Why pinot gris is the new sauvignon blanc

For a long time it wasn't cool to drink pinot gris. Tarnished with nicknames like 'Cougar Juice' by some sommeliers, the variety doesn't enjoy the best rep amongst wine's taste-makers. In fact, it's been up against it from the start in Australia.

First brought to the country by viticulturist Max Loder in the 1970s, pinot gris is a mutation of pinot noir and its clusters of berries on a single bunch can vary in colour.

Throwing pink and grey colours, it is darker than other "white" grapes. Today, some Aussie producers – such as Mooroduc Estate – are embracing this and producing coloured textural wines as a result from the non-conventional method of making a skin contact pinot gris.

Gris or grigio?

But even before thinking about the colour spectrum of the varietry, the wine has also suffered from "gris or grigio?" confusion. This isn't any wonder when the decision of what to label the wine has been a marketing toss of the coin, and not strictly a reflection of the origins of either name.

Pinot gris and pinot grigio are the same grape, but with different names. Gris is most recognised as coming from Alsace, where the grapes are picked riper to achieve a richer style, whilst grigio is its Italian name, where the grapes are picked earlier and the style is dryer and crisper.

In 2010, the AWRI developed a "Pinot G Style Spectrum", a visual scale for wine labels which could provide consumers a guidance of what style of wine was in the bottle.

A practical approach, but one that wasn't universally adopted by producers and has since fallen away.

Peninsula gris

'Pinot G' might sound like a '90s nightclub DJ, but street cred and cool is on its way thanks to some producers on the Mornington Peninsula.

Ocean Eight and Polperro recently held a benchmark tasting of the local pinot gris against other leading examples from around the world – particularly Alsace.

Advertisement

The wines looked terrific. "Here, on the Mornington Peninsula, the work and detail that is going into pinot noir is rubbing off onto pinot gris," explains Mike Aylward of Ocean Eight. "We are growing pinot gris vines alongside our rows of chardonnay and pinot noir, and cultivating the vines the same way."

The wine tasting also highlighted the variety's suitability to the aromatic and spice dishes of Asia. Which is in contrast to the general school of thought amongst sommeliers that riesling is the best accompaniment to Asian food.

Asian connection

Ned Goodwin, the first Master of Wine appointed in Japan, is consultant sommelier for first and business class to All Nippon Airways, and an importer of Australian wine into Japan, so he's ideally placed to gauge what wines work best with Japanese food.

"Riesling with South East Asian food is a fallacy," he says. "We've had it pushed down our throats that riesling goes well, but it doesn't go well at all. The higher acidity exacerbates chilly 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."

Adam D'Sylva, chef at Coda and Tonka restaurants in Melbourne, agrees, "Thailand, Vietnam and India are countries where beer is more commonly the accompaniment to food. But I've found pinot gris matches my repertoire well. Ingredients like ginger, coriander and lemongrass are basis of all my dishes. To be able to pair food with delicate wines like pinot gris – which can handle spice and aromatics – is great."

Cool cache

With the rise and rise of the Asian dining influence in Australia, there's so much potential for quality expressions of this variety, such as those from Mornington Peninsula, to establish a more of a "cool" footing in the market. If that happens, it could get gris-normous.

But could pinot gris overtake sauvignon blanc as the top selling white in Australia?

Samantha Payne, Sydney-based consultant sommelier to around ten upmarket venues across Queensland and New South Wales, says it's already happening. "A lot more people are asking for pinot gris/grigio over sauvignon blanc. Sauv blanc used to be the standard thing, but not so much anymore. It's a trend. It's definitely surpassed sauv blanc as my top selling white across the board."

However, Aylward might not want pinot gris taking off to much, because boutique producers like Ocean Eight are only ever going to make a small production. As Malcolm Gladwell pointed out, "the act of discovering what's cool is what causes cool to move on."

Whatever happens, Max Loder would be thrilled with the quality and diversity of pinot gris right now.