When you think of the Willamette Valley, you probably think first of pinot noir. Maybe you will think of chardonnay, but will you think of pinot gris? Start thinking. This is one of the most underrated wines of the West Coast.
While California is known for a lot of different grape varieties, Oregon’s Willamette Valley is known for only a few. Its cooler climate doesn’t allow for long ripening periods that, say, zinfandel requires. However, its slow ripening season with a burst of heat at the end is ideal for pinot gris. It is a grape variety you won’t find in the warmer California region.
Pinot gris is actually a descendant of pinot noir and It is known as pinot grigio in Italy and pinot blanc in other parts of the world. They’re all the same grape variety, but soils and climates give them a different spin. In the Willamette Valley, that spin includes pears, apple and sometimes melon flavors. If the grapes are harvested early, the wine is lighter. Picked later, however, the wine can be richer and even a tad sweet.
David Lett of Eyrie introduced pinot gris to the valley in 1965 and it was slow to take hold. But today there is more pinot gris harvested in Willamette Valley than chardonnay. It has earned the title of Willamette Valley’s premier white wine.
King Estate Winery is one of the region’s leaders in making pinot gris. Winemaker Brent Stone believes the grape variety can eventually earn the same recognition for quality as chardonnay. He likes making pinot gris because it requires a minimalist approach: no oak aging or malolatic fermentation. This allows for a more pure expression of fruit character.
“I think it already has (achieved recognition) in many winemaking circles and will continue to gain recognition as regions such as Oregon become more widely distributed,” he said in an email. His winery in the Willamette Valley produces three outstanding and distinctive pinot gris ranging in price from $19 to $29.
If you like Italian pinot grigio, you really should check out Oregon’s pinot gris. You’ll will find some striking similarities but also significant differences.
Stone said, “When I think of pinot gris, I think of cooler growing regions like Alsace and Oregon – having wines with slightly higher acidity that are perhaps somewhat richer and more ageable. When I think of pinot grigio, I think of warmer regions and a riper style with perhaps more emphasis on fruit flavors. They appeal to different audiences.”
These are wines that would marry well with roasted chicken, seafood and white pasta sauces. Our favorite match was mahi mahi with a pineapple salsa.
Many Oregon winemakers have told us they would rather see chardonnay be the region’s number one white wine because it is more universally known and more respected. We’ve tasted a lot of good chardonnay from Willamette Valley, but pinot gris is the region’s strength.
We conducted a recent tasting of more than 15 pinot gris and were stunned by the quality, value, and food-friendless of the grape. Here were the stand-outs:
King Estate Backbone Pinot Gris 2017 ($28). Don’t waste your money on Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio. This premium pinot gris has a lot more going for it. By fermenting and aging individual blocks and vineyards separately, the winemaker can hand-select fruit from a special range of vineyards. Each lot delivers a different element to the wine, which makes this wine multi-dimensional with fresh pear and pineapple flavors and hints of citrus and mineral. Rich in style.
King Estate Pinot Gris 2017 ($19). The regular bottling of King’s pinot gris is very respectable with similar pear and pineapple flavors. It is still rich in style but maybe not as layered as the Backbone.
Archery Summit Vireton Pinot Gris 2017 ($24). This was probably the most unique pinot gris we tasted in the group and thus one of the ones we really enjoyed. The fruit is more vibrant and fresher with a good dose of minerality, apple and melon flavors with balanced acidity. The winemaker uses Alsatian-style yeasts which may be the reason for its uniqueness.
Duck Pond Fries Family Cellars Pinot Gris 2018 ($25). Duck Pond makes a lot of different wines, but our money is on this lean pinot gris with lemon zest, nectarine and tropical fruit notes.
Willamette Valley Vineyards Pinot Gris 2017 ($17). A well-balanced and fruity pinot gris using an Alsace clone, this exotic pinot gris shows off peach and melon aromas, followed by pear and apple flavors. Very elegant.
Sokol Blosser Estate Pinot Gris2018 ($22). Generous bouquet of honeysuckle mingles with ripe melon, white peach and citrus flavors. Dry and minerally, it has a round mouthfeel.
WillaKenzie Pinot Gris 2018 ($32). Very aromatic with lime zest and melon flavors. Delicious to the last drop.
Iris Vineyards Arete Pinot Gris 2018 ($45). You may balk at spending this kind of money for pinot gris, but it’s worth every penny. Chardonnays cost more than this and don’t deliver as much pleasure. It is the richest pinot gris we tasted but the high acidity keeps it in balance. It is one of the few that was fermented in neutral oak puncheons. A touch of residual sugar rounds off the flavors and softens the acidity. Iris makes a $16 pinot gris that is more classical in style and with a little more residual sugar.
Firesteed Pinot Gris 2018 ($16). Meyer lemon aromas blend seamlessly with pear and tropical fruit flavors. Its bright acidity makes it a good match to cheeses and any citrus-based sauce.
Wrath Syrah Monterey San Saba Vineyard 2016 ($39). In a blind tasting this is a dead ringer for a good vintage Crozes Hermitage from the Northern Rhone. Blackberry and very ripe strawberry notes with leather accents this would pair well with heavy winter red meat stews and roasts.
La Crema Pinot Noir Russian River Valley 2016 ($40). La Crema does it again with a benchmark setting pinot noir from the on fire Russian River Valley. Bright cherry notes with prominent spicy accents especially cinnamon. Very food friendly and balanced and a mouth filling experience.