The rise (and rise) of Pinot Gris and Grigio
The rise (and rise) of Pinot Gris and Grigio

The once relatively unknown Pinot Grigio (or Gris) grape has risen by stealth to become one of Australia’s most fashionable whites, adored by the wine-drinking public – much to the surprise of the wine elite. Now it’s ready for its next incarnation: a super cool, serious wine style that winemakers love to make and wine critics are beginning to love.

Pinot Grigio / Gris vines were brought to Australia in 1832 as Pineau Gris from the Cote-d’Or by the father of Australian viticulture, James Busby. However, it had to wait another 150 years or so before it became an ‘instant sensation’ when Pinot Grigio pioneers Kathleen Quealy and Kevin McCarthy launched T’Gallant Wines. They recognised that the cool climate of the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria was the perfect place to grow the grape, and that consumers were looking for something new.

The Queen of Pinot Grigio

T’Gallant’s Pinot Gris and Grigio enjoyed spectacular popularity and Kathleen Quealy was named the ‘Queen of Pinot Grigio’ – a title she still owns today. Indeed, she was named a 2016 Legend of the Vine by the Wine Communicators of Australia, the award recognising her as the driving force behind the introduction of Pinot Grigio to the Australian wine drinking public. These days at Quealy Wines, Kathleen and Kevin are embracing a range of exciting new Italian new styles and varieties, including a Turbul Friulano fermented in terracotta anfora at their Balnarring Vineyard in Victoria, but their ‘light, energetic’ Pinot Grigio and ‘luscious heavy-bottomed pear’ Pinot Gris still have pride of place in their wine listings today.

You say Gris, I say Grigio

When the French named the Pinot Gris grape, they were simply calling it as they saw it. Pinot – originally Pineau – is derived from the word for pine, because the grape bunches of the Pinot family have a similar appearance to pine cones. Gris means grey because when ripe, the grape takes on a dusky greyish sheen.

The Italians, similar to the French, stuck with Pinot Grigio. However, the new world – not surprisingly – chose not to follow suit. Unlike the Europeans, who name the grape one thing, and their wine another (most often, reflecting the region it’s made in) the wine often carries the same name as the grape variety. A crisp, bright, vibrant refreshing white wine called ‘Pinot Grey’ didn’t hold much appeal – the French and Italian names offered much more romance. Also, there were stylistic distinctions attached to the French and Italian personas. The richer, more luscious Pinot Gris of France was very different to the light, bright, minerally Pinot Grigio of Italy.

So the Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio names were both imported to the new world ... and they’ve been causing trouble ever since. Endless discussions about the differences between Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio traverse the wine stratosphere, as if it’s a complicated maths equation that can’t be solved. Or – worse – a complicated maths equation that has two entirely different answers – both of them correct.

As grapes, of course, there, is no difference. They are exactly the same grape. Pinot Grigio is the Italian name for the grape, Pinot Gris the French name. End of story.

As a style, however, there are huge differences... at least in an ideal wine world. The consensus is that Pinot Grigio should be picked early and made into a light, crisp, zesty, minerally style – just like it is in Italy. Pinot Gris should be picked later and riper, and be more textured, complex, silky and luscious – just like it is in France.

Of course, it’s not so simple in the real world. For a start – in Australia at least – there are no rules. Winemakers can grow the grape wherever they like, turn it into whatever style they like, and then call it what they like – Pinot Gris, Grigio, G, Gee, Gobbledygook… whatever they think will sell their wine the best. A light, fresh, zesty style could be labelled Pinot Gris. A rich, lees-matured, creamy, pear-drop rich style could be sold as a Pinot Grigio. One half of a tank (or barrel) of the very same wine could be bottled under a Pinot Grigio label, the other half under Pinot Gris. And then there are styles that are neither strictly Grigio nor Gris – an in between style that encompasses bits of both.

No other grape suffers such a challenging identity crisis. Chardonnay can be made into a lean, citrussy minerally style or a fat, buttery oaky style, or anything in between, but nobody questions its multiple personalities. Shiraz and Syrah could have suffered a similar dual identity problem, but there is no question whether they are the same grape, and winemakers generally seem happy to keep to their proscribed styles.

It would certainly be simpler if the grape had arrived with just one name. In Germany the grape is known as Grauburgunder. In the Loire and Switzerland, it goes by the name of Malvoisie. In Burgundy it’s known as Pinot Beurot, and in Hungary, it’s called Szürkebarát (Grey Monk). None seem to have any problem defining its style. In Australia, T’Gallant calls the grape Pinot G, though still making the distinction between the different styles in which the wines are made.

