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Pinot Gris: Alive and Well in Oregon
By Norm Roby
Jul 27, 2022
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Pinot Gris is the second most widely planted variety in Oregon, and after a decade of steady growth, it is the leading white grape today, way ahead of Chardonnay.  Yet Oregon Chardonnay gets more press largely because Pinot Gris’ reputation is tangled up with its namesake, Pinot Grigio.  Not trying to start an argument here but Pinot Grigio is a name most wine drinkers associate with inexpensive, light and often slightly sweet white wines from Italy.  And, okay, a few watery thin supermarket bottlings from California don't help the quality image.

The biggest hurdle facing wineries focusing on fine Pinot Gris is widespread misinformation.  Don't believe that?  Well, just Google the simple question: What’s the difference between Pinot Grigio and Pinot Gris?  What you get this as the first entry is: “Pinot Grigio, undoubtedly the most popular of the two, is lighter-bodied, crisp, clean, and vibrant with citrus flavors,” according to Wine Spectator.  “Pinot Gris, on the other hand, is sweet, and has spicy tropical fruit aromas.  It generally has low acidity, higher alcohol levels, and a rich texture.”  

OMG!  Where to start?  Well bad English (more, not “most”) and bad research and all leading to a generalization that is totally misleading, useless, and, well, just wrong.  With this background, promoting Pinot Gris has long been an uphill battle for those involved.  

So, it came as only a slight surprise to read the bold print “We are Pinot Noir” welcoming visitors to the Willamette Valley Winery Association’s homepage.  No ambiguity there, and most of the website’s content focuses on Pinot Noir as the region’s signature wine.  It is, of course, but maybe Pinot Gris merits some attention since there are more than 5,000 acres planted and over 100 wineries produce Pinot Gris.

My interest in Pinot Gris began during an early one-on-one meeting with David Lett of Eyrie Vineyard.  Though known today as one of the pioneers behind Oregon Pinot Noir, Lett was keen on showing me his first vintages of Eyrie Pinot Gris.  He was convinced it was Oregon’s white of the future, not Riesling, not Chardonnay.  And the quality of his first vintage was as convincing as his enthusiasm.  

A few years later I was invited to visit the new and much talked about King Estate in Eugene, Oregon and was reintroduced to Pinot Gris along with Pinot Noir made from several Dijon clones.

Both encounters convinced me that Pinot Gris deserves to be taken as a serious white, neither a minor mutation nor a grape for cheap bulk wine.  And that eventually led me to Alsace.  Visiting the region to research a touring article later published in Decanter magazine, I left with no doubt that Pinot Gris can be a complex, intriguing and, in some cases, age worthy wine.  

My follow up article in Wines & Vines focused on the widely varying styles of Alsatian Pinot Gris with so many off-dry, sweet-finished versions, various Grand Cru bottlings, and many late harvest.  Many of the leading winemakers insisted on showing their Gewurztraminer and late harvest Rieslings.  But the dry versions of Pinot Gris from Ostertag, Josmeyer, Kreydenweiss, Domaine Paul Blanck, Bott Freres, and Zind-Humbrecht were a whole different story.  Yet not that well-known even in Alsace.  I remember being “schooled” by a waiter in one of Alsace’s fine restaurants when I asked for a dry Pinot Gris.  The answer was simple: “If you want a dry white, select a Riesling.”

If there’s such confusion in Alsace, then it is understandable why Pinot Gris grown elsewhere has yet to be fully understood and appreciated.  When you also factor in the boatloads of Pinot Grigio and the way the trade, especially restaurants, list the imported Pinot Grigios and Pinot Gris as one wine, you can understand how the problem is compounded.  

So, to get a handle on what’s the present status and future prospects of Pinot Gris in Oregon, I asked the folks at King Estate to help out.  After all, King Estate has been working with it for 30 vintages and has become practically synonymous with Oregon Pinot Gris.  Still family owned, King Estate was founded in 1991 and now has 465 acres planted in what is the largest certified biodynamic vineyard in the U.S.  Pinot Gris accounts for 314 acres.  

While the winery has expanded and is highly successful by all standards, it remains firmly committed to Pinot Gris.  One of the largest producers of Pinot Gris, the King family did not want to take any risks with wines from the smoke-prone 2020 vintage.  Consequently, not one bottle of 2020 Pinot Gris was sold.  That’s a major decision because in the 2021 vintage, King Estate produced over 100,000 cases of Pinot Gris!

Both Ed King and winemaker Brent Stone were generous with their time and happy to share their thoughts.

Q (Norm Roby): Is there a distinctive Oregon style of Pinot Gris today?  A King Estate style?

