How fun it is to be discovering what Harvey Steiman of Wine Spectator magazine refers to as Oregon’s “unsung hero.”
It’s a revelation to read in Robert Parker’s Wine Buyer’s Guide, “This is the hardest wine to find, as virtually all of it is snapped up before it has a chance to leave Oregon. Fruitier and more floral than chardonnay, Pinot Gris, from the world’s most underrated great white wine, can be a delicious, opulent, smoky wine with every bit as much character and even more aging potential than Chardonnay.”
I like that a lot, and it is… It’s Oregon’s second largest grape variety, pulling up the rear as a white wine offering. It’s not Chardonnay, as some would imagine, given Chardonnay’s white grape singular popularity… Nope… not in a heart beat. Oregonians have been pursuing Pinot Gris since its earliest days of planting Vitis vinifera. Today, many, many vintners in Oregon craft this genetic mutation of the Pinot Noir grape… Pinot Gris, as it’s called in Oregon and France, and rare Pinot Grigio examples, as it’s called in Northern Italy, while others call it Grauburgunder and Ruländer.
At the 2011 Oregon Pinot Gris Symposium at Oak Knoll Winery, Keynote Speaker Paul Gregutt of Wine Enthusiast magazine said, “Stop with the Alsace and Italy comparisons. It’s time to talk Oregon!” That got me to thinking that I needed to study both first, in order to know how to move the comparisons away from both regions as a point of similarities… Hence the first understanding of position.
Known to flourish in cool climates and high altitudes, first latitudes:
- Oregon ~ Willamette, 45 degrees
- Alsace ~ 48 degrees, 30 minutes
- Northern Italy: Friuli-Venezia Giulia ~ 46 degrees latitude
- Oregon~ Has definitely got the cool climate thing going on, and in some places also has some of the higher altitudes, but Willamette Valley does not have high elevations. Perhaps its closer proximity to sea level is one of the defining elements for Oregon’s Pinot Gris’ terroir differentiations; i.e., being able to thrive without extreme high altitudes, gathering more earth notes perhaps? Portland’s elevation is only 20 feet above sea level, for instance, and Willamette Valley is only a 20 minute drive to the west.
- Alsace ~ 574 to 702 feet
- Northern Italy/Friuli ~ Starting elevation is about 2,000 feet.
Where most Pinot Gris is produced in Oregon is about 20 feet above sea level (example: Oak Knoll Winery in Hillsboro, the first winery just outside of Portland traveling eastward), to 400 feet at Christopher Bridge Winery in Oregon City (36 miles southeast of Hillsboro).
The above numbers tell me that while in the neighborhood of other Pinot Gris wine grape growing regions, Oregon is the highest latitude and the least elevation. So, Paul Gregutt is right… Comparisons won’t do anything but hold Pinot Gris back from its own definitions.
From www.City-Data.com: Oregon – Topography
At the state’s western edge, the Coast Range, a relatively low mountain system, rises from the beaches, bays, and rugged headlands of the Pacific coast. Between the Coast and Cascade ranges lie fertile valleys, the largest being the Willamette Valley, Oregon’s heartland. The two-thirds of the state lying east of the Cascade Range consists generally of arid plateaus cut by river canyons, with rolling hills in the north-central portion giving way to the Blue Mountains in the northeast. The Great Basin in the southeast is characterized by fault-block ridges, weathered buttes, and remnants of large prehistoric lakes.
Oregon Pinot Gris… I’ve not really had the pleasure as a singular focus until now; but here it is, and here I am truly discovering it for the first time, from the generations that know a lot more about you, Gris, and who have come before me. I’ve not had a Northwest assignment of this magnitude before, and yet here I am, Peter Mitham saying that “ Jo Diaz might be called the éminence Gris .” What a lovely crown. May I wear it with the dignity that it deserves, and now the glasses we’re asking others to put on… The Gris glasses. Gone are the rose colored (right here by my heart, though, because any minute they could be calling me), but the Gris are for here and right now for this Gris moment. Time to get really serious with another variety.
SAMPLES: So… along came the samples that I’ve tasted. I love that I could do them one at a time. I wasn’t rushed. I just opened, tasted, thought, cooked up something good for food, and let them linger, finding the groove of each brand.
This is such a special assignment and I’m loving this new project.
THE WINE: Pinot Grigio can be light and lively, or it can even be robust… All in the hands of able winemakers… For me, from the ones I’ve tasted during these winter months, it’s the hope of spring, and I can only marvel how a variety so ready to refresh – and it does, believe me, regardless of the weather – Pinot Grigio really does awaken my taste buds. It’s got Northern Italian latitude (46 degrees for Friuli and 45 degrees for Willamette Valley), blended with Oregon’s overhanging, moist terroir and attitude. It only hints at Oregon’s earth notes of fog and damp forests, while showing off its creatore di vino. The range is from light with lots of minerality, to medium bodied and fruity.
The players who are leading the education:
- Airlie Winery
- Apolloni Vineyards
- Christopher Bridge Cellars & Satori Springs Estate
- David Hill Winery
- Oak Knoll Winery
- Pudding River Wine Cellars
- Terrapin Cellars
- Yamhill Valley Vineyards
Tomorrow will be my tasting ♫♪…