Perfect Pinot Gris

Posted by David on 31st Aug 2017

Ned Goodwin became Japan’s first MW in 2010. Born in London, raised in Australia and educated in Tokyo and Paris, his CV is simply extraordinary. But it was a quote by him earlier this year that caught my attention. It was simple but astute.

"Riesling with South East Asian food is a fallacy. We've had it pushed down our throats that Riesling goes well, but it doesn't go well at all. The higher acidity exacerbates chilli heat and pungency. Pinot Gris conversely, is fairly low acid; is fairly neutral; it has a textural complexity about it, but it just doesn't get in the way… Wine augmenting the food dish is very much a western notion. The Japanese often talk about wines that don't get in the way of food. That's what Pinot Gris does very well.”

Now I'm quite partial to a Riesling with my pad thai but hello Pinot Gris!

Pinot Gris in Australia goes right back toJames Busby,an amazing fellow who’s generally regarded as the father of Australian viticulture. Busby wrote several significant viticultural books, including the snappily titled“A Manual of Plain Direction for Planting and Cultivating Vineyards and for Making Wine in New South Wales” (1830). But his most significant contribution was a trip back to the major wine regions of France and Spain in 1831, during which he collected 543 vine varieties. 362 of these made it back to NSW, one of which was Pineau Gris which Busby obtained from the Cote-d’Or in Burgundy.

Busby later moved to NZ and in 1835, as you do, drafted the Declaration of Independence of New Zealand, signing it with 35 chiefs from the northern part of New Zealand. He went on to co-author the Treaty of Waitangi that was signed on the front lawn of his house over the 5th and 6th February 1840. But I digress…

So what’s the difference betweenPinot GrisandPinot Grigio? They’re actually thesame grape variety,but the wine is made in adifferent style.InItaly, the variety is known as Pinot Grigio and the best examples are found right up in the northeast in the regions of Friuli and Alto Adige. Here it’s picked early to produce a lighter-bodied, crisp, fresh white. InFrancewhere the variety originated, it’s known as Pinot Gris, with the vast majority of plantings found inAlsace.Here you’ll find Pinot Gris used as both a single varietal and in blends to produce mainly dry whites. These whites are slightly rounder and more textured and spicy. They also have the ability to age. In Australia, producers label their wines Pinot Gris or Pinot Grigio, depending on which of these two styles they’ve made.

Pinot Gris remained virtually unknown in Australia until the early 1990s when it was brought to prominence by Kathleen Quealy of T’Gallant in the Mornington Peninsula. It was a tough sell back then - nobody knew the variety. In Australia in 2003 there was less than 500ha planted but by 2015 there was over 3,700ha.

“In Australia, it’s one of the fastest growing retail categories, and whilst it is nowhere near the heady heights of Sauvignon Blanc, it is growing rapidly… Wine drinkers simply can’t get enough.”Wine Australia, Feb 2017.

Not only has Pinot Gris increased in popularity, it’s also undergone significant change in style and quality in Australia.

“Things have come a long way. There are now many delicious Pinot Grisand quite a few excellent Grigiosin Australia. The best Gris have a touch of barrel fermentation (a la Chardonnay) and lees work adding character; they're also more likely made from ripe grapes and low yields, which gives more concentration.Huon Hooke 2016, SMH.

“Pinot Gris - is the widely disseminated, fashionable vine variety that can produce soft, gently perfumed wines with more substance and colour than most whites,”Oxford Companion.

Here are a few excellent Pinot Gris that I like. A couple from the home of the variety, Alsace, one from Australia and one from New Zealand.

Domaine Jean-Luc Mader

Jean-Luc Mader is a small, family run domaine based in the village ofHunawihr, which unsurprisingly has been classified as one of the “Most beautiful Villages in France.” Sitting on the famous Alsace ‘Route des Vins,’ the village was founded in the 7th century by one of the country’s first nobles, Lord Hunon and named after his wife Hune. Despite her nobility and wealth, Hune put herself at the service of the village’s poor - lodging them, feeding them and even washing their clothes in the town’s fountain. She was canonised in 1520 and is now known as the saint of washerwomen.

The village of Hunawihr in Alsace, surrounded by vineyards.

While the Mader estate is based in Hunawihr, it owns a total of 9 hectares of vineyards, spread over four districts: Hunawihr, Ribeauville, Riquewihr and Kientzheim. Of particular note are prized holdings of vines in the famous Rosacker Grand Cru vineyard as well as the Schlossberg Grand Cru vineyard. The estate produces several wines including a Pinot Noir, Riesling, Muscat, Pinot Gris and Gewurtztraminer.

