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What is the style of New Zealand Pinot Gris?

by Sue Courtney
28th May 2000

"What on earth is all the hype about Pinot Gris?" asks Kingsley Wood in his monthly newsletter sent out to hundreds of customers and most of the winemakers in New Zealand. "[New Zealand Pinot Gris] wines in general are bland, lacking in any sort of distinctive varietal character and so variable in consistency the wine drinkers have no idea of what Pinot Gris is meant to taste like", he says.

Michael Brajkovich, MW responded quickly. "Sure there are some pretty innocuous examples of neutral wine", he said, "but the same can be said of many New Zealand Pinot Noirs. The key is keeping yields low, properly ripening the grapes and making the wines carefully".

And Bob Campbell, MW, who hosted a Pinot Gris tasting to a group of Martinborough winemakers asking him to dispel the criticism Kingsley had aimed at the variety, said on National Radio the day after the tasting, "Does Pinot Gris have to be a defined style? Isn't it good to have a wine that covers all bands of the spectrum".

Before this tasting Mr Campbell asked who agreed with Kingsley's statements and to his amazement about 6 or 8 hands shot up in the air. The conclusion was that some NZ Pinot Gris is overrated and lacks the quality that justifies the price many winemakers are asking. "Great Pinot Gris needs concentration and needs to be grown on a site where it can fully ripen. However, overcropped Pinot Gris can still produce something pleasant, but will never be great wine", he summarises.

Coming up with a definition of what good Pinot Gris should be like, Mr Campbell said. "It should be a blend of the aromatic and the complex, mouthfilling wine styles". The grapes, like chardonnay, can often get high alcohol so the wines "should show intensity of fruit with the lovely fruit and floral characters that can be found in very good Rieslings but with the mouthfeel, richness and the warmth that we can often expect of good chardonnay".

And the definable characters that can be found, he said "include an array of tropical fruit and exotic quince often accompanied by peach, apricot, smoky and biscuity flavours".

And so Kingsley Wood gave a group of ordinary wine tasters the chance to try a selection of Pinot Gris and make their own conclusions. And in normal 'Kingsley' fashion the wines were served blind.

I found that all except the Italian number showed pear-like fruit in one form or another and most but not all displayed citrus as well. Some had apples while others had stone fruit characters. The sample from the deep south was rather zingy in its acidity while others were softer and rounder.

I have been keeping a note of the producers who have released a Pinot Gris, and to date my count is 47. The grapes are grown almost the length of New Zealand, from Kerikeri near the top of the North Island, to Alexandra in the deep south. And I hope that we continue to see this grape evolve like Riesling like Bob Campbell says, "a range of styles covering the spectrum".

With wines that range from very dry to very sweet and styles that emulate the ripe, lush, oily wines from Alsace to the full, wooded, malolactic wines from Burgundy to the more austere styles from Italy, there is bound to be a Pinot Gris that suits every palate.

I find that the more neutral Pinot Gris wines are best as food wines rather than beverage wines. Favourite food matches are
- Salmon
- Pear and Blue Cheese
- Mushroom Soup
- Roast Pork with a Stewed Pear Sauce

© Sue Courtney
28 May 2000

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