gris as good examples of off-dry wine styles.

"Of all the white varietals, I believe Pinot Gris is the one where, alongside aroma and flavour, the actual texture of the wine is important. Good palate weight and structure all starts in the vineyard with careful site selection, clones and management," Just says. "Our focus at Clayridge (in Marlborough) is on north-facing slopes of low-vigour clay soils, using a range of different clones - and then we do the same shoot and crop thinning that we do for Pinot Noir," he says.

The other tools he takes from the Pinot Gris cupboard include meticulously managed fruit exposure to achieve flavour ripeness at lower sugar levels (to avoid high alcohol levels), hand picking, hand sorting and then whole-bunch pressing to avoid phenolics in the final wine. For his Clayridge Pinot Gris, Just treats 30-40 per cent of the final wine to wild barrel fermentation; the remainder is cool fermented in stainless steel.

Vine age, something most New Zealand winemakers have little of, is also important to Just, who hopes to one day make Pinot Gris from 40-year-old vines. In the meantime, he sees a bright future for the wine in the short to medium term.

Long term? "It will be influenced by how good a job we do of consistently producing accessible examples and by what other new trends we see in consumer direction," Just says.

In order to execute that good job, ­Gibson says it's easy to forget that Pinot Gris is a grey version of Pinot Noir.

Those winemakers who respect their Pinot Gris grapes for more than commodity winemaking are reaping the rewards. Though it pains this writer to admit it, Pinot Gris has the potential to wow. Just's latest Clayridge Pinot Gris silenced a group of critical Tuscan winemakers in October last year. Claiming they did not like Pinot Gris but were interested to try a New Zealand version, they praised the latest Clayridge Pinot Gris for its intense, spicy flavour, its elegance, its balanced residual sugar, its body and its weight.

If, as the Gris optimists keep telling us, it is time to revise our views on this challenging wine, then it is also time to stop over-cropping, over-using residual sugar - and under-using it too.

Then us glass-half-empty Pinot Gris drinkers might stop using words like "bland" and "white on white".

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