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Oregon Pinot Gris
By Gerald D. Boyd
May 8, 2012
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There was a time when the Oregon wine industry was known as a one trick pony.  To paraphrase Henry Ford’s famous comment about the color of the Model-T, “You can have any flavor of Oregon wine you want so long as it’s Pinot Noir.”  No question that Oregon had put the Pinot in Pinot Noir before California, even if some of the early Oregon winemakers were transplanted Californians, like David Lett of the Eyrie Vineyard who became known in Oregon as “Papa Pinot.”  But in today’s market you can’t survive on Pinot alone.

So, in the late 1980s, Oregon winemakers began to realize that to compete in the national wine market--and eventually the world market--they had to have a white wine to go with their signature red.  Chardonnay-mania was running rampant then across the country so Oregon wineries trotted out their Chardonnays, but until the introduction of Dijon clones, Oregon Chardonnay never really attracted the hoped for crowds.  There were also some mild attempts to make Pinot Blanc the Oregon white wine of choice, but consumers were confused about a white wine that tasted too much like Chardonnay but wasn’t Chardonnay, so, even though a few wineries hung on, Pinot Blanc mostly fizzled out.

Today, Oregon winemakers are hanging their hopes on Pinot Gris, the latest hot flavor in white wine.  Pinot Gris has had a mixed history in world winemaking before catching on.  The Alsatians were told by the European Union to stop calling their Pinot Gris “Tokay d’Alsace” because of supposed confusion with the Hungarian Tokaji wine, although Tokaji has no Pinot Gris in it.  Earlier, wineries in Northern Italy were flooding the market with a white wine they called Pinot Grigio, a sexy name that quickly attracted consumers thirsting  for a new taste experience.  Then, in the wake of Viognier’s falling star in the United States, California caught a rising star with both Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio, although the dual names for the same grape caused similar stylistic confusion among consumers that occurred with California Sauvignon Blanc and Fume Blanc, both wines made from the same grape.

Not so in Oregon, where the state law specifies that a wine must be called by its correct varietal name, thus Oregon Pinot Gris; Pinot Grigio is also now allowed.  More pressing than the wine name was some winemakers wanted to separate the style of Oregon Pinot Gris from the inevitable comparison to French Pinot Gris and Italian Pinot Grigio.  So, it was time for something new and different.  A group of eight Oregon wineries started a marketing group to promote Oregon Pinot Gris.  The present members, all making Pinot Gris or Pinot Grigio in the Williamette Valley include:  Airlie, Apolloni Cellars, Christopher Bridge, David Hill Vineyards & Winery, Oak Knoll Winery, Pudding River Wine Cellars, Terrapin Cellars, and Yamhill Valley Vineyards.

Among the points the group stresses is that the wine be known as Oregon Pinot Gris, that a connection be made to tie Oregon Pinot Gris to the concept of “Oregon Flavors,” a campaign that promotes products grown and made in Oregon and that comparisons with Italian Pinot Grigio and Alsace Pinot Gris stop.  However, agreeing on what defines the Oregon Pinot Gris style is another matter.

Jeff Herinckx, winemaker for Oak Knoll Winery, believes the key to correct Oregon Pinot Gris is getting good natural acidity.  “Oregon Pinot Gris is known for tropical fruit flavors.  A lot of winemakers in Oregon try different yeasts, striving for different flavors in their Pinot Gris.  In my opinion, regardless of the yeast variations, it’s the acid in the Pinot Gris that defines those tropical fruit flavors.”   Herinckx, who has been making wine in Oregon for 30 years, says that making Oregon Pinot Gris has a lot to do with weather.  “It’s important in Oregon to have cooler weather, so that the crop takes its time ripening.  This way, our Pinot Gris has higher acid in the wine, distinguishing it from the Pinot Gris of other areas.”

Jason Bull, winemaker for David Hill Vineyards and Winery, says it took a while for him to warm to Pinot Gris.  “I was not a big fan of Pinot Gris 10 years ago.  Now that I’ve had a chance to find my flavors and style I truly like the varietal.”  Bull does like the variations that different yeasts bring to his Pinot Gris.  “I like to use different yeasts for different blocks of Pinot Gris then blend the blocks together before bottling, to bring out the characteristics I’m looking for.  To me the classic Pinot Gris is filled with citrus and grapefruit notes.” 

Another technique used by Bull is to boost the middle palate of his Pinot Gris with a touch of residual sugar, while Elizabeth Clark, winemaker for Airlie Winery finds that fermenting nearly dry works best for her Pinot Gris.  “I think that fermenting in stainless steel and allowing the ferment to go nearly dry does the best job showing what each vineyard I work with brings to the wine as a whole.”  Susanne Carlberg, owner of Christopher Bridge Cellars in the northwestern part of the Williamette Valley says that the red volcanic Jory soils of the area impart good natural acidity and full fruit flavor to their Pinot Gris, reminiscent of the local tree fruit.

Carlberg says that most producers of Pinot Gris in Oregon farm their grapes from 10-acre or smaller blocks and that the production of Pinot Gris is still small in comparison to Pinot Noir.  “Over the past ten years, however, Pinot Gris’ popularity seems to be on the rise,” claims Carlberg.  And so, with Pinot Gris, perhaps Oregon has found its white wine companion to Pinot Noir.  My impression based on a tasting of select Pinot Gris for this column is that some of the wines tasted lack a clearly defined varietal clarity and specific style that would tie the wines to Oregon and not some other area.

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Comments?  Write me at gboyd@winereviewonline.com