Pop quiz, class: When is a pinot grigio not a pinot grigio?
Answer: When it’s a pinot gris.
In Italy, where the workhorse grape of Veneto and Friuli is generally vinified as clean, green and routine, the result is a simplistic table wine meant for early consumption.
In France, the same grape—said to be a mutant clone of pinot noir and here, called pinot gris—takes on a whole different personality. In Alsace especially, it produces a velvety, pear-scented wine with a remarkable spice and a mineral grip backed by firm acidity ; in top vintages it develops a finish that’s almost oily in texture.
Still, the confusion that surrounds this grape is confusing, particularly to me, a wine writer of only moderate intelligence. Are you all a bunch of mutant clones?
I’m Tokay, You’re Tokay
I mean, JesuCristo, class; it’s really pretty elementary:
Pinot gris has been known in Burgundy since the Middle Ages, except that they called it fromenteau, not pinot gris, and these days, in France, it’s mostly grown in Alsace, where it has traditionally not been called pinot gris but ‘tokay’, which should not be confused with the Hungarian wine called ‘tokay’, which they may or may not spell tokaji and which can only be made from six grape varietals, none of which are tokay. Okay?
Here in the States, pinot gris has found a particularly cozy stomping ground in Oregon, where, like the alluvial slopes and cones in Alsace, the soil is primarily volcanic ash and sedimentary seabed overlaid with gravel and silt. Oregon’s maritime climate is somewhat unsuitable for California’s vanilla/chocolate cash cows chardonnay and cabernet, but it’s ideal for pinot gris. Moderate summer temperatures, rising gradually and steadily from budburst to harvest, allow the varietal to ripen slowly and reach full maturity at the very end of Oregon’s somewhat brief growing season.
Even Oregon rainfall tends to cooperates with pinot gris, which prefers relatively dry feet. If you believe urban legend, Oregon is relentlessly cloudy and wet; if you believe Willard Scott, Oregon’s Willamette Valley, wherein all of pinot gris’ planets align, gets less growing-season rainfall than Burgundy.
And speaking of Burgundy…
The name Drouhin is synonymous with Burgundian Premier and Grand Crus, so when you see it attached to an Oregonian winemaker’s calling card, you tend to think either coincidence or confederacy. It’s closer to the latter; Véronique Boss-Drouhin (alternately referred to as Drouhin-Boss, so there’s no telling who’s boss), referred to as the ‘guardian’ of the Joseph Drouhin style, has crafted wines at Drouhin’s Oregon concern, Domaine Drouhin Oregon, since the first vintage in 1988.
She’s also dipped her toes into Dreyfus, Ashby’s own label, Cloudline. The legendary New York-based importer, which distributes Joseph Drouhin and DDO wines worldwide, has enlisted the palate of the beautiful, University of Dijon-trained winemaker to oversee production of their first venture into winemaking, meaning that she ensures that elegance, finesse, purity of Cloudline’s selections never waver.
Whereas DDO’s chardonnay and pinot noir may run from $40 into the upper sixties, Cloudline’s 2008 pinot gris is a bargain at $14, and that’s saying a mouthful. Filled with Bosc pear, wet stone minerality and apple skin tartness, the wine’s grapes are sourced entirely from Willamette Valley and represent one of the least talked about, best value pinot gris on the market.
So I’m talking about it. More vin d’Alsace than anything similarly-priced from the States, Cloudline is a heady introduction to what Oregon can accomplish with this sometimes problem child; one of the very few places on earth where the varietal approaches its potential.
Savor a sip; I’m confident that you’ll a-gris.
Cloudline Pinot Gris, Oregon, 2008, about $15: Pears, peaches and honeysuckle dominate the nose and lead to a profile straight from the eastern slopes of the Vosges: mint, melon , mineral and a vat-load of minor eccentricities. The wine is medium bodied, grassy and nicely acidic. The label’s PR claims it as an ideal swallow after you’ve mowed the lawn—I say ‘during’ and damn the bald spots on the lower forty. If you insist on waiting until supper, it can be successfully paired with most full-flavored seafoods and Asian dishes, even those with a bit of heat.