Jean-Luc and his wife Anne, took over the estate in 1981 but since 2005 their son Jerome, having gained a diploma in Oenology, has been at the helm. Jerome has converted all their vineyards to bio-dynamic viticulture - so no chemicals and all vineyard work is carried out by hand.

Rated top 10 Best Value Producers in Alsace –Tom Stevenson’s Global Report.
“Although Mader’s wines from Grand Cru Rosacker steal the show, his entire line-up is recommended.”Jacqueline Friedrich - The Wines of France.

Domaine Jean-Luc Mader Pinot Gris 2014

This entry level wine has everything there is to like about Alsatian Pinot Gris. On the nose you’ll find juicy ripe pineapple, lemon and honey aromas. On the palate, more complex notes of lemon, musk, honeysuckle and aromatic honey meld with clean and well-balanced acidity. Much softer than a riesling, but much more generous and plump in the mouth. Delicious drinking.

I can offer it for $28 a bottle. Click here to order

Domaine Jean-Luc Mader Pinot Gris Grand Cru Schlossberg Dry Gris 2014

In 1962 Alsace attained appellation status and in 1975 implemented a Grand Cru system, identifying the best sites. It's hard to believe that before this there was no vineyard hierarchy (like the rest of France) there was simply Alsace. The Alsace Grand Cru system undergoes regular revision and there are currently 51 Grand Crus, accounting for about 4% of production.

The first site to be granted Grand Cru status in 1975 was the 80haSchlossberg vineyard,which had been producing excellent wines since the 15th century. The granite-rich vineyard sits on a south-facing slope that’s so steep terracing is required. About 75% of the plantings are Riesling, the remainder is Pinot Gris, Gewurtz and a tiny amount of Muscat. It’s the largest Grand Cru site in Alsace.

The fruit for this wine is harvested by hand from the highest area of the Schlossberg vineyard, where the yields are miniscule. The wine is whole bunch pressed and fermented using natural yeast. One third is aged in barrel, the rest in tank for 9 months, on lees.

“Opens very clear and fresh, with some oaky flavours and a nice fresh and fruity purity. Very elegant on the palate, with a lot of salt and lingering minerality, this is a remarkably fresh and finessed Pinot Gris with a stimulatingly salty finish. Really fine tannins here. Drink Date 2019 - 2031.”91 points, Stephen Reinhardt, The Wine Advocate, June 2017 (a great score for this style).

This is an outstanding example of Alsatian Pinot Gris. Full, fruity and fresh but as dry as Alsatian Gris gets. Apricot and spice notes give intensity and energy. Good acid and earthy notes on the finish show purity and finesse. A nice viscosity that coats your mouth but no sweetness or oiliness here. Only around 60-70 cases are made, so make sure you grab a bottle. Or two.

I can offer it for $47 a bottle. Click here to order

Ravensworth Pinot Gris 2017

My brother-in-law in Canberra has been onto this fantastic producer for ages. I should have listened to him earlier! 

Ravensworth was established in 2001 by the Martin family. It’s a tiny affair situated about 30 minutes north of Canberra inMurrumbatemen, just around the corner from Clonakilla and Eden Road wineries. It’s a chilly area, well-suited to high quality, cool climate wines. The winemaker at Ravensworth isBryan Martin, whos also right-hand-man and assistant winemaker at the iconicClonakillawinery. Bryan’s been at Clonikilla since 2004, but still manages to find time to make his own wonderful wines, which he does in the Clonakilla winery as well.

“Not surprisingly, the Ravensworth style has a lot in common with Clonakilla - the wines are aromatic, light-to-medium-bodied, soft of tannin and modest in alcohol. They are beautiful, seductive wines that emphasise fragrance and texture,”Huon Hooke.I think the Ravensworth wines tend to be a little softer, more youthful and approachable than Clonakilla.

Bryan has wine science and viticulture degrees from Charles Sturt Uni and is also an ex-chef (hence the cool labels). Food and cooking still play major roles in his life, as he explains:“I cook more than most people, and I’m always trying different things, new techniques. It’s the same with winemaking. Drinkability is uppermost.”

Ravensworth has received many accolades over the years, including top wine at the Canberra and Region Wine Show, champion wine at the NSW Small Winemakers Show and top wine at the 2012 Canberra International Riesling Challenge.Hallidayrates the winery5 starsand Bryan wasnominatedforGourmet Traveller Winemaker of the Year in 2013.

Ravensworth winemaker, Bryan Martin.

