A scale for pinot gris would help both consumers and winemakers.
New Zealand's love affair with pinot gris has seen plantings of the variety in our vineyards blossom, increasing by close to 1000 per cent over the past decade. However, the huge array of styles in which the variety is made can make buying a bottle feel more like a blind date than a rendezvous with an intimate amour when it comes to judging just what you're going to get.
Granted, styles of local gris have settled down. Once upon a time even the same producer could produce something rich, soft and sweet one year, and the very next vintage, makes it dry and zesty. Most are generally now gently off-dry, although when it comes to weight and intensity there's still considerable variation.
In an attempt to give wine drinkers a better idea of a pinot gris style, the Australian Wine Research Institute in collaboration with some of Australia's leading wine companies, has developed the PinotG Style Spectrum. Using spectral analysis to indicate the concentration of different key components, the scale defines wines from crisp to luscious and will shortly be appearing on the labels of selected Aussie examples.
Confusion over the many faces of gris is certainly not specific to New Zealand. In Italy, under the name of pinot grigio, a lighter fresher style is the norm, while Alsace's examples tend to be more voluptuous and intense. However, even within these countries, there can still be significant stylistic differences. And in Australia, producers are labelling their examples as both gris and grigio to further complicate matters.
There's already been something comparable created for riesling, the International Riesling Foundation's Riesling Taste Profile, which is used by a number of New Zealand wineries. This defines the wine's style through an equation that takes into account the play between a wine's acidity and sweetness.
A similar scale for gris is something some key New Zealand producers of the variety would welcome.
"We contacted the riesling scale owners asking if we could use it for other aromatics," says Spy Valley's Blair Gibbs, who was told that it was solely for riesling.
"I think the same system on all wines that have the potential to carry a wide range of different levels of sweetness would make for far better consumer understanding."
"The scale is a great idea," says Jeremy McKenzie of Villa Maria. His company has already embraced the Riesling Taste Profile on its labels. "Just as the International Riesling scale is gaining momentum and aiding consumer decision for 'dry vs sweet' riesling, it would be timely for a similar 'crisp/dry versus rich' scale to be utilised for pinot gris/grigio. Or alternatively, a scale with parameters such as residual sugar and acidity could allow winemakers to label their wine 'dry' to enable distinction between styles."
However, not everyone is convinced by this format. "I think scales and numbers aren't effective with consumers," says major Marlborough wine consultant, Matt Thomson. "A name associated with a style is easier for consumers to embrace."
Just what appropriate terms could be for gris is open to debate: the way wineries are describing their versions of the variety currently shows very little consistency. Rich is sometimes used to imply sweetness, but could also suggest concentration in drier examples. And, as witnessed by the heated discussions that have raged around the riesling scale, many wineries are reticent of mentioning the "s" word, fearful that though many consumers drink wine with a bit of sweetness, being explicit could potentially put people off.
It's something of a conundrum. However a scale, or simply more accurate descriptions of style, would mean more gris buyers are likely to find matches made in heaven rather than risking a liaison with the unknown - something that should keep the romance with the variety very much alive.
GREAT GRIS DEBUT
Greywacke Marlborough Pinot Gris 2009 $29
Following the release of the impressive first sauvignon blanc from ex-Cloudy Bay winemaker Kevin Judd's new label, comes this equally exciting pinot gris. Concentrated, creamy textured and with a touch of sweetness, it juxtaposes rich notes of ripe pear and spice with a citrusy mineral undertone. Top stuff. (From Glengarry, Fine Wine Delivery Company.)
Mt Beautiful Cheviot Hills Pinot Gris 2009 $23.95
Another delicious debut is this inaugural pinot gris from North Canterbury newcomers, Mt Beautiful. Made in a decidedly Alsatian style, it's a richly textured, fresh and off dry example with concentrated flavours of spiced baked quince. (From La Barrique, La Vino, Bacchus Cellars, Mairangi Bay Fine Wines, Glengarry, Liquorland, Advintage.)
Isabel Marlborough Pinot Gris 2009 $20-$22
At the other end of the style spectrum is this lighter, dry and citrusy example. With its notes of crisp apple, fennel and fresh minerally core, it feels more grigio than gris. (From fine wine retailers and isabelestate.com)