Pinot Gris Rules in Oregon

Davies Wakefield

davies wakefield | wine uncorked | nov. 2018

The first time I had a glass of Pinot Gris was in the dining room of the iconic old Heathman Hotel in downtown Portland, Oregon. I was meeting with Terry Emmert, the president of Emmert International, to discuss an order for a heavy duty, 500-ton capacity trailer for hauling extremely large equipment like steam generators, nuclear reactors and other odd-sized loads. Terry's company was the one that moved the Spruce Goose (Howard Hughes' giant aircraft) from Long Beach to the Evergreen Aviation Museum in McMinnville, Oregon. Like most people involved in the heavy-haul transport business, Terry had a personality and ego that matched the oversized loads that he was famous for. I was going to have some in-season Oregon salmon for dinner and Terry insisted that I had to try the locally-produced Pinot Gris with the salmon. The taste was a revelation especially suited to the fresh grilled salmon. I have loved Oregon Pinot Gris ever since. But how the variety became a star of the Oregon wine producing country is a fascinating story.

In 1966, David Lett, fresh out of viticulture school at the University of California at Davis (UC Davis) had an idea that Oregon would be a great place to grow grapes. In 1966 almost no one had heard of Oregon wine. David was a pioneer, but he knew that growing wine grapes in Oregon would require him to plant cool weather varieties and in addition to Pinot Noir, David included cuttings of Riesling and a few Pinot Gris cuttings. My research for this essay shows that Lett was the first person to commercially grow Pinot Gris in the United States. Up until then no one in California or Oregon had heard of Pinot Gris either.

The grape is closely related genetically to Pinot Noir. The leaves and vines of the two varieties are identical with the only difference being the color of the grapes. The name “pinot" refers to the fact that the grapes grow in pinecone-shaped clusters. The “gris" is French for grey which describes the greyish color of the grape clusters and the slight tinge of grey to the wine itself.

Pinot Gris has been known since the middle ages in the Burgundy area of France. It was a favorite of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV. He saw to its cultivation and spread into Switzerland and Germany where it is still grown today. The grape also spread within France to Champagne and Alsace. While not grown today in Champagne (too cold), the cool climate and warm volcanic soils of Alsace produce Pinot Gris that is used in the late harvested (Vendange Tardive) wines that command high prices in the public arena. The climate and soils in Alsace are similar to the Willamette Valley of Oregon.

Italy also has an area devoted to Pinot Gris except they call it Pinot Grigio. It is the cool foothills of the Dolomites near the Austrian border. Other cool-climate areas like New Zealand, the Casablanca Valley of Chile and New South Wales in Australia grow Pinot Gris but Oregon remains as a standout area.

Starting in 1966, David Lett planted a bit more Pinot Gris every year, making a small quantity of wine for personal use. In 1979 he had enough to sell: 18 cases. Two years later production had soared to 100 cases.

“It was nice stuff," Lett recalls, “but who the heck knew?"

Most of it sat at the winery unsold.

Then came the salmon.

“There's a fishermen's underground in Oregon," Lett explains, “and when news began to spread that I was making interesting white wine, fishermen started showing up at my doorstep offering to trade wild salmon for Pinot Gris."

Lett soon discovered that the fish and the wine went together particularly well. He used that fact as a selling point when he started calling restaurants to sell his wine. When other wineries started making Pinot Gris, they did the same thing. Today salmon and Pinot Gris is considered the quintessential Oregon food-wine affinity.

“Pinot Gris is a wine that just sneaks up on you," according to Stephen Cary at Yamhill Vineyards in McMinnville. “Maybe it's something in the genetics of the grape. It has a lingering, come hither sensation that constantly draws you back. After the first sip, you decide maybe the world isn't limited to Chardonnay after all."

Wendy Lange, general manager of the Lange winery in Dundee, is even more enthusiastic.

“We're absolutely evangelical about it," says Lange.

