Pinot grigio, pinot gris — call it what you like, it’s still grey

Turn your back on a pinot noir vine and it’s likely to mutate. No kidding. Not that it has much chance to these days because, like all grape vines, they’re bred pure from cuttings — avoiding natural reproduction and the mutation that does with it.

Thankfully French monks maintained pinot’s purity through the Middle Ages. And that’s why we still enjoy beautiful reds from thoroughbred descendents of Burgundy’s ancient pinot noir vines.
But somewhere in Burgundy all those centuries ago, brother someone-or-other let his guard down – turned his back probably – long enough for the vines to do as unwatched vines do. And a pale pinot mutant emerged.

Though the Burgundians turned up their noses, the mutant soon reached Switzerland, then spread through central Europe, notably Germany and Hungary — where it’s known as rulander and szurkebarat respectively – and, later northern Italy.

It wasn’t red like pinot noir, but grey, sometimes with a pinkish or even purple hue. And so it came to be called grey pinot. Perhaps because that’s as drab sounding as, say, sandy creek – we use the posher sounding (to English speakers) French and Italian names, pinot gris and pinot grigio.

You’ll find stacks of Aussie wines with these names today. But the sad truth is that for far too many of them grey pinot, or perhaps bleak pinot — or maybe even drab pinot — might be more suitable.

It’s not that it’s a rotten variety. It’s not. Really. But it’s fussy about where it’s grown. Get the right place – somewhere cool like Canberra or Mornington or Tasmania (or Alsace or Oregon or Central Otago) and pinot gris can make attractive, distinctive wines.

Finding these, though is somewhat more difficult than finding good shiraz, cabernet, riesling or chardonnay. In fact, it’s even more difficult than finding good pinot noir. So, in that regard the mutant appears to be a chip off the old block.

Of twenty lined up on the tasting benches at Chateau Shanahan this week – nineteen Aussie wines and one Kiwi — only eight appealed. Even given the under representation of the Kiwis and the absence of several Aussie stars, the disappointment reflects past experience with this variety.

Amongst the wines that failed to impress, the biggest shortcoming appeared to be a lack of clear, vibrant, varietal character. So that’s probably a failure of viticulture. For whatever reason – clonal or site selection, vine management, crop yield etc – the grapes simply lacked flavour.

Sprinkled amongst this tendency to blandness was the odd winemaking fault – two counts of oxidation and one of pongy hydrogen sulphide – and winemaker attempts to compensate for poor fruit.

This approach seldom works as winemaking artifice is designed to compliment fruit character, not become a substitute.

Based on the twelve ordinary wines, it’d be tempting to say that brother what’s-his-name was right to ignore pinot gris. But the eight good wines (as well of many other lovely previously tasted examples from New Zealand, Alsace, Oregon and Australia) say emphatically that pinot gris ought to be pursued by winemakers and drinkers.

The three wines reviewed in ‘Top Drops’ are outstanding examples of what can be achieved. And four others just missed out on this top ranking. They were: Ninth Island Tasmania Pinot Grigio 2005, 10 Minutes X Tractor Mornington Peninsula Pinot Gris 2005, Redbank Sunday Morning King Valley Pinot Gris 2005 and Miceli Iolanda Mornington Peninsula Pinot Grigio 2004.

Bay of Fires Tasmania Pinot Gris 2005 $27
Bay of Fires is the premium Tasmanian brand of The Hardy Wine Company, made in Tasmania by Fran Austin. Fran’s pinot gris – sourced from the Coal River Valley near Hobart and from the Tamar River, north of Launceston – possesses some of the underlying textural richness experienced in Alsacian pinot gris. This boosts the body of what is otherwise a particularly fragrant and exceptionally lively and delicate pinot gris. My only quibble is that it’s pretty alcoholic at 14 per cent and this gives the wine a slightly distracting heat and astringency in the finish.

Majura Vineyards Canberra District Pinot Gris 2005 $16
Local vigneron, Frank van de Loo says on his back label, “we pick our pinot gris when the berries have taken on a deep purple-pink colour as they develop the rich, musky flavours that make the variety so appealing”. That’s an honest summary of one of the biggest, juiciest wines in this week’s pinot gris tasting. But it’s not just big and ripe. There’s a wonderful intensity to what I saw as pear-like fruit flavour, as well as vibrancy and freshness. As in the Bay of Fires wine above, alcohol weighs a little too heavily on the finish.

Pewsey Vale Eden Valley Pinot Gris 2005 $22.95
Pewsey Vale is both a brand and a vineyard within the S. Smith & Son group (aka Yalumba) controlled by Robert Hill-Smith. The vineyard, located on the elevated slopes of the Eden Valley — a short drive from the Barossa winery — produces all of the fruit for the brand, including what was clearly outstanding fruit for this wine, my favourite of this week’s line up. Made by Louisa Rose, it delivers the variety’s silky richness without becoming fat or coarse. It has a lively acidity that seems to carry the fresh fruit flavour and, at the same time, provide a fine, firm backbone.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2006 & 2007