Pinot gris is the wine phenomenon of the moment. It's the fastest growing wine category at retail level. It's growing at 12.8 per cent a year, according to A.C. Nielsen market research. And yet it's generally unpopular with wine writers, sommeliers, retailers and other opinion leaders. It's mocked, much as sauvignon blanc was mocked before it.
In value terms, sauvignon blanc has flatlined, but still hogs 38 per cent of the white wine market compared with pinot gris' 5.8 per cent. Indeed, pinot gris seems to have become a replacement laughing stock for sauvignon blanc.
One well known English wine writer jested that if pinot gris was in a competitive tasting with Evian water, Evian would win. One winemaker likened making pinot gris to an artist restricted to painting with white paint. In other words, bland and boring. Among winemakers, its abbreviation became PiG. Handy, because that encompasses both gris and grigio styles.
So what's happening here? Are the gatekeepers and critics on the wrong page? Most of these pejorative comments were made several years ago, when most examples of Australian pinot gris were neutral, watery wines made from overproductive vines. These were common when Australia first began surfing the pinot gris wave in the 1990s. Prominent Mornington Peninsula producer Brian Stonier used to describe pinot gris as "dishwater", and said that his Stonier winery would never make one, despite Mornington having pioneered the variety in Australia.
But that was then, and this is now. Things have come a long way. There are now many delicious pinot gris and quite a few excellent grigios in Australia. The best gris have a touch of barrel fermentation (a la chardonnay) and lees work adding character; they're also more likely made from ripe grapes and low yields, which give more concentration.
People in other countries take pinot gris very seriously. The winemaker at Domaine Albert Mann in Alsace, Jacky Barthelme, told me he considers pinot gris his most important variety, above riesling and the other Alsace grapes.
What's the difference between gris and grigio?
The grape is the same. It means "grey" pinot, a reference to the dusky, coppery colour of the grapes at full ripeness. Some gris wines are slightly pink, some copper-gold-tinged as a result of the skin pigments.
Pinot gris – the Alsace style
Richer, fuller bodied, with more alcohol and an oily mouth-feel due to glycerol, possibly some residual sweetness, and sometimes a hint of oak or barrel fermentation. More food wines than quaffers. They suit richer foods such as roast chicken, fish and seafood with creamy sauces, even pork. In France, the rich versions are often served with foie gras, pate and terrines.
Pinot grigio – the northern Italian style
Paler, lighter bodied, lower alcohol, crisper acidity, simpler flavours and more refreshing, thanks to earlier harvesting. Also less likely to have a pink tinge or any sweetness. Usually cheaper than gris and therefore a much bigger-selling category. These wines suit salads, antipasti, cold seafood, and pre-dinner dips and nibbles.
Huon's top 10 Australian pinot gris
Elgee Park Baillieu Myer Family Reserve, Mornington 2015 $35
A rich, complex, multilayered wine with evidence of barrel fermentation and lees work. Honey and glazed-fruit aromas. It would appeal to chardonnay lovers.
Ten Minutes by Tractor 10x, Mornington 2014 $28
Nutty, rich wine with plenty of body. Dried flower and dried fruit aromas. A complex style.
Ghost Rock, Tasmania 2015 $26
Floral, musk, nectarine aromas; rich and generous in the mouth. Trophy winner, 2016 Tasmanian Wine Show.
Josef Chromy, Tasmania 2015 $26
Yellow peach aromas, soft, rounded, lovely balance, with a trace of sweetness rounding it off.
Larry Cherubino Pedestal, Margaret River 2015 $25
Spicy, buttery, butterscotch, rich and rounded; a generous, complex barrel-ferment style.
Clyde Park, Geelong 2015 $35
Ripe, rich stone-fruit aromas, full and round on the palate; a big style.
Quealy Tussie Mussie, Mornington 2015 $30
Ripe, spicy, rich and powerful with a toasted-nut barrel-ferment overtone.
Moorilla Muse Series, Tasmania 2015 $30
Pale, potpourri and spice aromas, richer on the palate with a slight grip. Very much a food style.
Pike & Joyce, Adelaide Hills 2015 $24
Smoky, spicy, intense; a leaner gris style. The 2014 is fruitier and a touch sweeter.
Kooyong Beurrot, Mornington 2014 $31
Rich, ripe fruit-compote, lychee aromas; the palate opulent and pillowy textured with viscosity and some evidence of barrel.
See also Ocean Eight, Bay of Fires, Riposte by Tim Knappstein, Derwent Estate, Gala Estate, Velo, Bleasdale, Tamar Ridge, Foxeys Hangout, Spring Vale, Grey Sands.
Huon's top six Australian pinot grigios
Oakridge Over the Shoulder, Yarra Valley 2014 $22
Pale copper-pink tinge, roast hazelnut aromas, generous flavour; at the richer end of grigio style.
Devil's Corner, Tasmania 2015 $20
Gently herbal, crisp, acidity, fine texture; definitive grigio. Gold medal, Tasmanian Wine Show 2016.
Longview Queenie, Adelaide Hills 2015 $20
Floral, honeyed, spicy aromas, very aromatic; richer than expected for grigio but there's a thread of refreshing acidity running through the palate.
Pizzini Whitefields, King Valley 2013 $27
Cured-hay, almond and honey aromas, very Italianate; lean and taut, dry and savoury.
Joseph D'Elena, Adelaide Hills 2014/15 $30
Lightly copper-tinged colour. An individual style: tropical passionfruit and guava aromas, some viscosity; clean, dry finish.
Karrawatta, Adelaide Hills 2014 $26
Nutty barrel-tinged aromas, the palate rich and characterful with a very dry finish.
See also Curly Flat, Bellvale, Chrismont La Zona, S.C. Pannell, Tar & Roses, Casa Freschi Ragazzi.