Pinot Gris/Grigio The name says it all, or does it?

At the recent WineMaker Magazine Conference in Monterey, California, my wife and I were talking about something completely unrelated to wine. We had snuck out for a couple of hours to take in the beauty that abounds around the Monterey Peninsula. There was the beach, forests, tide pools, seals, sea otters, and the birds.

You guessed it; the conversation was about birds. Many years ago, in the same life, just a different chapter, I was a freak about birds. I volunteered at a bird banding station, was studying environmental biology and travelled for miles just to catch a fleeting glimpse of some rare bird that flew in from Siberia, after all, it was a once in a lifetime event that I have since forgotten. But our conversation about birds was one of identification of a little brown bird, or LBJ, which in ornithology speak stands for “little brown job” if you didn’t get a good look at it before it flew away. But this one we could identify, and it was aptly named the Dark-eyed Junco. Some years ago, it was named the Oregon Junco and there was another species called the Dark-eyed Junco. Now, all the Juncos in Oregon are dark-eyed and this species is now a sub-species. All subject to a group of folks that sit around and debate whether the species of anything should be separate or together. The point is, that the identification of anything all revolves around the name, and when it comes to Pinot Gris, or is it Pinot Grigio, it’s all about the name because the grape hasn’t changed, or has it? Read on.

So what’s up with the name? Dissecting the name, “Pinot” comes from the French noun for pine because the fruit clusters take on the appearance of a pinecone with fairly small berries on a tight cluster. “Gris” is the French word for grey, which the clusters are neither black, white, nor grey. To confuse matters further, Pinot Gris is generally classified and made as a white grape, however if you were looking at mature fruit, you would be hard pressed to believe me. At maturity, the berries take on a rose color (and sometimes darker) hue as this variety has been determined to be a genetic mutation of Pinot Noir. Another Pinot Noir mutant, Pinot Blanc, is different from Pinot Gris in that there is no red hue to the berries, and it is a true white grape. Unknown to the science at the time, these genetic mutations were first noticed hundreds of years ago in Burgundy, France, where the mutants grew side by side, and sometimes within the same plant as Pinot Noir. At one time, it was blended with Pinot Noir to lighten the ‘Noir’ wine, but today it is against AOC regulations for the region. In the eighteenth century, up to 20% of some major producers’ wines in Burgundy contained either Pinot Gris or Pinot Blanc. Today, with the emphasis on deeply colored, rich wines, the AOC has not permitted their inclusion unless it is in the oldest vineyard of the region dating back before 1930.

The origins of the mutation and why Pinot Noir has mutated in this way is the result of what are referred to as “jumping genes.” Strictly defined, a jumping gene is a gene or set of genes capable of inserting copies of itself into other DNA sites within the same cell. In the case here, the gene inserting itself is for the end color of the grape. Because of the common nature of this happening in Pinot Noir, a vineyard planted to Pinot Noir will have a certain amount of the Gris and Blanc versions as well. Over time, Pinot Noir clusters would show up on plants of Pinot Blanc as well. The persistence of any vine with a particular color of fruit is based on selection of the shoots producing that fruit color and selecting against the other versions.

To further complicate the understanding of this variety, it is also produced under the name Pinot Grigio, which means exactly the same thing in French, but this time it is the Italian version. So simply, it is the same grape variety from a different country. In some cases, and certainly there is no rule about this, the producers will call it Pinot Grigio to distinguish it stylistically to match those styles produced in northern Italy where it is usually a lighter, crisper and more acidic style, typical of northern cool climates. The Foundation Plants Services (FPS) unit at UC-Davis lists all 10 registered clones as Pinot Gris. FPS is sort of a clearing house for grape varieties, providing disease-free plants of all varieties to nurseries for propagation, so when they decided on the name, they went with the French version, since it is known to originate in the Burgundy area, expanding into Alsace, Germany and northern Italy.

In Alsace, it is a major variety known as Auxerrois Gris or Pinot Gris d’Alsace. It is the third most widely produced grape behind Gewurztraminer and Riesling. Pinot Gris d’Alsace nomenclature is the preferred nomenclature, but locally it is also referred to as Tokay d’Alsace, but European Union (EU) rules prevent this nomenclature from being used for wines exported out of Alsace. The warmer temperatures of Alsace in the fall allow the grapes to hang longer developing more of the ripe melon and apricot flavors. Across the Rhine River in Germany, it is known as Grauburgunder. You may recall the German name for Pinot Noir is Spätburgunder, so you begin to get the drift of the similarities of the two grapes. Outside of Europe, it was one of the first varieties of grapes to be introduced to Australia in 1832 by James Busby, the father of Australian viticulture. Grown
in the southeastern state of Victoria, the sweeter styles are marketed as Pinot Gris and dry wines are marketed as Pinot Grigio.

