The Surprising Story of Oregon’s Other Pinot

Pinot Gris grapes on the vine at King Estate in Eugene, Oregon / Courtesy King Estate

Wines that are rising stars or fallen angels often reflect sales trends. They can impact consumer perceptions of a particular grape variety, and sometimes an entire region. A case in point is Oregon and its up-and-down reputation with Pinot Gris

The first commercial domestic planting of Pinot Gris was made by The Eyrie Vineyards Founder David Lett a half-century ago. Some 25 years later, he wrote that he “faced the dreary syndrome from shops and restaurants and distributors that ‘if it’s white and it ain’t Chardonnay, I can’t deal with it.’ ” 

Though Pinot Gris seemed like a natural match to Oregon’s rising reputation for great Pinot Noir—and a perfect companion to Pacific Northwest salmon—it was in a bind.  

At a trio of Pinot Gris symposiums for producers a decade ago, the consensus was that retail prices had peaked at $12. This price ceiling, went the thinking, precluded further investment in vineyards, barrels and the like. Simple, generic and cheap Pinot Gris was in a downward spiral. 

Led by Pinot Gris superproducer King Estate, that gloomy scenario has flipped. The winery now makes up to 10 different versions and 100,000 cases in a single vintage. Such a range, Winemaker Brent Stone says, allows him to experiment with different vineyards and methods like fermenting in concrete tanks and doing extended sur lie aging

A vineyard vista of King Estate in Eugene, ORegon
A vineyard vista at King Estate in Eugene, Oregon / Courtesy King Estate

Though King Estate leads all Pinot Gris sales, imported and domestic, in the $15–$20 category according to recent Nielsen data, it’s certainly not alone. Statewide acreage is up close to 50% since 2015. Alongside Oregon Chardonnay and Riesling, Pinot Gris occupies an important niche to help establish the state as a world-class white wine producer. 

Keeler Estate Vineyard is another Pinot Gris pioneer. Its lineup, all from estate-grown biodynamic grapes, includes a Skin Contact Pinot Gris that’s given a five-day cold soak prior to fermentation. This brings out a subtle, rosé-like hue, along with a softer palate. There’s also the Concrete Dolia Pinot Gris that’s fermented in a concrete egg, and the Barrel Aged bottle that sees time in neutral French oak. 

For the Barrel Aged bottling, the extended time on the lees, 18 months in mostly neutral oak, softens the mouthfeel and imbues a lightly honeyed character to flavors of fresh pear, apple and citrus fruit. In response to a query about ageworthiness, Keeler sent some back vintages, which were revelatory. 

Granted, these wines had perfect provenance, as they came directly from the estate. Nonetheless, a strong argument can be made to age your best Oregon Pinot Gris for a drinking window of between six and 10 years. Keeler’s 2011 was amazingly fresh and bright, with subtle floral and pastry highlights. The 2014, a better vintage, propelled those same characteristics into a lush, pastry-flecked palate with exceptional depth. 

Pinot Gris bottles from Keeler Estate Winery in Oregon
The Pinot Gris lineup from Keeler Estate Vineyard in Amity, Oregon / Courtesy Keeler Estate Vineyard

Current vintages of top-scoring Oregon Pinot Gris average around $20 and rise from there, with quality improvements that more than justify the cost. Look for King Estate’s widely available Willamette Valley bottling ($19); Authentique’s Leisure Pinot Gris ($32), fermented and aged in a mix of amphora, concrete egg and neutral oak; and Elk Cove’s Estate Pinot Gris ($19) that expands on the palate with a vivid mix of grapefruit, lemon curd and candied orange peel. 

If low-cost Italian Pinot Grigio is as far as you’ve ventured with this grape, it’s time to dive into Oregon’s offerings. You’ll discover a world of flavors especially suited to seafood, but with the versatility to expand, and even improve upon, your other white wine choices. Better yet, tuck a few choice bottles away for future enjoyment.

Published on June 4, 2021