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Enjoy endless summer with a lush, silky white

New World pinot gris is heavy enough for winter’s heartier fare, but light enough for warm weather favorites. Jon Bonné selects eight top choices.
The always flavorful world of pinot gris.
The always flavorful world of pinot gris.Jon Bonne /

What a mixed blessing to be a summer wine. Sure, you’re fun and vivacious; the life of the party. Almost everybody likes you. And yet there are whispers that perhaps you’re kind of ... simple. Silly. No one could ever take you seriously.

Wouldn’t it be great if we had a wine that matched the carefree whims of summer, but had enough gravitas for the rest of the year?

Enter pinot gris.

You’ve almost surely had an encounter with pinot gris, though you may know it under a different name and a different personality: pinot grigio. They are indeed the same grape, but for the most part are two completely different animals. If pinot grigio is usually peppy and light, with a clean, straightforward demeanor, good pinot gris is lush and perfumed, made to evolve with age and marked, hopefully, by just the slightest touch of sweetness. When you find a wine rich with the smell of perfumed tree fruit, matched on your tongue by a bright, cutting profile and a long, silky ending, you’ve stumbled upon classic pinot gris.

Perhaps pinot gris’ greatest virtue is its nearly endless versatility. Good ones can taste rich and slightly viscous, enough to function as a cold-weather wine, yet they also have a rigid backbone of acidity that allies itself with food. The combination makes it hardy enough to handle not only fish or cheese, but also spicy ethnic foods and lighter meats like pork. That the French region of Alsace is a land of both pinot gris (where it has until recently gone under the name “tokay”) and infinite variations on the wonders of pork can hardly be a coincidence. Harry Peterson-Nedry, founder and winemaker at the Chehalem winery in Newberg, Ore., even recalls matching the wine with beef.

“I personally think that pinot gris is close to the universal food wine,” he says. (Though we didn’t include it in the tasting, Chehalem’s pinot gris is consistently excellent.)

No offense to drinkers of Italian pinot grigio — who are legion, and have made it one of the best-selling imported white wines in the United States — but most pinot grigios are just not that good. It’s a shame, because a handful of producers in the northern Italian regions of Alto Adige and Friuli craft pinot grigio with character (not unlike what you'll find in good pinot gris). But a frightening amount of what’s on the market are mass-produced thirst quenchers whose only real distinction is their brand strength. 

Pinot gris shares almost none of this history. While some wines use the same grapes but end up with vastly different results, it’s hard to pin down the exact differences in winemaking that result in such different wines. Both gris and grigio are often made in stainless steel tanks, though neutral oak barrels or casks are occasionally used for some of the higher-end stuff. The best theory going is that the fruit yield in the vineyards accounts for much of the difference. Good pinot gris requires low yields — far less fruit is harvested per vine in order to get a more intense fruit presence. And it accomplishes that without becoming too big or unwieldy. (Usually. We found too many wines with alcohol levels above 14 percent, which is the sign of a pinot gris that’s too heavy.)

What's in a name
Quality or no, pinot gris has little of the name recognition of its Italian cousin, which is why many marketing-minded West Coast wineries have slapped a “grigio” suffix on their wines and pumped them out the door as a domestic facsimile for the European stuff. Such is the level of confusion that if you buy an American pinot grigio, there’s no telling what you’ll get. In the case of our tasting, what we mostly got was overoaked, underinteresting wine. And yet grigio dominates the day, to the point that gris-loving sommeliers are constantly at wit’s end trying to explain the difference to grigio-loving diners.

“That's my fight over here every day,” says Stephane Colling, wine director of The Modern in New York, whose list features more nearly a dozen pinot gris selections from Alsace.

One place in the New World that has bucked the grigio trend is Oregon. That state’s pinot gris is certainly its own creature, but it offers a strong nod toward the traditions of Alsace — these are wines that have a silky density, with fresh fruit and clean lines. (That Oregon is a grigio-free zone isn’t entirely coincidence; state regulations have for some three decades required vintners to use “gris” on their labels.)