In California, about 195,000 tons were crushed in 2012 — up 20,000 tons from 2011 and fours times the tonnage crushed in 2004! Most of this tonnage was produced in the hot San Joaquin Valley where it is incorporated in to bulk wines as a minor component in the fighting varietal market. By comparison, this cool weather grape accounts for less than 20,000 tons in the coolest growing regions along the coast from Monterey north to Mendocino. Much further south, some producers in the Temecula region between Los Angeles and San Diego are also giving it a go. It is safe to say that it is increasing in popularity among small producers, as well as winemakers for larger wineries who value it as a good blending component.

The real story for Pinot Gris on the West Coast lies farther to the north in Oregon where small producers pick away at a market niche with boutique wines of varied sweet or dry styles of generally high quality. By comparison though, total tonnage in 2012 for the entire state of Oregon was right around 6,000 tons. The wines here had some trouble taking off in the market initially until producers embarked on a food and wine pairing campaign recognizing the grape’s ideal pairing with fish, specifically salmon, which the region is also known for. In Oregon, most of the production is in the Willamette Valley, southwest of Portland in the northern third of the state. Switching to the East Coast, we had the opportunity to taste many fine examples when we attended the WineMaker Magazine Conference in Ithaca, New York, in 2012, where it is garnering more interest.
The higher quality wines that are made from Pinot Gris are made in a typical white wine production where the fruit is either whole cluster pressed or crushed and pressed. Given that there is some pigment in the skins, the degree of color in the wines is dependent on the skin contact time. Some wines take on an orange hue when the fruit used is very mature. Wines made from grapes grown in cooler regions tend to be lighter in color, crisp and acidic, taking on more citrus attributes like lemon and grapefruit. Warmer region wines tend to have higher alcohol, apricot and melon flavors, and take on that orange hue. Be careful to balance the acid profile for the grapes that were permitted to hang longer. Barrel aging is not common, however; some producers take advantage of a lighter oaked style to set them apart from the rest.

Finding some identity with how this grape and subsequent wines pair with food is also somewhat of a challenge. It is a diverse grape and as you can tell, given the broad range of climates in which it is grown, might go well with fish as mentioned earlier, or the riper styles may do better with chicken dishes. Going a little further, some sweeter, riper styles, off-dry that is, may stand up to spicy foods with a Pan-Asian influence. My personal preference for the variety, although I had many fine examples when we visited Alsace, is the Italian style. This is purely a personal preference for the white wines I like in general. The moral of the story is to understand which version of Pinot Gris you have before you try to pair it up with something. Therefore, buy two bottles: one to taste and plan your meal around, the other to have your meal with!

I’ll leave it up to the reader to decide if this grape has an identity issue. The common names mean the same thing, the ‘Grigio’ version just took a little vacation to Italy, and while it didn’t spend any time in Florence, where art was and still is king dating back to the Renaissance, the wines took on an artistic approach that is applied to styles around the world. The real identity issue is its ability to mutate to the other colors; something that is a chance happening, but happens more in Pinot varieties than others. I think the Juncos didn’t really have an identity issue amongst themselves either. They were the same color before and after the conference and it was only a convention of humans who were trying to create their identity. Pinot Gris has its own identity.

Pinot Gris Recipe

(yield: 5 gal/19 L)

This is a simple way to make Pinot Gris wine from juice concentrate. Juice concentrates generally are adjusted for pH and acidity so no further adjustments are necessary. Consult the manufacturer’s specification included with the juice.