The astonishing popularity of Pinot Gris and Grigio

It may be suffering from an identity crisis, but Pinot Gris/Grigio doesn’t have to worry about its popularity rating. In Australia, it’s one of the fastest growing retail categories, and whilst it is nowhere near the heady heights of Sauvignon Blanc, it is growing rapidly. Plantings of the grape have outstripped Viognier, Verdelho, Muscat, Colombard and Riesling, and it’s now nipping at the heels of Semillon. Wine drinkers simply can’t get enough.

The popularity of Pinot Grigio and Pinot Gris has stunned just about everybody in the wine world – except for the wine drinkers who are making it so popular. The wine cognoscenti were, for years, disparaging – with good reason. In the 80s, a burst of enthusiasm for the bright Italian style whites led to vast plantings in the wrong areas that were overcropped, picked too early and made into high-acid, flavourless Pinot Grigios. Tasters uncertain about recognising Pinot Grigio were encouraged to look for what was not there, rather than what was. If it doesn’t taste of anything, wine students were told, it’s probably Pinot Grigio. Wine writers trying to put a positive spin on Pinot Grigio talked of its ‘purity’ (like pure water, or pure spirit – ie, no flavour at all). It was ‘refreshing’. It was ‘crisp’.

But the wine drinking public weren’t listening. They loved it precisely because it was crisp, refreshing and pure. They loved the zestiness, the lightness, the freshness. They loved how well it went with food – all sorts of food, because the wine never overwhelmed. They loved the promise of Pinot Grigio and Pinot Gris. And they still love it today.

Pinot Grigio and Gris is like an urban renewal project – an inner city suburb with an unfashionable name that slowly, quietly, astonishingly, rejuvenates without anyone noticing. Not surprisingly, the wine world is having a rethink. Grapegrowers are learning the best regions for planting the grape. In Australia, these are the cooler regions familiar to lovers of high quality Pinot Noir: Tasmania, the Mornington Peninsula, the Yarra Valley, Adelaide Hills and Orange. The resulting high quality fruit is encouraging winemakers to experiment with Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio – with thrilling results.

Pushing the Pinot boundaries

Tom Ward of Swinging Bridge in Canowindra (pronounced ‘Canoundra’) in NSW’s Central West is one such winemaker. He uses fruit from the cool climate, high altitude Orange district to create hand-crafted Pinot Gris that’s been garnering him great acclaim. His winery was recently awarded 5 Stars in James Halliday's Australian Wine Companion 2017. Halliday rated his 2013 Pinot Gris 93 points and wrote that it was ‘impressive because of its unusual length and even more unusual power on the finish’. This in itself was unusual, because Halliday has been famously circumspect in his appreciation of Pinot Gris.

Brendon Keys of BK Wines in South Australia’s cool climate Adelaide Hills is another winemaker pushing the boundaries with Pinot Gris and Grigio. The BK Wines motto is ‘Creativity not Conformity’, its goal to create ‘beautiful, unique, sensuous, deceptively minimalist, envelope-pushing art’. To him, Pinot Gris and Grigio are a glorious canvas. His Ovum Pinot Gris made with 100% Lenswood fruit spends a year ‘luxuriating its way through a continuously rolling ferment in an egg-shaped Nomblot vat’ and comes out as ‘pure, rounded, feminine seduction’ with the ‘satin sheen of a Burmese cat on a silk pillow’. His Pinot Grigio on the other hand is ‘linear and citric’ bearing a ‘striking structural resemblance to gin & tonic with lime’.

Vinteloper is another small-batch producer based in the Adelaide Hills doing big things with small batches of Pinot Gris. ‘Crafted, spirited, determined,’ they liken themselves to the craft brewer, the artisan baker, the finders and keepers. They call their fans ‘Kinfolk’ and were the People’s Choice winner at the Pinot Palooza in 2016 (Pinot Noir, not Pinot Gris) amongst prestige names like Coldstream Hills, Paringa Estate and Yarra Yering. Every year they run an urban wine project and create a pop-up winery with grapes, barrels, and presses to introduce ordinary people to the joys of stomping grapes. Their Pinot Gris is made with partial skin contact, wild yeast for that ‘funky, natural edge’, extended lees contact for creaminess and texture and 20% fermentation in barrel. Classic Pinot Gris. But it is also described as ‘transcendent, bright and familiar ... gently rich with zesty river stone and flint and earthy undertones’. Pinot Gris or Pinot Grigio? You decide!

When it comes right down to it, it’s both. Wine – whatever the variety, and whatever it is called – is as much a reflection of the winemaker’s style, as the grape variety, region, climate, or winemaking technique. When winemakers push the boundaries of the style, the result can be spectacular.

It has taken a while, but Pinot Gris and Grigio have captured the imagination of both the wine drinker and the winemaker, and now they’re gaining the attention of the wine critics. With sales continuing to climb, Pinot Gris and Grigio are all set to conquer the market as well. Pinot Gris and Grigio have not just arrived ... they’re leaving their contenders behind. 

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