COO/Winemaker Brent Stone: Pinot Gris tends to do very well in cooler climates like the Willamette Valley.  The finished wines are known for complex fruit, vibrant acidity, and balance.  That is definitely how we see King Estate’s style and what we strive for in our Pinot Gris.  Oregon has gained a reputation for producing some of the highest quality and most age-worthy Pinot Gris in the world.

CEO Ed King: There is a distinctive Oregon Pinot Gris style, much more similar to other cool regions, but we have successfully used the stainless steel, cold fermented approach since 1992.  Many other Oregon wineries have produced high quality wines in the same style.  Pinot Gris in Oregon can easily age for a decade or more in the bottle because of its structure and balanced fruit and acidity.

To expand a bit: Pinot Gris is planted in almost every vitis vinifera wine region.  Yet it really has a true home and the highest expression in cool climates.  That certain varieties are best suited to specific climates should come as no surprise.  The wine world, moving from vineyard to customer, has trends and styles that ebb and flow, just like much else in human culture.  

What sometimes passes for common knowledge, a given, is actually more folklore, myth, and style.  Thus, we want to counter any judgments and generalizations about Pinot Gris that are based upon wines grown in regions that are too hot for it to show its best.  This makes no more sense than saying Cabernet is pale and insipid when grown in the Yukon, and therefore all Cabernet is such.

A final note: Wines have been made with Pinot Gris since before the Roman Republic.  It is widely planted in eastern Europe and widely traveled through Switzerland and Germany.  It is far from limited to the few inexpensive examples grown where it is too hot to do the best.  It has many names:  Grauburgunder, Rulander, Grauklevner, Malvoisie, Fromenteau Gris, and many others – and that’s a testament to what it really means in wine culture.

Q: How does it compare with Pinot Noir in terms of viticultural demands, climate, clones, harvest times and yields?

Brent: We typically harvest Pinot Gris ahead of Pinot Noir under similar growing conditions.  The earlier harvest often results in more austere wines with lower alcohols which suits the variety well, I think.  Yields are generally 1-2 tons/acre higher with Pinot Gris and Oregon growers are usually able to maintain high fruit quality even in challenging vintages.  
 
Ed: There is always a nexus of microclimate, vineyard practices, varietal/clonal selection, and winemaking.  Pinot Gris is more durable than cousin Pinot Noir in the field and is capable of withstanding drought, harvest rains, and still delivers more fruit to the vine.  Of course, in Oregon winemaking, the goal is not so much about tonnage as quality.

Q: What cellar techniques do you now feel are best suited for Pinot Gris?  Native yeasts, malolactic fermentation, lees contact?

Brent: We use a combination of native and commercial strains depending on the program and goals.  All of our Biodynamic wines featuring estate fruit are fermented with native yeasts.  Fermentation is low and slow at 55°F for aromatic preservation and to develop better fruit character.  We do not typically put the wines through “malo” as we are targeting a brighter, acid-driven style.  All wines are sur lie aged (stirred weekly) for a minimum of 4 months and upwards of 8 months for higher tier programs.

Q: What is your current view of oak aging for Pinot Gris or the use of concrete, special aging vessels?

Brent: We almost exclusively use stainless steel for Pinot Gris fermentation and aging, although we have two smaller programs for our wine club that allow us to experiment with special vessels.  The first, known as “Paradox,” is fermented in stainless, but then aged in 100% new French oak for 2-3 months.  The short aging time prevents the wine from being over-oaked, but the oak that is present is really pretty, given it’s from 100% new barrels.  The second program, known as “Steiner Block,” comes from one of the oldest blocks on our property and is fermented in a concrete egg.  The older block on a cool site usually means that the grapes are some of the last to come in every year and still rarely exceed 21° brix.  Allows for additional hang time and flavor development in the vineyard and the concrete egg adds great texture and minerality to the wine.  
 
Ed: Early experiments in Oregon with substantial oak exposure were not successful, likely because the beautiful fruit-forward characteristics were obscured.  At the time (around 1990), the thinking was to try to make Pinot Gris like Chardonnay was being made in California.  You may remember the “Chateau 2x4” style.

Q: Is it valued more as a cash flow wine by others, especially the newcomers, in the Valley, than as a serious wine?

Brent: It’s certainly true that you are able to get Pinot Gris to market quicker than, say, Cabernet Sauvignon, but I don’t believe that it’s viewed purely as a cash flow wine here nor as a non-serious wine.  Most Willamette Valley producers are quality-minded and want to produce a serious wine regardless of the variety.  We think newcomers to the Willamette Valley are attracted to the state because of the high quality of wine that we produce, and that they come here to be part of an industry that keeps getting better.

