One’s gris is another’s grigio but at any rate, more and more Canadian made pinot is coming your way
We seem to be tasting and assessing a considerable amount of pinot gris slash grigio these days. In 2019 the WineAlign National Wine Awards of Canada bar was raised once again as increasingly the wines spoke to both matters of quantity and quality. The annual competition played host to this country’s largest gris/grigio gathering and 34 medallists prove that trends can also be realities. There are well upwards of 60,000 hectares of pinot gris/grigio planted worldwide and that number is growing, not surprising considering the varietal’s two-step, double-down rise in popularity.
The laconic story would say that when comparing pinot gris to pinot grigio the difference is mainly origin but increasingly so an inculcation of style. The endemically considered pinot grigio is traced to northeastern Italy just as pinot gris is to northeastern France. One grape, two places and ultimately each tracking an approach along one fork of the road. The simplest explanation says one is generally picked earlier and the other later, the former being fresher and crisper, the latter richer and more developed.
Call the grape what you will. Known as gris in Alsace, dry gives way more often than not to sweet, age-worthy, late-harvest styles. As grigio in Northern Italy it’s more straightforward and in Germany it’s also called grauburgunder or ruländer. In Hungary its moniker is zürkebarát. New Zealand may just be the great New World frontier for the pinot gris ideal. Or does that distinction belong to Oregon, a frontier many believe possessive of several AVAs more suitable to the gris stylistic than even chardonnay. It’s easier and less expensive to plant and maintain than chardonnay, harvests early and therefore puts cash flow reports in the green, or in this varietal case, also yellow, pink and orange. By the way, grigio and gris both mean “grey,” as noted by the pinkish-grey sheen of the ripe grape’s skin.
Where does that put the discussion concerning a homogeneity of Canadian style? Well at its simplest dissemination it means looking at a paradigm lying somewhere between Italy and Alsace. That being generally said it is simply ludicrous to imagine examples from British Columbia and Ontario (with few and far between examples from other provinces) to be looked at in one broad stroke of a brush. If you must ask and know, Ontario’s gris-grigio is generally leaner, more “mineral” and often crisper than B.C. counterparts but following that to the a letter of law would do great disservice to diversity and possibility. Get to know the producers and the greater picture will clear.
The grapes are in fact a mutation of Bourgogne’s pinot noir, are vigorous and lie somewhere is the middle of the moderate production mode. They are well adapted to and suited for cool climates with well-draining soils. Hardy, easy to grow with relatively small clusters and berries. Susceptible to Botrytis so can be a chameleon of a white wine for dry, off-dry and sweet styles but with some skin-contact also can produce pink coloured wines. Welcome to Canada.
It matters not which major appellation you look at in British Columbia you will always see pinot gris as one of its leading grape varieties. Kelowna, Penticton, Vaseaux-Oliver, Golden Mile, Black Sage-Osoyoos and Similkameen. At approximately 10 percent of the total plantings, only chardonnay is its equal and merlot greater in total acreage.
In Ontario pinot gris is the fifth most planted and harvested grape variety, trailing only chardonnay, riesling, merlot and cabernet franc. In terms of tonnage the number 3,627 from 2017 may still trail merlot by 1,600 tonnes but don’t be fooled by historical statistics. The gris-grigio juggernaut is losing no space-time ascension and continues to gain with exponential force. Ontario has defined three DVAs: Niagara Peninsula, Lake Erie North Shore (LENS) and Prince Edward County (PEC). Within the Niagara Peninsula, five general grape climatic zones are further defined by 10 sub-appellations: Creek Shores, Lincoln Lakeshore, Vinemount Ridge, Beamsville Bench, Short Hill Bench, Twenty Mile Bench, Four Mile Creek, Niagara Lakeshore, Niagara River and St David’s Bench. Pelee Island is a sub-appellation of LENS. The pinots, gris and grigio are everywhere.
Why plant more pinot gris in Ontario? It’s more than simply a matter of market trends. If we look at cultivar by vineyard risk assessment, the professionals who study such things will tell us that a grape like merlot is less winter hardy and requires more heat and frost free days to reach acceptable maturity than both chardonnay and pinot gris. Do the math.
We also tasted some terrific pinot gris during our week-long stay in Prince Edward County, including the following six, all different, singular and stand alone.
