Is it pear you smell? Not quite. Apple? Yes -- and no. Does it smell sweet? Maybe, but only the way freshly baked bread does, which is almost savory. Its flavors can be wonderfully full and rich, but they're racy too. Just when you're ready to luxuriate in the ample folds of its texture, the wine's bracing acidity brings the experience to a close with the briefest of curtsies.
Chardonnays are easy to read. But Pinot Gris is, well, gris. Rather than get flustered, it's best just to linger in the gray area, and give in to what you don't know.
To really experience the range and the beauty of Pinot Gris in this country you must turn to Oregon, principally the Willamette Valley. Willamette Valley Gris has a unique character, borne of a cool climate range that instills a nervy edge to even the richest bottlings. Both its popularity and its production have increased in the last five years to the point where there's enough to go around, and it's priced for everyday enjoyment: You'd be hard pressed to spend more than $20 on a bottle.
There's no better time to try out Oregon Gris than right now, because of the marvelous 2006 vintage. It was a fairly warm but exceedingly dry vintage across the state, and most crucially, there was no appreciable rain during harvest. As a result, growers could really dial in on the ideal flavors. The end result is the kind of across-the-board quality that the valley doesn't always enjoy -- and the Pinot Gris in particular seems to express in spades that wonderful yin and yang, rich and racy between-ness that makes the wines so infuriating and rewarding.
Gris is French for gray, as Grigio is Italian for the same -- it's the same grape, no matter how it's spelled. But Gris doesn't just capture a French inflection, it connotes a richer, fruitier style of wine than its Italian counterparts, one that has its roots in Alsace. Oregon Gris has more in common with Alsace than Italy -- and yet unquestionably it has a range all its own.
Pinot Gris is the best known of the genealogical cousins of Pinot Noir and appears to have originated in Burgundy (Pinot Blanc is another), where the occasional stray Gris vine still can be found among the rows of red grapes. "They're more than cousins," says Adam Godfrey Campbell of Elk Cove Vineyards in Gaston, Ore. "They're almost identical; until they start changing color, you can't really tell the difference."
When ready for harvest, Gris' color strays toward the red in a haunting array of colors that isn't really red at all -- rust, purplish gray, bronze, copper and russet are common descriptors. The aromatics can be haunting as well, falling between pear and apple, with notes of white peach in some. However, what makes Gris distinct from your typical zippy, narrow-bandwidth Pinot Grigio is how it tastes and feels in the mouth, its full, broad mid-palate that's nearly always lacking in Italian versions. That breadth is practically an Oregon calling card.
Pinot Gris has been grown in Oregon as long as Pinot Noir. In fact, "Papa Pinot" David Lett, founder of Oregon's first winery, the Eyrie, planted a tiny amount alongside his first plantings of Pinot Noir more than 40 years ago.
Dick Ponzi believes he was the second to plant it, in the late '70s -- he released his first vintage in 1981. The problem was that no one had ever really heard of it. "Every time we hit the market," Ponzi says, "we'd be met with a lot of blank stares." Eventually, Ponzi, Lett and a third early Gris pioneer, David Adelsheim, took annual sales trips to important markets to spread the word. "It was a real showtime," Ponzi says, "but it usually bruised us up a bit. Just explaining what it was took a bit of doing."
Nearly everyone who tasted the wines was hugely impressed, but with only 4,000 cases total, it was far too little to inspire a groundswell of support. Ponzi usually ran out of wine within a few months of the release; supply was so thinly spread that the best they could hope for was a cult following. It took a wholesale commitment to the grape by one winery, King Estate, to vault Oregon Pinot Gris into the national consciousness.
King Estate was founded in the early '90s by Ed King Jr. and his son, Ed King III. The organic estate is in the southernmost end of the Willamette Valley near Eugene, Ore., more than 100 miles from the center of the wine-growing action in Dundee and McMinnville. So its early efforts were somewhat off the radar. But from its first vintage in 1992, Ed III realized Pinot Gris was worth committing to. "We noticed immediately that this was a pony that wanted to run," he says. "It was such a good wine early on -- we knew people would like it if we could put it in front of them."
Spreading the word
They quickly developed a business plan to launch their Signature Pinot Gris on a national scale, determining that a production of about 40,000 cases would give them a sufficient distribution. Their production is now about three times that number. "Escape velocity" is how King refers to it, an apt image, as the family business before wine was in aviation and aerospace electronics.
It's not an exaggeration to say that without King Estate's entry into the market, there would have been no market. "They brought to the market what the rest of us couldn't supply," says Dick Ponzi's daughter Luisa, who makes the wines at the family winery. "Suddenly it was so much easier to spread the word."
King Estate offers a number of different Gris bottlings, including a 100% organic estate bottling called Domaine and a dessert wine called Vin Glacé. But its entry-level Signature tier has amounted to a classic, iconic style for the region, one maintained by winemaker Bill Kremer since 1995. Early in his tenure Kremer experimented with various manipulations such as oak aging and malolactic fermentation, which gave a richer texture -- but he realized that these interventions took away more than they contributed. "If you start overhandling it," he says, "you lose fruit expression. Now we mostly get out of its way."
Kremer does allow the wine some extended contact with yeast solids, stirred weekly, which builds up the middle-palate and can contribute a savory, salty, almost umami (the so-called fifth flavor) character in some wines. "It gives us the mouth-feel development which we like," he says, "and there's somewhat of a toasty character." Many producers have experimented with oak, but most prefer the crisp, bright textures that come from fermentation in stainless-steel tanks. But there are some interesting variations. The wines of Ponzi and King Estate, for example, are among the leanest and raciest of the bunch. But some wines, such as those of Elk Cove, WillaKenzie Estate and Chehalem Winery, have a bit more flesh on their bones, a more full-bodied texture to go along with a hint of residual sugar, deftly counterbalanced by bright acidity.
There's some debate as to how well Gris can age. It's best to uncork them in their youth. And with a vintage like the 2006, that is a very safe bet indeed, even if you run the risk of being pleasantly lost in the glass for the evening.