He continues: “You also won’t hear much about it from consumer magazines, which tend to focus on connoisseurs’ wines.”
Asimov points out what is well recognized within the Oregon wine world- while Pinot gris is an easy sell in winery tasting rooms, and for many wineries, a staple item there, the money (and reputation) comes from Pinot noir
Pinot gris really likes it in Oregon.
Like many Oregonian transplants who have found themselves hopelessly addicted to the coastal state, Pinot gris is fond of the long, temperate summer days and the gently cooling autumn. To Pinot gris, Oregon is like home, after all. The grape originated in the Burgundy and Alsatian regions of France. Oregon’s climate, geology and topography also offer ideal conditions for the production of world-class Pinot gris grapes.
It was 1965 when the rare white varietal first visited Oregon, thanks to an invitation by David Lett of Eyrie Vineyards (see “History of Pinot Gris in Oregon”, below). Since that time, more than 75 winegrowers have welcomed this grape into their vineyards.
While often described as similar to that of the Alsatian region, Oregon’s growing conditions allow Pinot gris to blossom into a unique Oregon style:
Territorial Vineyard Pinot gris
• Lively, fruit-forward character with aromas of pear, apple and/or melon
• Crisp and clean
• Medium bodied with a mineral component
• Good acidity; well balanced
• Ephemeral qualities
• Yellow to copper in color, sometimes with a pale pink tinge
• Food friendly.
Oregon’s combination of northern latitude, occasional marine breezes and long hours of sunshine create warm summer days and a cooler autumn. Her noble grape varieties ripen gradually under moderate temperatures. This ripening is perfectly matched to Oregon’s growing season and is the key to the production of memorable wines.
Family Tree. Pinot gris is a natural mutation of its ancestor, Pinot noir. In fact, the Pinot noir grape mutates more readily than any other major variety. Pinot blanc also comes from Pinot noir.
On the Vine. All Pinot grapes grow in small clusters that resemble pinecones for which they are named. They are genetically identical, sharing leaf shapes, vine structure, and bunch and grape size. However, like the skin of a chameleon, the grape’s outer coat can change without warning, resulting in a possible mixture of mutations on the same vine, perhaps even on the same bunch. The lighter Pinot gris and blanc grapes usually are not revealed until the Pinot noir grapes have darkened.
Color. While “gris” means gray in French, the skin of a Pinot gris grape may appear anywhere from a dappled bluegray to a pinkish brown, depending on where it is grown and on climatic conditions. Likewise, the resulting wine hue may vary. Oregon Pinot gris tends to display itself in the medium gold range, sometimes with a pale pink tinge. Bottle aging reveals a more intense copper-gold hue.
Climate Control. Pinot gris prefers a marginal climate with long, temperate summer days and a cooler autumn (see “At Home in Oregon”). Only a handful of regions, including Alsace, Italy, Germany and Oregon, experience success growing it. The heat-sensitive grape does not fare well in hotter climates as it needs colder temperatures to ripen fully and produce distinct flavors.
Slippery Slope. Almost all Oregon Pinot gris vines are found on slopes, southeast to southwest facing at elevations from 250 to 700 feet. Mid-slope positioning generally keeps vines above frost levels, and below less fertile soils near the ridge. Southern exposure rewards grapes with extra hours of sunlight.
Early Maturation. Pinot gris grapes mature early. The wine can be released and ready to drink in just six to eight months after harvest, depending on the style and winemaker choices. Picked early, the wine tends to be light and fruity. When the grapes are left to hang a bit longer, the wine takes on a richer and sweeter flavor. Pinot gris is best drunk within five or six years.
Style. As the Pinot gris vines adapt to their environment over time, unique styles are revealed. There are several widely recognized styles as described by the Wine Enthusiast:
• Pinot Grigio style: light-bodied, often lean; light in color; neutral, sometimes spritzy flavors, crisp and acidic.
• Oregon style: medium bodied; yellow to copper-pink color; crisp, lively flavors with aromas of pear, apple, and/or melon.
• Alsace style: medium- to full-bodied; rich, somewhat floral; viscous, almost oily in texture; less fruity than the Oregon version; long lasting.
• German style: medium- to full-bodied; fairly sweet, but well balanced with good acidity; in the hands of a quality producer…can be interesting.
History of Pinot Gris in Oregon
With some of Oregon’s original Pinot gris vines sturdily anchored in its lush hillsides for more than 35 years – the longest of any in the New World – this winegrowing region is now offering the world the opportunity to enjoy the fruit of its labor.
Established vines and fine-tuned production techniques, combined with Oregon’s superior growing conditions, have resulted in the food-friendly Pinot gris for which Oregon has earned international recognition. But without the vision of adventurous early vintners, the unique qualities of Oregon Pinot gris may have been left undiscovered. Today, Oregon proudly lays claim to the oldest vines and vintages outside of Europe.
Pinot gris grapes forced to ripen in the heat of the late summer sun do not develop nor retain such complex fruit flavors, aromatics or nuance. The slow progression to maturity allows the wine grapes to display their full character. Outside of Alsace, Italy, Germany and some other European regions, Oregon is the first and major location that has achieved success with Pinot gris. Eyrie
David Lett believes that Oregon is the only place in America with proper growing conditions for Pinot gris. He explains that California, for instance, is too hot, and the grape actually prefers Oregon’s marginal climate. Many California wineries market their version of the white varietal as “Pinot grigio.”
