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Wine

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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Who gets the gong for Semillon?
Words by Ralph Kyte-Powell on 12 Aug 2015
Let me take you back in time. Way back. Pre- Sauvignon Blanc . Back in the years B.C. (before Chardonnay ), when only two white wine types vied for the crown of Australia’s best. For a large part of the twentieth century, Australia’s two greatest white table wines were Semillon and Riesling . Riesling thrived in Australian wine’s heartland of South Australia, and the old wine country of the Hunter Valley in New South Wales was the source of the nation’s best Semillon. Confusingly, Hunter Semillon was known for many years as ‘Hunter River Riesling’, and the true Riesling grown in South Oz was called ‘Rhine Riesling,’ but those who knew them would never mix them up, and now, thankfully, they enjoy their real names. Both wine types bore distinctly Australian signatures, but Hunter Semillon went further – it was unique in the world. Nowhere else was Semillon made unblended into a high-quality, light, low-alcohol, dry white wine like this. The style was determined by the capricious climate of the Hunter Valley , where grapes had to be picked early to avoid the summer rains, resulting in only moderate levels of ripeness and high levels of acidity. Over the years, such circumstances meant Hunter Semillon evolved a unique personality, partly due to its improbable ability to build character and impact with long bottle age. Australian wines sometimes attract criticism, often ill-informed, for their lack of regional identity, the sense of place or terroir that marks great European wine, but this wine has it in spades. Hunter Semillon starts life pale and crisp, dry and lemon-fresh, appetising drinking when a delicate, savoury drop is needed. Then, in a most unlikely and miraculous transformation, that shy, zesty young wine is transformed by bottle age. Richness and interest build in the bottle, and after five, ten, or even more years, the zesty young thing grows into a multi-dimensional white wine of fascinating complexity, smoothness and depth. Generations of wine buffs have loved Hunter Semillon in either incarnation, young or old it was always a favourite among the cognoscenti, but the world of Australian wine has changed. The whims of fad and fashion increasingly determine what people drink and poor old Semillon, despite being better than ever, is looking like yesterday’s hero. Now a Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc is Australia’s best-selling white wine, obscure Italian white varietals obsess a new chattering class, and even big-selling Chardonnay is considered a bit passé by the fashionistas. Semillon languishes as an also-ran. What a pity. The story in the south The story of Semillon in South Australia is different. While the Hunter Valley version was a thoroughbred, South Australian Semillon was a workhorse used for bottled table wines, bulk wines, fortifieds, sweet styles, distillation, and anything else a winemaker could think of. In the Barossa , where for obscure reasons it was sometimes known as Madeira, straight Semillon enjoyed some popularity, but the style made for many years was more about strength and big, broad flavours than finesse, and in recent decades oak barrels have crept into the equation, making it into a sort of big, fat Chardonnay substitute, and often wiping out any fruit character that existed in the wine. For many in the Hunter, and for most of that region’s fans in the Hunter’s traditional markets, South Australian Semillon only existed as an everyday drop, a component to cut back Sauvignon Blanc’s exuberance in a blend, or a curio not to be taken seriously, never a throughbred like the Hunter version. But things were changing in the rolling country around Nuriootpa, Angaston and Lyndoch. A new type of Barossa Semillon was gradually emerging that started attracting the attention of wine drinkers across the nation. The Barossa boys and girls started easing off on the oak or ditching it altogether, they started harvesting their Semillon earlier, they selected fruit with more care, cropping levels were more tightly controlled, technique improved, special plots of vines identified. The Barossa’s aim of improving the region’s Semillon started to bear fruit. It hasn’t exactly shaken sales of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, but many consumers have been won over by these new wines, commentators have received them very positively, and they are winning more plaudits on the wine show circuit. At the Sydney International Wine Show in 2010 the Trophy for best White Table Wine of Competition was won by Peter Lehmann Margaret Barossa Semillon 2004. Hunter winemakers sat up and took notice. The Barossa was indeed becoming competitive with the Hunter as a source of great Semillon. This is the background to Selector’s latest State of Play tasting. How good is modern Barossa Semillon? And how does it compare to the classics from the Hunter? Is the Barossa wine better in its youth than the Hunter? Hunter Semillon ages superbly; what about Barossa Sem? To get a perspective on the two regional styles, Selector invited submissions of current release wines from all Semillon producers in both the Hunter and Barossa. Additionally, wineries with a good track record for ageworthy wines were invited to submit