• Five 46-ounce (1.3 kg) cans Pinot Gris Juice Concentrate, ~68-70 °Brix.
• 3.5 gallons (13 L) distilled water
• 5 grams Lallemand QA23 yeast, or 5 grams Premier Cuvée (reduce yeast nutrients in half if using Premier Cuvée; so use only 5 grams Fermaid K and 2.5 grams DAP)
• 10% potassium metabisulfite (KMBS) solution. Weigh 10 grams of KMBS, dissolve into about 50 milliliters (mL) of distilled water. When completely dissolved, make up to 100 mL total with distilled water.
• 5 grams Go-Ferm (or equivalent yeast starter)
• 10 grams Fermaid K (or equivalent yeast nutrient)
• 5 grams Di-ammonium Phosphate (DAP)

Other equipment or needs
• 6-gallon (23-L) food-grade plastic bucket
• 5-gallon (19-L) carboy
• (1 or 2) 1-gallon (3.8-L) jugs
• Racking hoses
• Inert Gas (nitrogen, Argon or carbon dioxide)
• Ability to warm about 4 gallons (15 L) of water to 60-65 °F (15-18 °C).
• Ability to maintain a fermentation temperature of 55-58 °F (13-15 °C). TIP: Use a 33-gallon (125-L) plastic can as a water bath. Place ice blocks in the water to maintain a relatively constant temperature. Or, if you need to keep it warm, wrap the bucket/carboy with an electric carboy wrap.
• Ability to hold wine at 38-40 °F (3-4 °C) while settling.
• Thermometer capable of measuring between 40-110 °F (4-43 °C) in one degree increments.
• Pipettes with the ability to add in increments of 1 milliliter.

Step by step
1. Clean and sanitize all your winemaking tools, supplies and equipment.

2. Warm 3.5 gallons (13 L) water to about 65 °F (18 °C).

3. Add five cans of juice concentrate, using the warmed water to dissolve remaining concentrate in the can. Mix well. This can be done in the bucket or a pot on the stove. In the end, you will have about 5.5 gallons (21 L) of juice in the bucket at about 22.5 °B.

4. Mix in the Fermaid K or equivalent yeast nutrient.

5. Prepare yeast. Heat about 50 mL distilled water to 108 °F (42 °C). Mix the Go-Ferm into the water to make a suspension. Measure the temperature. Pitch the yeast when the suspension is 104 °F (40 °C). Sprinkle the yeast on the surface and gently mix so that no clumps exist. Let sit for 15 minutes undisturbed. Measure the temperature of the yeast suspension. Measure the temperature of the juice. You do not want to add the yeast to your cool juice if the difference in temperatures of the yeast and must exceeds 15 °F (8 °C). To avoid temperature shock, acclimate your yeast by taking about 10 mL of the juice and adding it to the yeast suspension. Wait 15 minutes and measure the temperature again. Do this until you are within the specified temperature range. Do not let the yeast sit in the original water suspension for longer than 20 minutes. When the yeast is ready, add it to the fermenter.

6. Initiate the fermentation at room temperature (~65-68 °F/ 18-20 °C) and once fermentation is noticed, (~24-48 hours) move to a location where the temperature can be maintained at 55-58 °F (13-15 °C). You should see signs of fermentation within one to two days.

7. Two days after fermentation starts, dissolve the DAP in as little distilled water required to completely go into solution (usually ~ 20 mL). Add to the carboy.

8. Normally you would monitor the progress of the fermentation by measuring Brix. One of the biggest problems with making white wine at home is maintaining a clean fermentation. Entering the carboy to measure the sugar is a prime way to infect the fermentation with undesirable microbes. So at this point, the presence of noticeable fermentation is good enough. If your airlock becomes dirty by foaming over, remove it and clean it and replace as quickly and cleanly as possible. Sanitize anything that will come in contact with the juice.

9. Leave alone until the airlock shows about one bubble per minute. This usually takes two to three weeks. Measure the Brix every two to three days.

10. The wine is considered dry, or nearly dry, at -1.5 Brix or less. Add 3 mL of fresh KMBS (10%) solution per gallon of wine. This is equivalent to ~40 ppm addition.

11. Transfer the wine to the five-gallon carboy and lower the temperature to 38-40 °F (3-4 °C).

12. After two weeks, test for pH and SO2 and adjust as necessary to attain 0.8 ppm molecular SO2. (There is a simple SO2 calculator at www.winemakermag.com/guide/sulfite). Check the SO2 in another two weeks and adjust while racking. HINT: Rack to another sanitized five-gallon carboy, or your bucket. In the case of the latter, clean the original carboy and transfer the wine back to it. This is done at about 4-6 weeks after the first SO2 addition. Once the free SO2 is adjusted, maintain at the target level by monitoring every 3-4 weeks.

13. Consult winemakermag.com for tips on fining and filtration.

14. At about three months you are ready to bottle. Be sure to maintain sanitary conditions while bottling. Once bottled, you’ll need to periodically check your work by opening a bottle to enjoy with friends.