Oregon doesn’t have a lock on this translation of tradition. You can find a number of Californians following in the same mold, and lately it has become possible to find quality pinot gris from New Zealand. Most of the few New Zealand wines we tasted have a way to go, but the potential and adherence to a non-grigio tradition are there, and encouraging. For that matter, pinot gris has a proud following throughout the Old World. You can find it in Germany and Austria (where’s it’s called grauburgunder or ruländer), Romania, Hungary and even Luxembourg, whose Mosel Valley vineyards produce some of the best pinot gris I’ve ever tasted.

Quality varies widely among New World pinot gris. More than a few have succumbed to the temptations of oak aging. The scents of oak don’t agree with pinot gris, and overwhelm its subtle, somewhat mysterious aromas. (Is it apple? Honeyed pear? Peach? Some weird hybrid?) 

But plenty of excellent ones can be found, especially from Oregon, and they have the advantage of being both good quality and relatively inexpensive. Pinot gris is one of those grapes that has avoided the chardonnay frenzy of higher prices; all the better to enjoy its relative lack of trendiness.

A wine fresh enough for summer, serious enough for winter, a perfect match for food and affordable to boot? That’s a tall order, but pinot gris accomplishes it in a single sip.

We tasted nearly 30 pinot gris from Oregon, California, Washington and New Zealand, along with a few from Alsace for reference. Oregon held its own, but we had contenders from all corners. Here are eight that show beautiful fruit and bright lines.

Van Duzer 2005 estate pinot gris Willamette Valley ($17): From one of Oregon’s rising stars, this is pretty and dynamic, with slightly opulent aromas — acacia and orange blossom. It’s a wine with stuffing, pillow-soft on the tongue but with a precise definition and a juicy, clean finish.

O’Reilly’s 2005 pinot gris Oregon ($15): Spot on example of Oregon’s style. Focused and just a bit sweet, with warm apple, cinnamon and a bit of spice at the end. Oregon’s David O'Reilly makes consistently good wine, and this is still more proof.

Morgan 2005 pinot gris Santa Lucia Highlands Franscioni Vineyard ($18): From one of the most dynamic winegrowing areas of California’s Monterey. Leathery white fruit on the nose. A bit drier than some, with a crisp ending and a luscious nuttiness at its core. Holds on to your palate at the end with a compelling firmness.

Okanogan Estate & Vineyards 2004 pinot grigio Blue Lake Vineyard ($13): From a winery in Washington’s Okanogan Valley, near the Canadian border. Slightly funky nose, but then there's clear apple, melon and lemon, with a delicate clay-line mineral underpinning. Finishes clean and pretty, and we’ll forgive its “grigio” designation, which it hardly resembles.

Foris 2005 pinot gris Rogue Valley ($14): Another one with curious origins, this time from southern Oregon’s Rogue Valley, almost in California. Slightly overripe apple and apricot, but it's tight and tart, with a gripping, stoic minerality on the end. A bit big (13.9 percent alcohol), but holds its own.

Elk Cove 2005 pinot gris Willamette Valley ($17): Teeming with ripe fruit and a slight low-tide scent. There’s a faint sweetness that keeps growing into a zingy finish. Balanced and pleasing, though ends a touch on the sweet side.

Amisfield 2005 pinot gris Central Otago (Pasternak Wine Imports, $20): From New Zealand’s South Island, this can be a bit overbearing at times, but with strong blossom notes and pretty tree fruit. The flavors get more focused as you drink, and it finishes with an enduring firmness. On the dry side, with a lot of verve and versatility.

Benton-Lane 2005 pinot gris Willamette Valley ($16): A vibrant, slightly buttery nature, with scents of Meyer lemon, apple, pear and almond. Perfumed, with a juicy, balanced finish.