The fruit was handpicked, destemmed and partially fermented on skins for 3-5 days. Pinot Gris skins are a grey/reddish colour, and contact with them is what gives this wine it’s slight rosé colour as well as texture. This is not a common technique, but I had a chat with Bryan and he reckons the short skin contact is the key to this wine, giving it structure, flavour and tannins to cut through any Pinot Gris ‘oiliness’. The skins were gently pressed and the juice was returned to several vessels including old oak, stainless and even a ceramic egg. There were no additions, no ezymes, no fining and no filtration. The wine was bottled in June with low levels of sulphur.

Ravensworth wines sell out quickly, but this Pinot Gris was released just a few weeks ago and I managed to bag a few cases. I really like it, but I can’t describe it better than Mike Bennie…

“Blushing gris is nothing new, but it is great to see a small coterie of fine wine producers enjoying how judicious skin contact brings about colour, texture, aroma, personality to the not-really-white variety of pinot gris (grigio). Bryan Martin has his head around how to get best from skins in his wine. This is stellar drinking. Hey, hey rosé! Sort of. Actually has a rosé kind of intro in faint strawberry and rose petal scents, but there’s plenty of gris nashi pear and lemon blossom for drinkers to anchor into. The palate is richly flavoured but medium weight, a touch of slipperiness but then the chalky pucker kicks in and stretches to mouthwatering. A touch of pepperiness to spice, some pear-apricot dimension fruitiness, a squirt of Campari to finish. Balanced, even, complex, delicious stuff. Hell yes.”94 points, Mike Bennie, The Wine Front, July 2017.

Only small quantities are produced so get in before it sells out.

I can offer it for $29 a bottle. Click here to order

Dry River Pinot Gris 2015

Dry River Wineswas established in 1979 by Neil McCallum, a research scientist with a doctorate in organic chemistry from Oxford University. McCallum worked tirelessly and passionately to create a true New Zealand icon, acknowledged by wine critics for outstanding quality. In 2003 McCallum sold the winery to Julian Robertson and Reg Oliver, but stayed on as Chief Winemaker until his retirement in 2011. It remains one of, if not the best producer in the country.

Situated inMartinborough, about 65 km east of Wellington, the Dry River mystique has been compounded by the scarcity factor. The vineyard is a mere 30 acres and from this several wines are made, including a Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling, Syrah and Pinot Gris. The result is that thequantities of each wine produced are miniscule,with most going to a loyal domestic mailing list (there's even a list to get on the list). Just getting hold of a bottle is cause for celebration.

I can still remember the first Dry River wine I tasted in the early 90s. A friend of a friend managed to bring back a Pinot Gris from NZ. It was eagerly consumed by a small gathering of us and was a seminal wine moment for me, opening my eyes to the possibilities of of new world Pinot Gris. I still get excited when someone mentions this producer.

The2015 Dry River Pinot Grisis a complex wine full of peach, pear, delicate spice and subtle minerality. It's clean and fresh, yet exotic and textured, with beautiful weight and viscosity that feels lovely in the mouth. This is a terrific wine that I highly recommend.

"Medium Pinot Gris with pear, peach, spicy stewed apple, vanilla and mandarin zest flavours. Fleshy, seamless and appealing wine with impressive concentration and length. One of the country’s best and most distinctive examples of Pinot Gris.”96/100 Bob Campbell MW(New Zealand’s most acclaimed wine critic).

"This has a firmly concentrated nose with rich, deep, ripe yellow stonefruit aromas softly integrated with exotic yellow florals, honeysuckle and wild honey. Very delicate talc botrytis, apricot kernel, and nutty nuances emerge, providing complex detail, supporting the beautiful, ripe fruit clarity. The fruit is rich and along with the sweetness forms an unctuous core underlined by very fine phenolic textures. Soft acidity enhances the richness and near opulence. The palate carries to a rich amalgam of ripe fruit and subtle botrytis flavours that are long and lingering. A classic Dry River expression that will match Asian and Middle Eastern cuisine. Fruit from the ‘Dry River Estate’, vines 8 y.o. and 35 y.o., with fruit from ‘Craighall Block 5’, vines approx. 25 y.o., 3 picks of fruit, the last with a little shrivel and botrytis. Fermented in stainless-steel to 13.5% alc. and 20 g/L RS, the wine aged 6 months on lees.”
19.0+/20 Raymond Chan,NZ wine critic (tends to score a little high, but his notes are always comprehensive).

These wines are scarce.

I can offering it for $80 per bottle (limited). Click here to order