Closson Chase K.J. Watson Vineyard Pinot Gris 2018, VQA Four Mile Creek, Niagara On The Lake, Ontario ($22.95, WineAlign)
Ask winemaker Keith Tyers what he thinks about pinot gris. “It can age,” he says, “if it’s made like gris.” The skin-contact affected hue is our first clue (if appearances mean anything) and the tannin from the vineyard is the second. In between these bookended ideals are dry extract, round to zaftig fruit texture and a chalkier consistency from out of this most curious vintage. The natural acidity and full fruit by way of low yields makes for a rock ‘n roll gris of inner mind and vision. Lush to a degree, full of metal motion, forward thinking and fine. Leaves a trail of mineral propulsion behind, a field of gris debris, to a degree, in hubris and in the end, so County and so Closson Chase. Drink 2019-2023. Tasted June 2019
Harwood Estate Pinot Gris 2017, VQA Prince Edward County, Ontario ($18.00, WineAlign)
Another light, airy, delicate and inching ever so close to the ethereal for pinot gris from Harwood with maturing vines now bringing some pear and peach flesh along for good measure. Still a bit obsequious and non-descript though the under the skin mineral Hillier accent is getting stronger and clearer in the context of an overall message. Drink 2019-2020. Tasted June 2019
Stanners Pinot Gris Cuivré 2017, VQA Prince Edward County, Ontario ($28.00, WineAlign)
All County fruit and Colin Stanners chooses a process of no de-stemming, no crushing and leaving the gris on its skins for three days. A highly textural wine is the result and one that in one respect creeps towards Rosé. There’s a salve within that mouthfeel and it’s one that feels so cool and smooth. Minty to be sure, if mineral were mentha, herbal, chilly and unconventional. The ebb and flow of its sensations are like the tide on the shore carrying the riches of the vineyard, in and out. Always appreciate the cadence of this wine and its confidence, but also its stoicism and its humility. Drink 2019-2022. Tasted June 2019
Hubbs Creek Pinot Gris Wild Ferment 2018, VQA Prince Edward County, Ontario ($24.95, WineAlign)
Now we know how, why and where we can find great love for pinot gris because a wine like this from John Battista Calvieri allows us to anticipate the very thing that makes us salivate. Sapidity. Aromatically speaking we are prepped by the early scents of flowers opening, followed by the sweet succulence of textural meanderings. Then balance is afforded and brings that sapidity straight to the salty surface. A very precise pinot gris will do this and texture is a crisp bite taken from a just picked piece of orchard fruit. Long, honest and understandable. Drink 2019-2021. Tasted June 2019
Lighthall Pinot Gris 2018, VQA Prince Edward County, Ontario ($25.00, WineAlign)
The fruit comes direct from the South Bay vineyard and one third finds its way into barrel. No shocker that this is both richly textured and developed pinot gris is an old-school mimic, like enriching valley fruit grown in the shadows of a Vosges Mountains canyon. It’s quite an abstraction this all-in mouthfeel, tripping the tongue, light show fantastic County gris. Creamy apples and pears meet expressive, raging, sapid and fortified acidities. Go big or go home I’d say. Drink 2019-2022. Tasted June 2019
The Grange Of Prince Edward Estate Pinot Gris 2017, VQA Prince Edward County, Ontario ($24.95, WineAlign)
This right here is the newest epiphany from 2018 and again for 2019. What that means is Maggie and Caroline Granger have struck gold (or copper, platinum and orange), depending on your skin-contact white viewpoint. That it happens to be an orange wine is completely inconsequential to the math, science or for that matter, the art. Mature and gifted acidity supports the fruit-tannin compendium in pinot gris that knows where it’s from and who it purports to be. That is to say it’s naturally managed and acts that way. In fact it smells and tastes just like its kin pinot noir and so the adage of white wine made like a red fits this to a “P.” E-P-phany, as in extended play, skin-contact style. Drink 2019-2022. Tasted December 2018, February and June 2019
There were 34 medals awarded in this category, two Gold, 12 Silver and 20 Bronze. British Columbia (gris) and Ontario (grigio) split the Golds while B.C. gris took home all the Silvers, not to mention 24 of the total 32 medals. Six medals were grigio in origin/style and only one of those was from B.C. Origins aside the category results at the 2019 Nationals prove that this didactic grape is showing qualities not seen before which tells us one main thing. Farmers and producers are putting time and money into its production, lowering yields and treating it with varietal respect. The pale Vin Gris and Vendanges Tardives examples persist and sometimes excite but at the top of the judges’ heap were dry examples that expressed richness and ultimately flavour.
Congratulations to all the winners and to those producers for offering high quality, well-proportioned and balanced pinot gris/grigio. The consumers are thankful as are we, the judges. Your attention to detail and dedication to crafting solid varietal wines will be repaid.
Good to go!