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The Gee in Pinot G

The rise Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio in the Australian marketplace has been nothing short of remarkable, especially as it has occurred at the same time as the country has been drenched by a tsunami of increasingly cheap Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.

While there has been a knock-on effect with increased interest in local Sauvignon Blanc, and substantial growth in plantings of Muscat à Petit grains (from a small base) for Moscato, there has been huge consumer interest in Pinot Gris/Grigio. So, what better time for the Wine Selectors Tasting Panel to line up 60 of the country’s finest and put them to the test? The Panel was joined by two learned Pinot Gris/Grigio producers: Mornington Peninsula vigneron Garry Crittenden and King Valley winemaker Sam Miranda, as well as yours truly.

A quick history lesson

Pinot Gris was planted in Australia much earlier than most would have imagined. Chris Bourke of Sons & Brothers in Orange mentions on his website that when James Busby imported his collection of grape varieties from France and Spain in the 1830s, what he had thought to be Cabernet Sauvignon was, in fact, Pinot Gris. As with much of Busby’s collection, it didn’t survive.

Today’s Pinot Gris/Grigio was pioneered on the Mornington Peninsula in the 1980s by Kathleen Quealy and Kevin McCarthy at T’Gallant and, although slowly at first, in the past decade it has taken hold of the public consciousness with increasing speed.

Kathleen sees three factors coming together to enable Pinot Gris to succeed on Mornington. It was the right region for the right variety. The clone that was available was ideal as it produced small berries, small bunches and only moderate vigour. There were adequate good sites (north facing slopes), which were as vital to ripening Pinot Gris as they were to ripening Pinot Noir. Consumers were the other key in this equation and she saw them as being interested in new varieties: looking for unwooded whites and wanting premium varieties as expressive as Pinot Noir.

In Australia no variety, except Sauvignon Blanc, has grown more impressively than Pinot Gris/Grigio in the last five years when the industry trend has been to stabilise or decrease the supply of grapes. In that time, it has moved ahead of Viognier, Verdelho, Muscat, Colombard and Riesling: more of it is produced than any of the major white varieties except for Chardonnay, Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc. There are in excess of a hundred different labels of Pinot Gris/Grigio on the market in Australia at present.

What’s in a name?

A major marketing and consumer issue in Australia is that the same grape variety is produced and sold as both Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio and, for many, this can seem pretty confusing. This difference has its roots in the vineyards of Europe.

Pinot Grigio is most successfully grown in the regions of Fruili, the Veneto and Alto Adige in North-Eastern Italy where it is picked early and produces a fresh, zesty, racy style with clean savoury characters. In France, it is known as Pinot Gris and is popular in Alsace where it is picked riper and therefore has a richer, fuller, plumper profile and is higher in alcohol.

The variety produces bluey grey grapes (deep purple with green flesh when fully ripe) that make white or lightly pink wines and are thought to be related to (or a mutant of) Pinot Noir. Throughout this tasting the issue of colour was rigorously discussed. Garry Crittenden said he liked his wine to be clear, while others on the Panel thought the wine should have a pinkish tinge to it. Whatever the preference, it is important that the consumer knows most Gris/Grigio will have a ‘pink-grey’ tinge to it, and that is completely normal.

Another key issue for Gris/Grigio has been the importance of identifying the places where it can be grown most successfully. Kathleen believes that far too much Gris/Grigio has been planted in warm Australian regions for which it is patently unsuitable. For Garry Crittenden, Pinot Gris/Grigio, like Pinot Noir, has become genetically adapted over the centuries to showing its full phenolic character in cool climates where the grapes ripen slowly over a long period of time. Low vigour is also vital to producing Pinot Gris/Grigio grapes that show concentration and character.

The results reveal

Firstly, the results supported Kathleen Quealy’s theory that Pinot Gris/Grigio does best in cool climate regions. The majority of wines in the tasting were cool climate and all of the top 20 wines were sourced from cool climate areas. More than half of those wines were sourced from Victorian vineyards, with the King Valley accounting for six of the top 20, while the Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsula claimed three each and Geelong, one. The Adelaide Hills, Eden Valley and Tasmania also registered as strong regions for Gris/Grigio, while Orange and Tumbarumba were the only regions of note north of the border.

Seven of the top 10 scoring wines were Pinot Gris. This result was explained by the fact that this varietal style is generally more malleable to winemaker manipulation. The Grigio style should be lighter, drier and more minerally, so will generally be picked quite early, cool-fermented in tank, then bottled, whereas the Gris style would be picked later and therefore riper, which means it can handle some winemaking artefact, such as lees stirring and barrel fermentation or maturation.

Pinot G?

The results also showed the Gris tasted were significantly removed from the wines of Alsace, while the Grigios were substantially different from their Mediterranean counterparts, and there were some wines that sat in between.

Panellist Trent Mannell posed this revolutionary hypothesis: had Australia developed its own style of Pinot Gris/Grigio, a style that is neither Gris nor Grigio but sits somewhere in between, a style we could simply label as Pinot G?

For instance, the Thorn Clarke Sandpiper Pinot Gris showed floral aromas but had some minerality on the nose with zippy acidity, while the The Pawn ‘Caissa’ Pinot Grigio was described as having a delicate acid balance and vibrance while at the same time was lauded for its muscaty aromatics and thick viscous texture. So you can see in these two examples there is some overlap in styles. If the results of the tasting were seriously scrutinised, then the outcome would suggest that we do indeed have three styles of this versatile varietal in Australia: Gris, Grigio and G.

The element of food

One of the other main issues that the Panel discussed during the tasting was the importance of drinking Pinot G in the company of food. These are textural wines, much more savoury and less fruity than most Aussie whites. They are transformed by being paired with appropriate foods.

One of the magic moments during the tasting came when Chairman Karl Stockhausen condemned a Pinot Gris as being lean, tight and watery. “I want some flavour,” he growled. Sam came to the Eden Valley wine’s defence, agreeing that it was neutral but insisting that placing it alongside food would bring the wine alive. Then he asserted, “I could drink it all day!”

With Pinot Grigio, you could try oysters, clams, prawns, grilled whiting, lightly battered barramundi fillets, mildly spiced stir fries, and with Pinot Gris, go for onion tart, lobster, barbecued or roast pork, or roast chicken. It’s a question of finding dishes that you think will work with the crisp zestiness of Pinot Grigio or the richer, fuller, weightier, more viscous character of Pinot Gris.

Overall, Sam believed that the tasting showed how far Pinot Gris/Grigio has come in Australia in the past decade. He said that if we’d held a similar tasting in the 1990s, far too many of the wines would have been bland or faulty. Most importantly, he was impressed at how well producers achieved the style that the label told us they were aiming for.

For you, though, the message is both clear and welcoming. Pinot Gris/Grigio, or for that matter, Pinot G, is doing very well in Australia. So when you are sitting down al fresco-style to a shared mezze plate or some antipasti this summer, crack open a bottle of Australian Pinot G and discover what all the fuss is about.

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