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Washington Pinot Gris on a rocketship
Note: This is the third of our four-part series on Pacific Northwest Pinot Gris.
Pinot Gris is Oregon’s signature white wine grape – but Washington Pinot Gris has quickly gotten into the game.
In just a decade, Washington Pinot Gris has gone from obscurity to the state’s No. 3 white wine, thanks in large part to a couple of big players: Ste. Michelle Wine Estates and Hogue Cellars.
“Pinot Gris is growing, and ours is perceived as a good value and quantity and is growing with the category,” said Co Dinn, director of winemaking for Hogue Cellars in Prosser.
In 2003, Oregon crushed more than twice as much Pinot Gris as Washington. However, a big boost in production since 2008 has propelled Washington Pinot Gris past Oregon in total tons crushed. Oregon actually has more acres of Pinot Gris planted, but Washington’s warm Columbia Valley allows its Pinot Gris vines to carry up to twice as much tonnage.
Washington Pinot Gris vs. Sauvignon Blanc
For many years, Sauvignon Blanc was Hogue’s go-to dry white wine, but the white Bordeaux variety has been fairly static the past few years, both at Hogue and statewide. Hogue began making Sauvignon Blanc in the early 1980s when it launched, and today the Yakima Valley giant makes about 30,000 cases.
Meanwhile, Washington Pinot Gris has been on a bit of a rocketship. As recently as 2001, Hogue produced just 7,700 cases of Pinot Gris. Then the winery was sold to Vincor in Canada, and a simple marketing move changed everything.
In 2002, Hogue changed the name from “Pinot Gris” to “Pinot Grigio” – at a time when Italian Pinot Grigio was one of the top imported wines in the United States. What happened next was stunning. That year, Hogue made 6,200 cases, but demand increased, so production went up to 16,000 cases in 2003 and 22,000 cases in 2004.
Today, Dinn and his staff make 60,000 cases of Pinot Grigio for Hogue Cellars and another 20,000 cases under its Thorny Rose label. Both are fermented in stainless steel with no lees aging or secondary malolactic fermentation.
“We’ve tried (lees aging) and didn’t like the results,” Dinn told Great Northwest Wine. “I don’t think the yeasty character adds anything to the style we’re making. We’ll leave the richer white wine for Chardonnay.”
For Pinot Gris, Dinn wants to keep it clean and lean.
“Making Pinot Gris is all about preserving the freshness and the beauty of the fruit we have in Washington,” he said.
Typically, Dinn leaves about a half-percent of residual sugar in the Pinot Gris – below the threshold at which most people can perceive sweetness – to not only add complexity to the wine but also mask the slight astringency that comes naturally with it.
Most of the grapes for Hogue’s Pinot Gris come from the Yakima Valley, a relatively cooler area of the vast Columbia Valley and the largest grape-growing region in the state with more than 17,000 acres of wine grapes in the ground. He also brings in a bit of fruit from cool sites in the northern Columbia Valley.
Similar to Riesling, Pinot Gris thrives in somewhat cooler areas, Dinn said. It also tends to carry a large crop – often as high as 6 tons per acre.
For Hogue and other producers, Washington Pinot Gris is the definition of a cash-flow wine. The grapes are picked as early as mid-September, and bottling begins in December. The wines reach the marketplace by March. All of Hogue’s Pinot Gris are bottled under screwcap and priced under $10 for national distribution.
Dinn strives to make a Pinot Gris with aromas and flavors of peach, pear, grapefruit and a touch of herbaceousness — all backed with crisp, palate-tingling acidity. He said Pinot Gris lends itself to lighter cuisine, including seafood, chicken our poultry prepared in a light-handed manner.
“It is a great oyster wine,” he said.
Ste. Michelle Wine Estates largest Washington Pinot Gris producer
At the Northwest’s largest wine producer, Pinot Gris is an important white wine, even if it is dwarfed by Riesling. Ste. Michelle Wine Estates makes about 200,000 cases of Washington Pinot Gris (and another 30,000 cases at Oregon’s Erath Winery).
