On the rise: Pinot Gris secures its place

Name: Max Allen

It's little wonder Pinot Gris as a variety may develop a complex about its name. Often labelled Pinot Grigio in Australia, the variety has been called anything from Auvernet to Tokayer Wiliboner around the world. But while confusion and debate might rage about the name and the style of the 'true' Australian Pinot Gris, there is little argument that Pinot Gris is growing in terms of its importance to the Australian and New Zealand wine industries.

Demand for the variety in Australia's major export markets is high, and growing. The varietal is the second-largest imported category sold in the American food store channel in the USA with 21% of the imported market, behind only Chardonnay which accounts for 22% of imports. The Italians have a stranglehold on the variety with about 95% of the marketshare, with Australia having almost all the remaining 5%. Importantly, the Pinot Gris/Grigio category is growing in the USA as part of an overall trend from US consumers towards alternative white wines: Pinot Gris/Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling. Between December 2004 and September 2007, Pinot Gris/ Grigio sales grew 89% by volume and 87% by value in the USA.

Australia and New Zealand are responding to the pull of growing market demand. According to historic data from the Australian and New Zealand Wine Industry Directory, Pinot Gris plantings sat at just 329 hectares in total in 2003, representing only 0.5% of all white grape varieties planted in Australia. However, according to data in the 2008 Directory, newly published by Winetitles, Pinot Gris plantings reached 2469ha in 2007, an increase of 82.6% compared with 2006 and a 650.50% increase since 2003. The variety now represents 3.4% of all white varieties planted.

In 2007, an additional 412ha of Pinot Gris was planted. This variety represented 18.3% of all new white vine plantings, second only to Sauvignon Blanc with 507ha planted. In 2007, 12,648 tonnes of Pinot Gris were crushed by Australian wine producers. This was an increase of 36.34% from tonnes crushed in 2006.

And more winemakers are making Pinot Gris, or using the variety in blends. In the 2003 Directory 128 wine producers listed Pinot Gris as a variety with which they made either straight, or blended wine. The 2008 Directory states 328 producers making straight or blended wines with Pinot Gris, an increase of 156% over the five-year period.

Cuttings sales increase
Bruce Chalmers from Chalmers Nurseries noted the demand for Pinot Gris cuttings has dramatically increased in the last three to four years. Chalmers stated that in the last year approximately 150,000 cuttings were sold to the Griffith region; 50,000 to Mildura and 20,000 to the Mornington Peninsula. The nursery's own Pinot Gris block is located in Euston, New South Wales, with 366 hectares.

Pinot Gris D1V7 is the most common clone available at Chalmers Nurseries, which also has the VCR 5 clone from Italy. Bruce Chalmers said VCR 5 has excellent characteristics of open bunches, a trait that will benefit many growers who experience challenges with the variety's vine balance.

Chalmers said Pinot Gris is a difficult variety to grow and cannot be treated like other varieties.

'Pinot Gris needs heavy pruning and extra nutrition and responds well to organic fertilisers, especially cow manure,' he said. 'The older the vines the better. Pinot Gris vines get better with age and after four to five vintages once the canopy gets up to size, less fruit is produced which makes the canopy easier to manage,'
Chalmers said.

WA, Adelaide Hills planting Pinot Gris
In the West, growers are also showing interest in Pinot Gris. The West Australian Vine Improvement Association (WAVIA) has recently established several source blocks of Pinot Gris. The imported clone of B1B7 has replaced the only existing clone the WAVIA had, which was diseased. Secretary Chris Harding said Western Australia is trying to 'catch up' to the Eastern States' success with the variety.

He cited strong demand for the variety from the USA, and several dozen WA growers had voiced their interest in the variety. WAVIA's source blocks are located in the cool region of Mount Barker and the Great Southern as well as in the coastal region of Margaret River, where the Pinot Gris vines are reportedly all doing well.

Meanwhile, Pinot Gris remains the major vinifera seller (45% of total sales) at Adelaide Hills Vine Improvement Inc. David Coleman of AHVII said due to substantial frost damage in some of the Pinot Gris source blocks AHVII was unable to supply total demand by some 100,000 cuttings in 2007.

The blurred line of Gris and Grigio
Many growers have expressed confusion about the definition of the styles of Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio, both produced from the Pinot Gris grape variety. Wine writers Jeni Port and Max Allen attempt to explain the differences.

'I have a firm idea of the style that Australian Pinot Gris should be. It is an alternative style to Pinot Grigio and has to be if the two continue to be grown and made here. They have to be two clear and different entities otherwise consumers will be confused (if they aren't already by the mere fact that one grape can have two names and two identities) and they will cease being interested in trying the wines. Pinot Gris, to me, is picked on a higher level of ripeness compared with Pinot Grigio,' Port said.

'It is around 14% alcohol (and higher) that you generally find the richer flavours and more full-bodied characters associated with Pinot Gris. The upfront characters found in Pinot Grigio lurk in the background of Pinot Gris. What was light and carefree as Pinot Grigio becomes far more serious as Pinot Gris, with far more weight on the palate. The best examples have a multi-layered bouquet rich in cloves, apricots and spiced cumquats with honeysuckle.

'I know of one leading winemaker who uses the following rule of thumb: under 14% alcohol with savoury flavours and higher pH is suitable for Pinot Grigio because it's a wine to drink now and won't age particularly well. Over 14% alcohol, low pH and more concentrated flavour is more of a Pinot Gris-style and with a better cellaring potential.

'Pinot Gris has a bright future, particularly from cooler sites that make interesting, complex wines. However, the biggest danger to the style is the winemaker who doesn't understand what he or she is after and makes some tasteless hybrid without class or distinction.

'Pinot Gris already has a hard enough road to travel with wine consumers (because of the complexities involved in having two names, two styles). Winemakers must have a firm idea of what they want and strive for the highest quality or the wine style will falter before it's had a proper chance here. That leaves the Alsatians sitting in the box seat with the variety.'

Max Allen agrees with Australia's Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio identity crisis which he states is due to the warm growing conditions in which most Pinot Gris is grown.

'The grapes are fully ripe when picked, with fat, spicy flavours associated with Pinot Gris wines from Alsace. But because most winemakers use very clean, protective production techniques, the resulting wine tends towards the light and dry Grigio style. So you end up with a wine exhibiting split personality: Gris flavours in a Grigio body,' Allen said.

'There are few examples of winemakers successfully producing true Grigio-style wines (light, fresh, crisp), and, equally, few examples of successfully fat, textural, oily Gris. But those few examples are good enough to indicate that the variety does have a secure future in Australia,' he said.

This article first appeared in the May issue of Australian & New Zealand Grapegrower & Winemaker - the best-value wine industry trade publication available and the biggest-selling magazine in Australasia. Do you subscribe? Get your news first, home delivered. www.winebiz.com.au

Other feature articles

Beverage Infosystems LLC IBWSS


WID 2018