Almost since the beginning, Pinot Noir has been Oregon’s claim to fame—it’s now an internationally known calling card. It has also stood apart, isolated and alone.
For Willamette Valley winemakers, that has posed a challenge. What is Pinot Noir’s natural companion? Must it be Chardonnay, as in Burgundy?
The state does boast some excellent Chardonnays. Rieslings, too, which thrive in the cool climate. But the white companion grapes Oregon vintners are embracing are Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc, both mutations of Pinot Noir.
After nearly 50 years, it would seem long overdue for Pinot Gris to claim its rightful place. Eyrie’s David Lett brought Pinot Gris up to Oregon in 1966—a total of 160 cuttings taken from the only four vines in the collection at University of California at Davis.
In 1970, Lett made the first commercial Pinot Gris in America. More than a decade passed before Dick Ponzi made the state’s next Pinot Gris, in 1981.
“Oregon Pinot Gris still had no audience to speak of,” Ponzi says.
It took another decade or two of slow, steady growth—in vineyard acres and producers—before the grape variety gained recognition.
Even now, identity problems remain. Should it be labeled Pinot Gris or Pinot Grigio? Is there a stylistic difference between the two? Isn’t it time to promote Oregon Pinot Gris, and break free of references to Old World names and styles?
The history of Pinot Blanc in Oregon is even more tangled and confusing. The first wave of plantings in the Willamette Valley turned out to be mislabeled. What was thought to be Pinot Blanc was actually Melon de Bourgogne—the grape of Muscadet.
Genuine Pinot Blanc cuttings went into the ground in the early 1990s. Eyrie was again in the forefront, although demand was light.
Jason Lett recalls that for years he made about 500 cases annually. Recently, he’s been scrambling to make more, as consumer interest has picked up.
When tasting large flights of both wines, clear varietal differences emerge.
Generally, Oregon Pinot Blancs are less fleshy than Pinot Gris. But the Pinot Blancs show more minerality, accompanied by bracing acidity, citrus fruit and lightly peppery highlights.
Although both varieties thrive in the Willamette Valley, they offer different flavor profiles that clearly reflect vintage character.
In 2011, a cool vintage, Pinot Blanc shines with fresh, floral notes and bracing minerality. In 2012, a much warmer vintage, the rich, round, fleshy fruit flavors of Pinot Gris are at their best.
Either way, they’re winning propositions.
Oregon’s Pinot Gris production began to climb in the early 1990s, as vineyard acreage increased (up almost 50% between 1989 and 1990). It’s now the second-most planted variety (red or white) in the state, still well behind Pinot Noir, but at more than twice the acreage of third-place Chardonnay.
Look for luscious flavors of fresh-cut pear, often with a dusting of cinnamon, minimal (if any) exposure to new oak and brisk acidity. The current trend is toward terroir-driven wines with little or no residual sugar.
King Estate has been the industry leader with this variety, and farms its 314 acres organically. It also purchases grapes from other growers, pushing overall production over 100,000 cases annually. It’s the producer consumers are most likely to encounter.
Other volume producers include A to Z, Erath, Ponzi and Rainstorm. Whether it’s fermented in stainless steel or neutral oak, Oregon Pinot Gris is a mouthfilling, textural wine, generously fruity and with a healthy fruit-acid balance.
Match it with salmon and halibut, of course, but also roast poultry or rabbit, and spicy foods like jerk chicken or curry.
Three Top Pinot Gris
90 Ponzi 2012 Pinot Gris (Willamette Valley). A fine effort in 2012, this clean and fresh Pinot Gris impresses with crisply defined flavors of jicama, white peach, pineapple and honeydew melon. Flavors are persistent and lightly kissed with vanilla through a lingering, lively finish.
abv: 13.2% Price: $17
90 Rainstorm 2012 Pinot Gris (Oregon). Spicy and intense, this excellent Pinot Gris is loaded with Gravenstein apple, cut pear and a taste of orange peel. Surprising length and power for a European-styled wine, with modest alcohol. Best Buy.
abv: 12.5% Price: $14
90 Walnut City WineWorks 2012 Pinot Gris (Willamette Valley). All-stainless fermented, this flavorful Pinot Gris displays fleshy, ripe pear fruit flavors, with a light dusting of cinnamon spice. It’s simply delicious and ready for drinking right now. Best Buy.