Nearly half of this is made at Chateau Ste. Michelle in Woodinville under the direction of head winemaker Bob Bertheau and white winemaker Wendy Stuckey.
“When you look at the last four years, Pinot Gris has taken a big jump,” Bertheau told Great Northwest Wine.
Bertheau likes Pinot Gris for its brightness and food-friendliness.
“Our style is not that far apart from Oregon,” he said. “I think there’s a Northwest style.”
He said Pinot Gris provides pleasing melon notes, along with minerality similar to Riesling.
Most of Bertheau’s Pinot Gris also comes from the Yakima Valley, primarily Airport Ranch near Prosser, as well as Upland Vineyard on Snipes Mountain near Sunnyside. He likes Pinot Gris to carry 5 to 5.5 tons per acre, depending on the vintage.
“If you have too low of a crop, the grapes ripen faster,” Bertheau explained. “Then you end up ripening the fruit too quickly and don’t get as much character.”
Typically, Bertheau will bring in his Pinot Gris at around 23 brix, which is a little higher than sister winery Columbia Crest.
“Crest tends to make its Pinot Gris a little brighter with less alcohol,” he said. “I leave mine out there just a little longer, though I’m not looking for high alcohol.”
Though he won’t put his Pinot Gris through malolactic fermentation, Bertheau does try a bit of oak fermentation, perhaps as much as 5 percent of the wine.
For Bertheau, crab cakes might be the perfect foil for Pinot Gris because Chardonnay can be a bit too rich and Riesling could be a little too high in acidity. He also enjoys Cobb salad and risotto with Pinot Gris.
“I want fresh food, nothing too heavy.”
Washington Pinot Gris from three AVAs
Victor Palencia, winemaker for Jones of Washington in Mattawa, makes Pinot Gris from three American Viticultural Areas, and he sees distinct differences. Palencia works with estate grapes from the Wahluke Slope and Ancient Lakes of Columbia Valley and purchases fruit from the Yakima Valley. Between the three, he crushes anywhere from 500 to 700 tons of Pinot Gris, enough to make more than 40,000 cases.
He will pick Yakima Valley Pinot Gris around the first week of October, and he loves the brightness of these wines.
“That’s where I grew up,” Palencia said of the Yakima Valley. “I love how aromatic Pinot Gris from there can be, how crisp and refreshing. Acidity can be predominant and balance the fruit.”
Jones has about 50 acres of Pinot Gris in Ancient Lakes, which is cooler than the Yakima Valley. Thus, Palencia said, the grapes come in a week or two later. The longer hang time can bring more maturity and complexity to the flavors, he said. Hot days cool off dramatically at night, which keeps the natural acidity higher.
On the warm Wahluke Slope, Jones has another 50 acres of Pinot Gris.
“With the warmer area, you have higher pH and heavier wine that is not quite as crisp and refreshing,” Palencia said. “It can get away from you pretty quickly, so the picking decisions have to be made much more quickly.”
On the Wahluke Slope, Pinot Gris harvest can come as early as mid-September, he said.
He said the backbone of his Pinot Gris is Granny Smith apple characteristics, along with stone fruit aromas and flavors.
Palencia, who was born in Mexico, likes the way Pinot Gris pairs with Latin food. He especially loves it with ceviche.
“It’s a palate rush,” he said enthusiastically. “It really exploits the flavors of Pinot Gris.”
He also said baked salmon is a natural with Pinot Gris, and if he’s eating out and orders a bottle of Pinot Gris, his favorite pairings are crab cakes and calamari.
Washington Pinot Gris, Palencia said, is a great summer sipper.
“The profile changes depending on the residual sugar levels,” he said. “I prefer mine with spicy food. It has a great way of complementing and cooling off the palate.”