In 1965, David Lett, legendary founder of Eyrie Vineyards and pioneer of Oregon wine, planted his first Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in Willamette Valley. Because of its cool climate, elevation, diverse soil composition, and location of the estate he’d chosen in the Dundee Hills, he was convinced that both grape varieties would succeed.
After graduating from the University of California, Davis with a degree in winemaking and viticulture, Lett noticed that there were no commercial plantings of Pinot Gris on the West Coast. With permission from his professor Lloyd Lider, he gathered 160 cuttings from UC Davis’ four vines, and took them to Oregon — laying the foundation for greatness.
A slow beginning
In a 1992 speech titled, “The Emergence of Pinot Gris,” Lett shared how it took about 13 years for the variety to catch on in the Pacific Northwest. And even though he had done much of the leg work to spread the gospel of Pinot Gris, there was still some pushback from his industry peers. “I faced the dreary syndrome from shops, restaurants, and distributors, that ‘if it’s white and it ain’t Chardonnay I can’t deal with it’ syndrome, but it’s beginning to be broken down a bit in selected markets,” Lett said. “But marketing Pinot Gris is still an uphill fight, especially in light of the sea of California Chardonnay available, often at bargain prices. And the American consumer mentality is that white premium wine is Chardonnay.”
Today, Pinot Gris is Oregon’s top white grape variety. For the everyday wine consumer, it might be known as the French twin of the Italian grape, Pinot Grigio, but it has some surprises of its own. First, it’s widespread in Alsace, the region that might be French today, but which has strong influences from its next-door neighbor Germany. And, technically, it isn’t a white grape. The skin of “Pinot Gris,” or gray pinot, can turn a variety of colors from periwinkle to salmon, sometimes within the same bunch because it’s a mutation of Pinot Noir. It does extremely well in cooler climates.
A choice of styles
Iris Vineyards has established a reputation of producing a crisp, refreshing style of Pinot Gris. Sitting at a pretty high elevation, the Iris Vineyard Pinot Gris vines are planted in Bellpine soil, meaning moderately deep, well-drained soils that retain moisture, which are typically a little more shallow than the more common soils of Oregon. Because the vineyard is dry farmed, there is a limitation in yield, but Bellpine is a well-drained soil series that helps to retain moisture.
“We pick Pinot Gris up to two weeks after harvest and I think that gives us an advantage with the Pinot Gris variety in terms of flavor development, and getting lower sugars, and therefore lower alcohol,” says head winemaker Aaron Lieberman. He chooses to whole cluster press the grapes, which keeps the stems intact, adding more structure to the wine. He also removes the skins, and cold settles the juice in stainless steel to retain flavor. After two or three days, he separates the wine from dead yeast and other material to get juice that is very clear and low in sweetness. “And that’s what I’m looking to achieve with our Pinot Gris — a refreshing fruit-forward wine.” Lieberman believes that Oregon Pinot Gris offers consumers something that they can count on as being lighter or more refreshing than a lot of the other wines.
Climate, soil, elevation, and location are all key factors and help to elevate unique flavor profiles across the Willamette Valley. Taking its stylistic cues from Alsace, the Pinot Gris can be aromatic but always high in acid, and can express itself with bright flavors of lemon zest and white peach, or be round and flavorful with notes of pineapple, pear, and spice. Chevonne Ball, certified sommelier and founder of Dirty Radish Travel Company, says Pinot Gris has accounted for an increasing share of the statewide acreage since 2015, meaning there’s now more available. “Producers with larger yields of Pinot Gris tend to have their wine available in larger stores nationwide at a lower price point, and the more specialty Pinot Gris being available direct-to-consumer,” Ball says. “There are also winemakers making beautiful skin-contact Pinot Gris using amphora and concrete for fermentation.”
At Antiquum Farm in Junction City, Oregon, head winemaker Andrew Smith collaborates with owner and farmer Stephen Hagen in order to build healthy soils by using a practice known as grazing-based viticulture, where the natural grazing cycles of the animals allow an entire underground ecosystem to thrive and flourish. “By farming this way, we allow for what happens in the vineyard to indicate the way in which the wine is made,” says Smith. “This way, we actually see more definition and articulation of the grape.” Smith says that once grapes are harvested from the vineyard, the winemaking process can be somewhat of a balancing act in order to achieve a certain style. “From the length of skin-contact to how long the juice spends fermenting in barrels and stainless steel tanks, all of these components together can help us to achieve a level breadth, freshness, and vibrancy in our wine.”
Located southwest of Eugene near the community of Lorane, King Estate Winery is the largest certified biodynamic vineyard in North America, a leader in Pinot Gris known for its various expressions of Oregon’s top white grape variety. While the majority of its Pinot Gris is aged in stainless steel to minimize oxidation and maintain aromatic complexity, head winemaker Brent Stone says, “Our Pinot Gris typically sits on the lees for a minimum of five months, which helps to enhance mouthfeel, weight, and richness.” Because of its high acidity, Pinot Gris is quite age worthy. “It’s true that Pinot Gris can be fantastic just months after being bottled, but it can also age quite well,” says Stone. “Lower alcohol wines with higher acidity can improve ageability, and often become softer and more complex over time.”
The moral of the story: Pinot Gris isn’t a one-size-fits-all type of wine, and it’s almost certain there’s a producer out there whose wine will fit your palate. Pinot Gris is “crisp, round, fruity, and delicious,” says Ball. “Don’t think that because the price point is low that this is a low-quality wine.”
3 Oregon Pinot Gris to consider:
Ponzi Vineyards Willamette Valley Pinot Gris 2020
This Pinot Gris is bright, tangy, and fresh with a round finish that is satisfying. Notes of soft lemon, white peach, and melon on the nose, it finishes with bright citrus, sweet mango, and a hint of white pepper spice on the palate.
Cedar + Salmon Willamette Valley Pinot Gris 2020
With notes of fresh citrus, tart pear, and crisp stone fruit, rounded with a touch of honeysuckle, this expression truly highlights what wine lovers adore about Willamette Valley Pinot Gris.
Eyrie Vineyards Dundee Hills Pinot Gris Estate 2020
The producer that has led the way for this grape variety to thrive, Eyrie Vineyards prides itself on aging its Pinot Gris three to four times longer than other producers. By doing so, it brings forth a rich texture that’s both complex and refreshing.