“The Willamette Valley has a marginal climate for growing vinifera grapes,” Lett explains. “Pinot gris along with Pinot noir and some others fall into an early ripening category that matches the end of the growing season here. That means the Pinot gris grape can achieve maximum varietal flavor in Oregon by ripening slowly, and reaching full maturity at the very end of its growing season.”
Viticulturally speaking, Oregon is a Cool Climate Region, one in which moderate temperatures and a gradual progression from budburst to harvest protects delicacy and nuance in the resulting fruit. Consistent temperatures that allow the fruit to fully ripen, but not too quickly, are ideal. Rainfall in Oregon’s winegrowing areas occurs primarily in late fall and winter, with the Willamette Valley actually having less precipitation during the growing season than the Burgundy region of France. With its wine-friendly climate, topography, soils, and hospitable and enthusiastic winegrowers, Oregon has everything a Pinot gris grape could ever want.
Pinot gris, widely planted in northern Europe for centuries, is believed to have originated in the Burgundy region of France where it is called Pinot Beurot. Pinot gris is produced as Tokay d’Alsace in France, Ruländer or Grauburgunder in Germany, and Pinot grigio in Italy.Lumos Pinot gris
In 1966, Pinot gris was introduced in Oregon when David Lett of The Eyrie Vineyards, who had witnessed Pinot gris production firsthand in the Alsace region of France, planted 160 cuttings obtained from the University of California at Davis where he earned his degree in viticulture in 1964. By 1970, he had produced the first Oregon Pinot gris wine. While his first harvest yielded a mere 11 gallons, his 1971 crop produced 81 gallons. His wine library still contains a few bottles of those early vintages.
What started as an experiment soon turned into a love affair with the varietal, not only by Lett himself who was impressed with the character, flavor and ease of growing the grapes, but by scores of other winegrowers. The early efforts of Richard and Nancy Ponzi of Ponzi Vineyards, and David Adelsheim of Adelsheim Vineyard, are tightly woven into the fabric of Oregon’s Pinot gris history.
Charles Coury of Charles Coury Vineyards also was an important historical figure in the Oregon wine industry. Based on his studies at the University of California at Davis, Coury traveled in the 1960s to Alsace where he studied the region’s famous cool climate varietals as an intern. After a year in Europe, Coury returned to Oregon and established a winery in the historic Reuter’s Hill winery site where vinifera grapes had been grown in the 1880s. His first wines were produced around the same time as Lett’s.
The Ponzis of Ponzi Vineyard, too, discovered Pinot gris in Alsace, in 1976. Soon thereafter, they began grafting over their original Pinot blanc to Pinot gris, and planting new acreage to Pinot gris. In 1981, they offered their first commercial vintage. Adelsheim planted his first Pinot gris in 1975 and his first vintage was made in 1984.
The mid-1980s were exciting times. Winegrowers had sufficient quantities of Oregon Pinot gris to sell in the national market. However, they were faced with the formidable task of marketing an unfamiliar varietal from an undiscovered winegrowing region. California, focused on other white wines, had only just started experimenting with Pinot gris production, and hence, had no reason to market the wine. Oregon winegrowers were blazing a new trail, and they were going it alone. Entrepreneurial spirit and belief in their rare varietal inspired them to persevere.
Adelsheim, Ponzi and Lett recall their early marketing efforts, including several joint sales trips and one of the first Oregon wine events: a Pinot gris tasting held at The Heathman Hotel in the spring of 1985. Lett remembers focusing on by-the-glass pours even if it meant sacrificing profits. They all believed that once tasted, the wine “sold itself.”
Continued marketing tactics by the founders and their contemporaries filled the end of a decade that put Oregon on the map.
Oregon’s Rising Star
Somewhere along the way, the word started getting out about this amazingly food-friendly and affordable white wine. Oregon Pinot gris earned appearances in national wine magazines and other publications like The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. Chefs and wine critics raved about the versatility of the wine, and the public weighed in with ever-increasing sales.
Today, Lett produces 5,000 cases of Oregon Pinot gris a year – a far cry from the five cases he produced in 1970. Adelsheim Vineyard and Ponzi Vineyards produce 6,000 and 3,000 cases each year, respectively. Another pioneer, Dick Erath, who founded Erath Vineyards Winery in 1967, now produces 10,000 cases of Pinot gris per year. And relative newcomers Edward King Jr. and son Edward King III of King Estate Winery (est. 1992) keep the Pinot gris flowing at the rate of 50,000 cases per year. As the leading Pinot gris producer in Oregon, King Estate has greatly contributed to Oregon’s national profile as a wine-producing region.
This tremendous growth is mirrored in numerous wineries and vineyards throughout Oregon, particularly in the Willamette Valley, where winegrowers are dedicating more acreage than ever to this varietal. The growth also is reflected in stores and restaurants around the nation where consumers are buying Pinot gris at record levels.
In 2000, Pinot gris eclipsed Chardonnay as the number one white grape variety grown in Oregon. And it has bypassed Sauvignon blanc for the number two spot in sales nationally, where Chardonnay still reigns as the top white variety sold. In 2001 alone, total U.S. Grocery and Drug Store sales of Pinot gris increased by 39 percent, representing a remarkable surge in its popularity at the national level.
Oregon Pinot gris’ elevation from unknown to celebrity status in a relatively short period of time is evidence that this white wine will remain a viable choice for wine aficionados and casual drinkers alike for years to come.
The Oregon wine industry is banking on it. More than 110 wineries currently offer Pinot gris, and that number continues to grow. Pinot gris has found a home in the New World: Oregon.