Ed: A wine that can be ready in an annual cycle helps out by not tying up money in inventory.  But any wine that’s not a very good wine isn’t a cash flow wine for long.

Q: Is it Willamette Valley’s best white going forward?

Brent: The Willamette Valley has gained a reputation for outstanding Chardonnay in recent years, but the lack of planted acreage has somewhat limited its reach.  The early success of Oregon Pinot Gris led to a significant amount of planted acreage in the state.  This ultimately resulted in broader distribution of our wines beyond Oregon and helped cement the Willamette Valley as one the premier grape growing regions in the world.  This will likely continue to make Pinot Gris the region’s most prominent white grape for some time to come.
 
Ed: I have seen the “death of Pinot Gris” in Oregon announced at least twice, and the triumph of Chardonnay in Oregon at least three times.

*          *          *

Despite these prognostications, the fact is that Pinot Gris remains—by far—the  most successful white wine in Oregon.

Here are reviews of King Estate’s current releases of Pinot Gris:

King Estate, Willamette Valley (Oregon) Pinot Gris “Steiner Block” 2019 ($28):  This small lot release (100 cases) was fermented in a concrete egg vessel and then aged on the lees for 6 months with weekly battonage.  The grapes harvested were from an old block and the “Steiner” reference is a tribute to Rudolf Steiner.  Its bright pale straw color signals a more refined, well-balanced style and this holds true.  Aromatically, there’s a subtle mix of melon fruit with ginger and a mineral, chalky note.  It is medium-bodied, with concentrated flavors of lemon zest, apple and melon.  Savory and beautifully textured, it remains lively well into the finish as the acidity asserts itself.  Impressive overall and likely to reward a few years of cellaring.  94

King Estate, Willamette Valley Pinot Gris 2021 ($19):  This is King Estate’s primary bottling, and it is widely available.  Over half of the grapes for this wine are from the estate, with the remainder sourced from several independent vineyards following sustainable practices.  This 2021 tends toward a ripe fruit, mouth filling style that can be enjoyed as an aperitif or as a first course companion.  Showing a little bronze tint, it offers plenty of ripe melon fruit with some honeysuckle, peach and jasmine in both its aromas and flavors.  Remarkably fleshy and rich on the palate, its lush fruit and citrus personality persists and concludes with a pleasing touch of acidity in the aftertaste.  This is a terrific all-purpose, versatile white with plenty of character.
92

King Estate, Willamette Valley Pinot Gris “Domaine” 2019 ($30):  Made 100% from King Estate’s vineyard, this Domaine bottling was stainless steel fermented and aged 6 months on the lees.  Straw colored, it opens with bright aromas of melon, lime, and citrus that lead to a medium-bodied, generous palate.  It continues with lively, crisp flavors of Meyer lemon and grapefruit.  Its persistent acidity keeps it on course leading to a lovely finish.  With its vibrant melon fruit and touch of lime, this is a smoothly textured, well-structured wine held together by brisk acidity.  A wine to drink now but it also has good aging potential.  94

King Estate, Willamette Valley “Backbone” Pinot Gris 2019 ($28):  Made from selected blocks as a winemaker’s cuvée, the 2019 “Backbone” consists of 41% estate-grown fruit with the remainder from 4 neighboring, compatible vineyards.  The lots are whole-cluster pressed and cold fermented in stainless steel.  The wine was then aged 5 months on the lees with periodic lees stirring.  Medium- to full-bodied, this wine is brisk and concentrated with youthful aromas and flavors of fresh cut melon with tangerine and a hint of minerality.  Much like the “Domaine” bottling, this wine also offers a lovely, smooth rich texture leading up to its palate cleansing, long finish.  Enjoyable now and very food-centric, it has all it needs to age gracefully over the next several years.  500 cases made.  95

King Estate Willamette Valley Pinot Gris “Paradox” 2019 ($35):  This tiny production (100 cases) is part of an ongoing experimental program.  100% estate grown, the name “Paradox” refers to the fact this is oak aged by a winery that has long championed un-oaked Pinot Gris.  It was aged in new French oak for 3 months, followed by aging on the lees for 5 months.  Straw yellow in color, it needed time to open.  But soon displayed a mélange of notes recalling baked apple, lemon, vanilla and light oak toast.  Medium- to full-bodied, it is concentrated in flavors with lemon curd, apple fruit, and some yeastiness in equal parts.  Tightly structured, it finishes long with good acidity to accompany the light touch of oak.  Well, it is definitely different, but well-made and attractive.  92



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