older Semillons. The taste-off The results confirmed just how good both Hunter and Barossa Semillon can be. Out of 49 wines entered, no less than 39 achieved scores that would get medals in a wine show. This is an amazingly high figure and had panellists scratching their heads to think of another wine type that would do so well. The tasting also showed that Semillon from both regions has two distinct incarnations – young and bottle aged. This highlights Semillon’s ability to offer the best of both worlds, a trait that isn’t shared by many other white wines. Young, zesty Semillons are probably better wines than Sauvignon Blancs to accompany the sort of cuisine we enjoy in modern Australia, especially in the warmer months. Semillons take Thai influences, Mediterranean flavours, briny seafoods and sushi in their stride, yet their delicacy is perfect with simply prepared fish. Bottle-aged examples compete with Chardonnays as companions to more elaborate dishes like baked fish, smoked foods, more substantial seafood dishes, poultry or cheesy preparations. A clear winner? Young or old, both Hunter and Barossa Semillons proved their credentials in this tasting, but which region’s wines were better overall? If it were a competition it would be slightly in favour of the Hunter. But both regions make fantastic Semillon and it was very difficult to separate the top wines on quality. In fact the two top-scoring current releases comprised a wine from each area, as did the top two aged release wines. At the moment there are many more producers of ‘great’ Semillon in the Hunter and the best of them are better than ever; there are only a handful of such producers in the Barossa. Ideas of competition between these two great Australian wine regions can be overplayed. There’s a great deal of affection and mutual respect between them, and each side is very impressed with the other’s best Semillon. The real issue is how to rekindle interest in great Semillon, wherever it comes from, in a population besotted with other white wines. It will be a hard task, but the first step is having the product right, and there’s no doubting that both Hunter and Barossa Semillon’s quality credentials are up to the task. Check out Wine Selectors great range of Semillon today.
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Better than Burgundy?
Words by Mark Hughes on 2 Jul 2015
Thank you, Bill Downie, I now respect Australian Pinot . Bill said something to me about Pinot Noir that triggered an understanding and ultimately made me want to seek out a great Australian Pinot and savour its every drop. I am hoping by the time you’ve finished this article, you’ll feel the same way. As winemakers go, Bill is a bit of a legend in the Pinot world, but an anomaly in the wine universe. You see, he only makes Pinot. That’s it. His entire focus is Pinot Noir. He is an unashamed Pinotphile. Bill admits he has always been enraptured by Pinot’s romantic charm, but he really fell in love with the varietal when he was sent by his then employers, De Bortoli , to spend some time in Burgundy learning about Pinot. Five vintages later his love had become a marriage, a blessed union between a winemaker and a grape. He came back all smitten and doe-eyed and intent on making great Australian Pinot. Victoria is where he focused his attention, and in addition to his own vineyard in Gippsland, Bill now makes Pinot from vineyards in the Yarra Valley and the Mornington Peninsula . As Bill, Jeremy Dineen from Josef Chromy Wines and I were getting ready to sip, swirl and spit our way through a bunch Pinot Noirs, Bill was regaling me with his adventures in Burgundy and he said something that resonated deep within my wine scribe soul, as well as my tastebuds. “My time in Burgundy taught me to have a true and meaningful respect for the place you are in, wherever that might be,” he said, before nonchalantly adding, “Before I went to Burgundy I was in Australia trying to make wine that tasted like Red Burgundy. But after I had been there I no longer wanted to do that, I wanted to come home and make wine that tasted like the place I was, be it Gippsland, the Yarra or Mornington Peninsula". All of a Suddent it Made Sense When I first entered into this wonderful world of wine, I had bought into all the hype and hoopla about how amazing this Pinot Noir varietal was. But I had tasted enough bad home-grown Pinot that it had sullied my respect for the varietal, and as I had explored more with Old World wines, the Australian Pinots I consumed seemed too big and boisterous compared to the elegant Red Burgundy I’d savoured. But Bill’s words had made me see the error of my ways. I had tasted Aussie Pinot wanting it to be the best of Burgundy, when I should have been rating it for what it was – Australian Pinot. Bill explained to me that we would never make a Pinot Noir that tasted exactly like Red Burgundy; however with the right ingredients we can make top quality Pinot that is uniquely Australian and far more expressive. So what are those magical ingredients needed to make great Pinot Noir? The most important are climate, site and vineyard management, not to mention the gentle caress of the knowledgeable winemaker. Climate Pinot Noir prefers cool conditions but not those with a major temperature drop at night. It simply detests the heat so it seems pointless to grow Pinot anywhere that is warm, such as places like the Hunter or Barossa. Maybe as a component of