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Pinot Gris for Spring
By Paul Lukacs
Apr 17, 2018
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Pinot Gris is a perfect springtime white wine.  It comes in different styles.  On the racy side, there’s Grigio, the taut, tart Italian rendition of this capricious grape variety.  Richer and lusher wines simply are labeled Gris.  Picked when fully ripe, they can be redolent of apricots, pears, and golden delicious apples, with a honeysuckle-tinged bouquet and a rich, mellow finish.  Alsace in northeastern France used to set the standard for Pinot Gris, but many of the wines made there have become quite sweet, and equally good dry examples come these days from many parts of the winemaking world--including Austria, Germany, Italy, New Zealand, and on this continent, British Columbia, California and Oregon.  This is the season to try them.

As its name suggests, Gris belongs to the Pinot family, its siblings being Noir and Blanc, all three of which share the same DNA.  The Pinots rank among the oldest cultivated vines in the world.  As such, they are prone to mutation, a vineyard of one often containing some of the others. 

While this mutability can make it difficult for growers to maintain desirable traits in their vines, it also enables those vines to adapt themselves to local growing conditions.  In turn, that adaptation helps explain why this grape variety yields wines in a remarkably wide range of styles.

Wines made from more stable grape varieties will cover a narrower range.  Take Chardonnay as an example.  Pick it early, and the wine will taste harsh and shrill.  Pick it late, and the wine will be fat and flabby.  And while vines planted in cool locales will yield crisper wines, varietal chardonnay character commonly outweighs regional typicity.  That constancy helps explain why chardonnay has become so popular.  You basically know what you’ll get.

With Pinot Gris, however, early-harvested grapes can result in angular, lean wines, just as late-harvested ones can produce succulent, honeyed ones.  Moreover, the wines clearly reflect their geographic origins, Alsatian examples tasting very different from Italian or Kiwi renditions.  This diversity may make choosing wines a bit more difficult, but it also can make drinking them more fun.

Wines called Pinot Grigio almost always come in a light but tight style, while wines sporting the designations “Vendages Tardive” or “Selections de Grains Nobles” will be sweet.  By contrast, most wines simply labeled as Pinot Gris will be relatively dry and richly fruited.  These are the best springtime versions--bright and cool, with a core of promising warmth.   

This style of Pinot Gris is richly fruited.  A fine alternative to Chardonnay, it offers heft and body coming from the grapes themselves rather than from oak barrels.  Its flavors resemble ripe, almost over-ripe fall fruits, with (much as in apple or pear cider) a musky undertone.  Extremely versatile at the supper table, dry Pinot Gris pairs well with poultry and white meats, and it is one of the few wines that can complement spicy fare, no matter whether Asian or Southwestern influenced.

The following ten wines rank among my current favorites.  Prices are approximate, and they are listed in a rough order of preference.  To quote the poet, John Keats, they are filled “with ripeness to the core.”

Albert Boxler, Pinot Gris, Grand Cru Brand, Alsace (France) 2015, $75:  Yes, this wine is expensive, but it’s also stunning, with remarkable depth, complexity, and a finish that lingers effortlessly for literally minutes.  Its structure is firm and its balance impeccable, so while luscious, it hardly seems sugary.  Few grand cru white Burgundies are as exciting.  (Imported by Kermit Lynch.)  96

Cantina Terlano, Pinot Grigio, Alto-Adige (Italy) 2016, $17:  A fantastic value.  Crisp and very lively, with a racy edge coupled with a soothing finish, this Pinot Grigio does what woefully few northern Italian examples manage to do.  It tastes both compelling and complex.  (Imported by Banville Wine Merchants.)  94

Trimbach, Pinot Gris, Réserve Personnelle, Alsace (France) 2012, $50:  From one of the most respected producers in Alsace, this now fully mature wine tastes of fruit but also savory herbs, hay, and spice.  Wonderfully nuanced, it is just a tad sweet, but also supple and harmonious.  (Now imported by Esprit du Vin.)  93

Vie de Romans, Pinot Grigio, Friuli Isonzo (Italy) “Dessimis” 2014, $30:  Richer than most Italian Pinot Grigios, with seductive aromas of cream, lemon, and custard.  Although very inviting in the bouquet, it also displays exciting verve and energy on the palate.  (Imported by Vias.)  93

Seresin, Pinot Gris, Marlborough (New Zealand) 2016, $24:  Clean and fresh, with a salty note on the mid-palate, and a long, dry finish.  Should be great with seafood.  (Imported by The Sorting Table.)  93

Elk Cove, Pinot Gris, Willamette Valley (Oregon) 2016, $20:  Apple and pear fruit come to the fore, with citrus notes providing acidity and intriguing hints of tea and spice extending into the finish.  Intellectually intriguing and sensuously exhilarating.  92

Jules Taylor, Pinot Gris, Marlborough (New Zealand) 2016, $18:  Medium-bodied, with peachy fruit enhanced by a peppery note and impressive length, this is very much a fish or seafood wine.  It tastes very fresh and vivacious.  (Imported by Maritime Trading.)  91

Adelsheim, Pinot Gris, Willamette Valley (Oregon) 2016, $19:  Consistently fine, with pear fruit dominating the palate and a fleshy texture. The wine seems full of sunshine, and proves especially good when paired with fish or poultry in a cream-based sauce.  91

Weingut Hexamer, Grauburgunder, Nahe (Germany) “Vom Porphyr” Trocken 2015, $25:  Mineral-rich, with stony notes, firm acidity, and a creamy finish, this a wine for people who love idiosyncratic dry whites.  It tastes both unusual and delicious.  (Imported by Skurnik.)  91

Nine Hats, Pinot Gris, Benches Vineyard, Horse Heaven Hills, Columbia Valley (Washington) 2016, $15:  A recent discovery, this wine echoes orchard fruits with a note of sweet spice extending from the bouquet through the finish.  Warm and deeply-flavored.  90