abv: 13.3% Price: $15
Other Recommended Pinot Gris Producers: Adelsheim, Anne Amie, Carabella, Château Bianca, Coeur de Terre, Cristom, David Hill, Eight Bells, The Eyrie Vineyards, Hawks View, King Estate, Lachini Vineyards, Lange, Lujon, Oak Knoll, Pudding River, Raptor Ridge, Rex Hill, Seven Hills, Soléna, Spindrift Cellars, Terrapin Cellars, Westrey
Pinot Gris Food Pairings
If you want to eat like a locals, opt for fresh King salmon or halibut steaks with your Oregon Pinot Gris. The meatiness of these fish plays well with the generous mid palate of the wine, and by keeping the seasoning simple, both halves of the equation can show their subtle flavors.
A more adventurous match would be medium-spicy curry or noodle dish, where the rich, fruit sweetness of the wine cools and refreshes between bites.
The first true Pinot Blancs were made in Oregon in the late 1980s by Cameron and Adelsheim.
Vineyard acreage is tiny, only reaching 160 acres in 2011, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. Dozens of producers make at least a few barrels of the wine, however, and it seems to have special appeal to young winemakers and sommeliers.
“At first, I was a little confused as to how to differentiate it from our Pinot Gris. Dad [the late David Lett] told me to just make it the perfect oyster wine—very dry, very crisp. That’s where I see it going,” says Eyrie’s Jason Lett.
Thibaud Mandet, winemaker at WillaKenzie Estate, has worked with Pinot Blanc for more than a decade—it’s his favorite white wine. He gives it high marks for “versatility, brightness and aromatics.”
“If I have to open one single white wine in my cellar to show my friends,” he says, “I open Pinot Blanc.”
Scott Minge, who manages the Paulée Restaurant in Dundee, is another advocate.
“Where I think the Willamette truly shines stylistically is with Pinot Blanc,” he says. “It seems to be more interesting and complex than Pinot Gris.”
Tasting several dozen Pinot Blancs from the 2011 and 2012 vintage, some general characteristics emerge.
The best open with a whiff of honeysuckle, citrus—often grapefruit—and green apple, and have vivid acidity. There may be hints of white pepper or almond. Generally, they’re fermented entirely in stainless steel, and the alcohol levels range from 12–13%.
Estate-grown and single-vineyard examples are often higher quality than those made from purchased grapes or blended versions.
Drink these wines cool, but not so cold as to kill the aromatics or deaden the finish.
Some can’t-miss food matches are shellfish, light freshwater fish and poultry. For elegance, purity of flavor, floral aromatics and under-lying minerality, select a 2011 example. For a rounder, fruitier style, look for a 2012.
Three Top Pinot Blancs
92 Bethel Heights 2012 Pinot Blanc (Eola-Amity Hills). This estate-grown offering was a standout among several dozen tasted for this article. It’s loaded with bright fruit flavors of grapefruit and pear, and even in the ripe 2012 vintage, it maintains the trademark minerality and a detailed, focused-finish.
abv: 13.3% Price: $18
91 Ken Wright 2011 Pinot Blanc (Willamette Valley). Barrel fermented in neutral French oak, this mouthwatering Pinot Blanc uses fruit from the Meredith Mitchell and Freedom Hill vineyards. It rested on the lees until bottling, yielding a rich, even creamy wine, with a gentle spiciness and plenty of acidity. A hint of beeswax and the lightest suggestion of toast bring more interest to the finish. Editors’ Choice.
abv: 12.5% Price: $24
90 The Eyrie Vineyards 2011 Pinot Blanc (Dundee Hills). Distinctive aromas of beeswax and bee pollen continue with similar flavors, wrapped around tart yellow apple fruit. It’s lovely, fragrant and ageworthy, in a high-acid European mold, but give it plenty of time to breathe. Decanting is a good idea. Editors’ Choice.
abv: 12.5% Price: $17
Other Recommended Pinot Blanc Producers: Adelsheim, Apolloni, Cana’s Feast, Chehalem, David Hill, ENSO, Erath, Foris, Four Graces, J. Scott Cellars, Ponzi, St. Innocent, Thistle, Walter Scott, WillaKenzie, Wine By Joe, Witness Tree
Pinot Blanc Food Pairings
Pinot Blanc, when done well, is a delicate, elegant wine with aromatic notes of flower and citrus. The bright acidity makes these wines a lovely match for lighter seafoods, including crab and oysters. River fish such as rainbow trout, cooked simply in a little brown butter, will also complement the wine well.