sparkling wine, or as a Rosé, yes. But even if you are the world’s best winemaker, don’t try to make a straight-out Pinot Noir in a warm region. You just can’t do it. Many have tried and failed. Even the revered wine critic and Burgundian lover, James Halliday, toiled fruitlessly to make Pinot in the Hunter. Perfect cool climate environments for Pinot exist in Australia in just a few regions, notably in Victoria’s Yarra Valley with its cool, crisp slopes and average humidity, and the Mornington Peninsula with its maritime cooling nights. But perhaps the region that is causing the most excitement is Tasmania . The Apple Isle is already earning a reputation as a producer of world-class Sparkling wine, so Pinot Noir, a key component of Champagne, along with its Burgundian sister Chardonnay, has been planted here for some time. It makes up half of all the vines in Tasmania and 95 per cent of red wine. More recently, straight Pinot is starting to find its feet here. Jeremy Dineen, who is also regarded as a maker of great Pinot after 10 years working with it at Josef Chromy in Northern Tasmania, says that climate is key to attaining the elegance for which great Pinot is renowned. “You are talking about a wine that has very fine tannins, where texture is one of the most important things, so if you can get a balance of ripe but fine tannins and fresh natural acidity, with those bright fruit flavours, it is the perfect Pinot and that is only going to come in the cooler climates,” he says. “If you look at the flavours you can only get that same perfume, subtleties, complexities and balance of natural acidity from cool climates and that is a really important part of Pinot.”
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For the love of Riesling
Words by Mark Hughes on 2 Jul 2015
Why don’t people go crazy for Riesling ? I mean, every new vintage wine critics across the country bombard us with rave reviews for Aussie Riesling with the underlying message that this once mighty varietal is making a comeback – if only the drinking public would embrace it. But that is where it seems to fall down. Fifty years ago Riesling was the dominant white wine in this country, but it lost its lustre in the 1970s when Chardonnay started to boom. In more recent decades, Riesling has remained stagnant at about 2.2 per cent of total grape production in Australia while being surpassed in popularity by Sauvignon Blanc , Semillion and even Pinot Gris/Grigio . Our wine scribes aren’t alone in their infatuation with Riesling. Ask a winemaker and they will get slightly frothy at the mouth as they rabidly equate the art of making Riesling as akin to a religious experience. This is mainly due to the fact that, of all the white grape varietals, it is the one that truly reflects the place it was grown, while at the same time maintaining its varietal characteristics. It is the purist expression of grape in the bottle. What’s more, winemakers and critics sing in unison that we have never been better at making it than today. So what gives here? Why isn’t Riesling more popular? My theory is three-fold – marketing, a fashion crisis and multiple personality syndrome. Let me explain. Marketing Most companies these days have a marketing department and like many of us, I don’t know exactly what they do. So I looked it up. It seems the definition of marketing is not just about advertising and promoting the business; it is about identifying and understanding your customer and giving them what they want. But if the statistics in wine trends are to be believed, Riesling is not what the public wants, so why would marketers waste their time and effort coming up with campaigns to sell it? One solid fact of marketing is that it works best on the younger end of the scale – the ‘Gen Y’ drinkers of the wine industry. Marketers are too busy trying to get that newly lean ol’ cougar Chardonnay back up on her pedestal and aggressively pitching ideas to swank up their Sav Blanc. Or they’re creating a buzz around Pinot Grigio with a viral campaign where antipasto platters served by suave Mediterranean men are bid upon by nubile young women using wine as currency. Could you imagine dear old nanna Riesling being part of promotion like this? And that leads into the next problem...Riesling is not sexy. And as any marketer worth her witty campaign briefs will tell you – sex sells. Fashion What is your perception of Riesling? Truly? I just described her as a nanna and I will confess that before this tasting that is what I thought of her. Sweet, juicy, occasionally bitter with an overbearing aromatic floral perfume – just like my dear old nan Ruby (except for the bitter part, she was always laughing despite constantly losing her false teeth, God rest her soul). In my marketing plan, every bottle of Riesling could have been sold with a handkerchief embroidered with edelweiss or maybe a set of matching doilies. It would have been the perfect wine to sip while listening to the Sound of Music soundtrack. Those of us in the Gen X generation, or old enough to remember the lunar landing, would have also had their Riesling memories tainted by the cask wine revolution, when copious amounts of Riesling were pumped into a silver bladder stuffed inside a cardboard box. Maybe I am taking things a bit too far, but add to the equation the fact that Riesling has its own bottle shape. What is that about? Sure, other varietals have their own look. Champagne is the most