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A new wave of Aussie pinot gris and grigio

Publish Date: 06 Oct 2017

Authored by: Jeni Port

Think you know all there is to pinot gris and grigio? Not anymore. Producers are adding exciting new layers of flavour, texture and complexity.

Winemaking inspiration can come anywhere, any time and, it seems, with any grape. For Mornington Peninsula wine marketer Kate McIntyre MW, the place is Umbria, Italy’s renowned ‘green heart’. The year was 2010 and she keenly remembers being transfixed by a glass of Umbrian Trebbiano. The 2008 Cantina Collecapretta’s Terra dei Preti, to be precise.

The trebbiano grape in this wine had been made like a red with skin contact – not the usual process because this tends to introduce broader characters than its usual fine-boned ones. But as Kate contemplated her wine and its taste, she knew there was something going on in the glass. Something had given it an added dimension. Phenolics drawn from the grape skins after a 10-day maceration was the X factor. “I was enthralled,” she recalls.

Later, she asked her winemaker father Dr Richard McIntyre of their Moorooduc Estate winery to allow a similar experimentation with a parcel of pinot gris fruit. “The colour of the pinot gris fruit we grow is incredible, so I asked Dad, ‘Why not try making it like a pinot noir?’” she says. A relation to pinot noir, the pinot gris grape is covered in pink or reddish skin. The grape’s skin was the answer.

Kate wanted the colour, phenolics, extract and flavour from the skin to create an alternative wine style in a grape already in possession of two distinct personalities – pinot gris and pinot grigio. The 2016 Moorooduc Estate Pinot Gris On Skins, now in its second vintage, is proving more popular than the winery’s standard, white-coloured gris. It has a spiced raspberry, plum and confection aroma and flavour, and a super-dry tannic finish. “I guess [it’s popular] because it is so different,” Kate says. It seems being ‘different’ is just the tip of the iceberg.

Pinot gris and its alter ego, pinot grigio – generally dictated by whether the grape is early-picked grigio (and drier in style) or late-picked gris (with some fruit sweetness and more texture) – has progressed from new kid on the wine block to established trend-setter in just 20 years.

Pioneering gris producer Kathleen Quealy first begged growers on the Mornington Peninsula in the 1990s to follow her lead with this grape. Today, it has overtaken riesling in hectares planted (3732ha) across the country and is in a growth phase, climbing to fourth most-planted white grape and eighth overall. Emboldened by consumer interest, producers are thinking big and, in doing so, reaching way out of the box.

The first change

One of the first shifts to happen was to allow the grape’s natural pink-red skin to shine through rather than removing colour during winemaking. This was first embraced by the late Don Lewis at Tar & Roses with his pinot grigio. Now, makers such as Adam Chapman at Sirromet in Queensland see no reason to persist in removing its colour. “I was adding bentonite, I was adding PVPP [polyvinylpolypyrrolidone – both used to remove the colour] and it was depressing me, so then I thought: You know what? We should be embracing this colour! And that’s what we have done. Colour adds flavour!” he says.

Then there’s texture, so central to the appeal of pinot gris that it could be its calling card. Enhancing the grape’s natural texture generally gives rise to the P-word, phenolics. Once the mention of phenolics and white winemaking, especially with aromatic grapes such as gris, would have been unheard of. To most Australian makers, and wine show judges especially, it was seen as a fault. But there has been a relaxation of once-entrenched winemaking philosophies. You see it in the rise of so-called ‘natural’ winemaking and it has infiltrated traditional white wine production practices, which now openly embrace the use of skins, seeds (lees) and oak. These contribute to the kind of tannic or astringent grip in aromatic white wines and dryness in our mouths that we have come to associate with red wines. Pinot gris has been a major beneficiary.

What’s next?

Will there be gris that ages? Single vineyard gris? More off-dry, semi-sweet gris? Or is that over-reaching and why even go there? Sam Coverdale of Polperro Wines and Mike Aylward of Ocean Eight, both on the Mornington Peninsula, are working on some of these answers.

The two mates recently opened their wineries to the wine media for a pinot gris tasting and exploration of style. Both producers want to make a reserve wine, upping the wine’s quality and thrusting it into the same bracket as a serious reserve chardonnay.

Mike hopes the grape will come to be considered alongside “the very best chardonnay and pinot noir produced on the Peninsula.” His attempts at a reserve wine so far echo a traditional, sweet, Alsatian-style vendange tardive or late harvest dessert wine with high natural sugar.

In 2015, he left 14 grams of residual sugar in a parcel of ‘tardive’ gris. The balance of acid and sweetness is there, but not the complexity. Last year he halved it to seven grams, entering into off-dry territory. This is a more convincing wine with concentrated honeysuckle sweetness and poise, but it’s a daring move to have such a wine as a reserve flagship. Still, it’s in line with both Mike and Sam’s promotion of gris as a spectacularly good food wine, especially with Asian flavours.

Sam is looking at bottle age for his own reserve project, with wines going back to 2011. Was there a reserve quality wine in them? For some at the tasting, it was in doubt as to whether the wines would improve markedly or whether cellaring options were even needed.

Halliday Wine Companion contributor Ned Goodwin MW was in raptures over the 2013 vintage, sourced from the Mill Hill vineyard. Would Sam ever consider releasing it as a single vineyard label? “This is why we are trying to pick your brains,” Sam admitted in response.

The importance of sites

The question of individual vineyards has been on the mind of pinot gris pioneering couple Kathleen Quealy and Kevin McCarthy at Quealy Winemakers for some time. They believe drinkers have been misled as to style. It’s not so much when the grape is picked that dictates style, they argue, it’s the soil in which it’s grown. This is turning the whole ‘grigio versus gris’ debate on its head.

“People draw this line that doesn’t exist between grigio and gris,” Kevin says. “Look what these sites can do! That’s the story.”

More than anything else, they argue that pinot grigio is about light soils in concert with a slightly warmer site. “Your fruit is ripe and ready to pick at 12 baume,” says Kathleen. However, at a place like Musk Creek Vineyard at Main Ridge – the source of their supremely aromatic Pressed Pink Pearls Gris – with its dense, heavy red soil, there’s no flavour and no ripeness at 12 baume. “[Sugar development in grapes] inches along and becomes very ripe late in the season,” Kathleen says. “And being late in the season, it gets those cool climate aromatics.”

Where it fits

As Australian pinot gris finally makes its name as a mainstream variety, it faces some stiff competition. The Aussies find themselves once again facing a formidable competitor and yes, New Zealand sauvignon blanc could have something to do with it.

“The vast majority of [gris] sales are from Marlborough, New Zealand, at around $15 a bottle,” says Peter Nixon of Dan Murphy’s. “My assumption is that many Marlborough gris sales are Marlborough sauvignon blanc drinkers looking for something new and different.” However, at higher price points he says the Aussies have the sales, less so the Kiwis.

Pinot grigio, Peter adds, is definitely “the mover and shaker” volume-wise at Dan’s. “People simply like the sound of the name pinot grigio, in the same way they like prosecco. It sounds Italian and exciting.” And gris? “Gris sounds like ‘greasy’. Aren’t people funny?”

Next article: Try this vibrant, flavour-packed menu matched to pinot gris and grigio

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