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Wine of the Week for week ending 6 August 2006
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Bilancia Reserve Pinot Grigio 2005
Hawkes Bay, New Zealand

While in Gisborne, a few weeks ago now, I attended an aromatic workshop in which Pinot Gris was included. However there were only two local renditions on show and they were both so completely different to the comparison wine from Alsace, a Trimbach Reserve Pinot Gris 2002. This was a powerful wine, golden in colour with a slightly waxy, smoky, lemon honey and toffee aroma and a rich, weighty palate, the lemon honey on the nose enhanced by spices in the palate with a mushroomy, leesy note and a dry grippy finish. It was a concentrated, complex wine that was all about structure, weight and texture with the acidity ensuring the wine had a lively freshness. It was one of the wines of the tasting.

In comparison the two Gisborne wines, both from 2006 and both unreleased at the time, showed more of the fruity pear and apple-like perfumes we've come to expect from New Zealand Pinot Gris, and of course they were young, very young. They were a world apart from the Alsace benchmark.

However there was something I found quite intriguing about one of the wines, the Corbans Homestead Pinot Gris 2006. I was captivated by the floral, slightly musky perfume that underpinned the fruit and its oily, medium dry, well-balanced palate with bright stone fruit flavours, a slightly flinty finish and a lingering musky spiciness. "Heading toward the Gewurztraminer end of Pinot Gris," I wrote. And then, when winemaker Steve Voysey spoke about the wine, I found out it did indeed have a tiny percentage of Gewurztraminer blended in with it. It was like a tonic and lifted this wine out of the 'neutral' zone that many local Pinot Gris's fall into. It was a tank sample that I tasted, but if it can hold these characters through bottling, it is going to be an absolute star when it is released. Expect to pay under $15 and much less, when ridiculously discounted in supermarkets, as this brand often is.

I was fascinated by the inclusion of Gewurztraminer in the Corbans Homestead Pinot Gris 2006 but it made me think more about the Alsace versions, as many of them also have musky, rose petal aromas and flavours, nuances I typically associate with Gewurztraminer, although never as powerful. It made me wonder how many Alsace Pinot Gris wines actually have a small percentage of Gewurztraminer blended in with them, not on purpose, but because the grapes grow side by side in the vineyard. Fields blends used to be common in Alsace and while not so much now, I reckon there are still rogue Gewurztraminer vines hiding amongst the Pinot Gris.

New Zealand Pinot Gris is still a dilemma for most wine drinkers because one wine can be so different from the next and sometimes, when trying wines side by side, it can be difficult to believe that could both be made from the same grape variety. (And sometimes they are not - at least one winemaker has renamed his Pinot Gris to the more obscure variety Flora, as DNA testing proved that was what the vines really were).

Some are crisp and steely with Riesling-like acidity or Sauvignon Blanc-like herbaceousness, others are rich and fat with soft acidity and a fatness that comes from aging on yeast lees. Some are neutral in their aromas and flavours, others are complex and full of fruit with an underlying spicy richness. Some are oak-free zones while others are made in the style of a fully-oaked barrel-fermented and matured Chardonnay and there are those that have portions of oak, that sit in between. Some seem rather bland but hatch from their shell when matched with food, others are delicious beverage wines from the outset. Even wines from the same region offer difference nuances, which makes it difficult to pick a region of origin when you are tasting, blind.

However, diversity is what makes Pinot Gris so fascinating, especially in vintages like 2005 when the cooler season and the lower yielding crops have produced some exciting styles.

Bilancia Reserve Pinot Grigio 2005 from Hawkes Bay is one of those wines. Pale straw in colour with delicately nutty, honeyed, floral aromas and spicy, nutty flavours with a reasonable influence of yeast lees, it is full-bodied and flavoursome with lemon bread, apricot and nectarine fruit and a bright finish. In fact it almost has a Viognier ring to it with the clean, bright apricot-like nuances that linger. Beautifully balanced and poised - this is one of the country's best Pinot Gris's. Fermented in tank, it is an oak-free wine that carries 14.5% alcohol and is sealed with a screwcap. You can buy it for $26 a bottle direct from Bilancia, or search for it in fine wine stores.

Labelled Pinot Grigio, you might think this would be a rendition of a steely, lanolin-like Italian style, but it couldn't be further polarised. Winemakers Lorraine Leheney and Warren Gibson use the Italian name for the varietal, in keeping with the Italian name of the brand - Bilancia. If you know your star signs then you will recognise the scales as the symbol for Libra, the star sign of both Lorraine and Warren. Bilancia is the Italian word for Libra, a word that also translates to balance, equilibrium and harmony - something that Lorraine and Warren seem to have no problem in achieving.

© Sue Courtney
30 July 2006

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