obvious, but it works perfectly for sparkling – slot your thumb up that punt, pop that cork and the party starts. But most people could not distinguish a Chardonnay from a Sav Blanc from a Semillon in a silhouette-only line-up. However, that tall thin bottle of Riesling stands out like the dog’s proverbials. And, just like those canine gonads, I reckon that distinctive bottle shape deters the occasional drinker. So in the end they won’t bother to pick it up to read the tasting notes or buy it because of a pretty label or accidentally purchase it thinking it was another style of wine. It’s bottle racism, excuse the pun... it’s a glass war. Multiple Personality Syndrome Let’s just say you are above the marketing tactics, that you were old enough and wise enough to avoid wine casks, and/or that you had enough education in the viticultural realm to accept that those sleek green glass tombs harbour a wonderful vineous offering. If so, you’d be well aware that the style of Australian Riesling these days is not sweet and florally, but is instead dry and citrussy. The fact that it is so versatile and can be made in these different styles is one of Riesling’s great assets, however, at the same time, one of its great frailties. Without going into too many winemaker technicalities, a number of factors including canopy management, timing of picking, contact with skins, time on lees, etc., can determine the style of Riesling, be it sweet, dry or everything in between. To help educate (and market Riesling better), Riesling comes with its own scale on its label – the International Riesling Foundation Sugar Guidelines. This scale takes into account the sugar and acid levels in Riesling to give a rating of either; Dry (sugar to acid ratio less than 1), Medium Dry (ratio between 1 and 2), Medium Sweet (ratio between 2 and 4) and Sweet (ratio above 4). Are you still with me? It is a lot to take in and let’s not get started on late-picked Riesling, which produces a dessert-style wine, as that is a whole other kettle of fish. I will, however, inform you of another reason why Riesling has laboured under a cloud of confusion. Because Riesling was established in Australia very early, newer plantings of grapes have often been labelled as Riesling, when in fact they weren’t. Most famously, Hunter Valley Semillon was known as Hunter Riesling for many years. This oversight, and many more like it, was only corrected in the 1970s. Needless to say, if you’ve had a bottle of Riesling in the last 50 years, you may have had one that was not to your liking and it could have turned you into an anti-Rieslingist for no good reason. An Australian icon In my view, Australian Riesling deserves better, after all, it owns a truly unique place in our wine industry. Firstly, Riesling is believed to be one of the first, if not the first, varietal planted when Australia was colonised. In 1791, Governor Arthur Phillip had a vineyard established in what is now the Sydney CBD, as well as three acres of vineyard on a property at Parramatta. It is thought Riesling was among these vines. John Macarthur established a vineyard with these cuttings on his ‘Elizabeth Farm’ at Camden in 1794. When these varietals were officially identified in the 1840s they included Riesling. Whatever the exact timing of Riesling coming to Australia, there is little doubt it one of our oldest varietals. Secondly, it stands out from the majority of our traditional grape varieties due to the fact that it is a German varietal, from the Rhineland to be exact, while most of our other major grape varietals, e.g., Shiraz , Chardonnay , Cabernet Sauvignon , Pinot Noir , Sauvignon Blanc , etc. are of French descent. Then there is the sense of serendipity around where Riesling excels in this country – the Clare and Eden Valleys of South Australia. These are the same regions where the displaced Lutherans of German descent came to settle, live and eventually make wine in the late 19th century. Sure, there might have been some inherited knowledge on how to grow Riesling by these new Australians, but in all honesty, the reason for Riesling’s success in these regions is due to terroir – the soils, the terrain, the prevailing weather conditions – the land itself. Now I don’t know if you are a big believer in fate, but I find this fact truly remarkable and proof that Riesling was destined to thrive here in Australia. Finally, Riesling was the varietal that led our screwcap revolution. You see, another remarkable quality of Riesling is that it is practically the only white varietal that ages gracefully. Zesty and citrussy young, it can develop in the bottle to show gorgeous honey, toast characters after a number of years (which is probably why Hunter Semillon was confused with it). As was discovered in these instances, cork is an inferior closure to the Stelvin cap and so, in 2001, the Riesling growers in the Clare Valley united as one and bottled the entire Riesling vintage under screwcap. The take home message is this - good Riesling is all about purity. It is really about preserving the pristine purity of the grape. At the same time, there are different styles. You just have to do some detective work. Get to know the style you like, get to those producers who make that style and follow them – you will be rewarded. And, after all, Riesling deserves some love, don’t you think? Click here to shop our great range of Riesling.
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