Lange releases both a regular bottling fermented in stainless steel and a reserve bottling fermented in oak for added viscosity and complexity. Lange's son Jesse Lange continues the tradition today. Lange was the fourth winery after Lett to grow Pinot Gris.

Salmon aside, Pinot Gris might have remained obscure if it weren't for the King family's ambitious plans. The King Estate produced its first wines in 1992. That same year there were only 717 acres of Pinot Gris planted, almost double the previous year but still less than half the Chardonnay acreage in Oregon. The Kings changed all that. In 2000, Pinot Gris overcame Chardonnay as the top wine in Oregon. As of 2017, Oregon produces four times as much Pinot Gris as Chardonnay with 3,900 acres harvested. Only 1,800 acres of Chardonnay were harvested.

Over the years as other wineries started getting into Pinot Gris production, distinct differences in styles emerged. Oregon Pinot Gris can be anything from bracingly refreshing to lush and creamy. This variation seems due more to the grapes themselves than differences in winemaking style. Oregon vintners tend to be practical, hands-off winemakers. The enological minimalism is particularly appropriate for Pinot Gris. Grapes that have been handled too much can end up yielding wines with a bitter finish, little fruit and little or no complexity.

Dick Erath of Erath Vineyards puts it more succinctly: “If you want Pinot Gris to have any elegance, you can't treat the grapes like a door knocker or a yo-yo."

This minimalist attitude has led the Oregon wine community to adopt other practices that reflect their respect for the land. The LIVE (Low Input Viticulture and Enology) program has 338 winery members in Oregon and Washington. The organization works with its members to reduce the uses of materials such as chemicals, paper, cartooning, pallets, water and electricity, and to increase the use of compost, solar energy, gravity flow systems and preserve the environment in and around the wineries.

The wines I've selected for this essay reflect the values of the LIVE program. For instance, the King Estate produces over 1,000 tons of compost a year for use in their vineyards, replacing chemical fertilizers that can contaminate the pristine Willamette River. Ponzi and Cristom, as well as the King Estate, are fully certified in the LIVE program.

The Ponzi Vineyard 2016 Pinot Gris is $13 at Costco. It is 13.2 percent alcohol and is the oldest vineyard of the three in this essay. The Ponzi family planted Pinot Gris in 1978 just a year before Dick Lett started selling Pinot Gris commercially. Second generation daughter Louisa and her sister Maria now manage the winery, which my wife and I have visited several times. It is in the Chehalem Mountains in the northern Willamette Valley. This wine is bright and food-friendly with mouthwatering acidity. The aromatics combine scents of jasmine, honeycomb, lemongrass and lime zest. The wine tastes of ripe juicy pear and kumquat blend with a touch of sweetness on the finish. Try this one with some spicy Indian food like chicken tikka masala.

The King Estate 2016 Willamette Valley Pinot Gris is $15 at Woodman's and is 13.5 percent alcohol. This wine received Wine Enthusiasts Editor's Choice Award and 91 points. This wine was aged “sur lie" (on the bodies of the dead yeast cells) for four months which increased the viscosity of the wine. Increased viscosity gives the wine more mouthfeel or oiliness. This characteristic along with the pear, cantaloupe and pineapple flavors make it the perfect choice for roasted salmon.

The Cristom Vineyards 2015 Estate Pinot Gris is $17.50 at Woodman's and 14 percent alcohol. This wine is actually two wines blended together after fermentation. The grapes for this wine were separated into two lots. One lot was whole-cluster pressed while the other half was crushed in a bladder press. The pressed fruit was delicate with bright acidity; while the crushed wine was had greater texture, weight and mouthfeel. The finished wine is a blend of the two. Both lots underwent full malolactic fermentation and were aged “sur lie" for six months. This is a big wine and it won a Double Gold Medal at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine competition. I wouldn't hesitate to match this with a pork roast with apples and cider.

The nice thing about Pinot Gris is that with these wines you can drink like a king for under 20 bucks.

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