Niagara Wine Reviews

Niagara Pinot Gris tasting puts variety in whole new light

Tasters gathered at Crush Wine Bar in Toronto for Pinot Gris tasting.

By Rick VanSickle

It all started as a simple, innocent mention on Twitter by a Niagara wine lover who was lamenting the fact that he was not the world’s No. 1 fan of Pinot Gris.
Mike Di Caro’s “tweet” touched off a flurry of responses that led to a promised tasting of Niagara’s best Pinot Gris. (You can read Mike’s thoughts here.)

Tasters gathered at Crush Wine Bar in Toronto for Pinot Gris tasting.
Tasters gathered at Crush Wine Bar in Toronto for Pinot Gris tasting.

The whole notion of Pinot Gris, versus Pinot Grigio, is merely stylistic. Pinot Gris, a style popularized in Alsace, France, is generally a more interesting wine when made with a little weight, often a bit of residual sugar and varying degrees of oak fermentation and aging (the oak aging is not part of Alsace wine making, and is more of a New World style). Pinot Grigio is more light and fruity, made for backyard sipping on a hot, summer’s day and made popular by Italian wine makers as well as in California, which grows more of this variety than anywhere else in the world.

But it is exactly the same grape, so it can be confusing for consumers who just don’t know what they’re getting into when they go shopping for one or the other.

Pinot Gris is not exactly a widespread in Niagara — only 900 tonnes were picked in 2009, down from 1,200 tonnes the year before. Compare that to Chardonnay, 6,300 tonnes, and Riesling, 5,400 tonnes, and you get the picture — it’s niche market where only a few dare to go.

But those who have taken the challenge are making some pretty stellar wines. Rich, textured, bold and interesting Pinot Gris that go beyond your average white wine.

To prove that point, we gathered up 17 different Pinot Gris, including three from the Okanagan Valley, two from Alsace, France, and the rest from Niagara, for a tasting conducted at the Crush Wine Bar in downtown Toronto recently. A dozen wine lovers — sommeliers, winery staff, winemakers, writers, bloggers and knowledgeable consumers — were all invited to taste, talk and tweet to the world what they liked or didn’t like about this fashionable variety.

Richie Roberts, winemaker at Fielding Estate Winery in Niagara, took time from the harvest to sit in on the tasting. He makes one of the finest Canadian Pinot Gris, Rock Pile, and has a soft spot for this grape.

Roberts explained that Pinot Gris grows quite well in Niagara but can be difficult if you don’t pay attention to it.

“It’s a lot like Pinot Noir. It’s very finicky. It starts to break down fairly early so it’s difficult to hang it late,” he told us.

But getting it right has paid off for Fielding, which makes both the Rock Pile and a regular cuvee.

Richie Roberts talking at #tastegris from LCBO on Vimeo.

Here are some of the highlights from the tasting:

Fielding Estate Rock Pile Pinot Gris 2009 ($26, sold out, 4.5 stars) — I’ve reviewed this wine before, and it’s always a pleasure to sip. Ripe Bosc pear, apple and creamy-spicy notes on the nose. It’s a big and delicious, slightly off-dry Gris that invigorates the palate with apple, melon, pear and cream notes all supported by juicy acidity.

Creekside Pinot Gris.
Creekside Pinot Gris.

Thirty Bench Small Lot Pinot Gris 2007 and 2009 (2007 is a library wine but the 2009 is $30 at the winery, 4.5 stars) — Nice to try a slightly aged Pinot Gris beside the fresher version. I scored the 07 higher than the 09, it just had such perfect weight and balance. Both wines have lovely pear, apple, melon, toast, and vanilla notes with wonderful mouth feel and texture. Pure elegance.

Five Rows Craft Wine Pinot Gris 2008 ($25, just moving into the 2009 vintage, winery only, 4.5 stars) — Small production wine and typical of the best Gris being made in Niagara — tropical, apple, pear and honey notes that shows some structure on the palate, and a promise of aging beautifully.

Stoney Ridge Excellence Pinot Gris 2009 ($23, winery, 4.5 stars) — This wine was also previously reviewed here but scored high in the tasting and impressed the tasters. Such a gorgeous nose of melon, sweet citrus and apple crisp in a ripe and full-bodied style. More acid than some others we tried.

Creekside Pinot Gris Reserve 2007 ($25, winery, 4.5 stars) — A weighty Gris with apple-custard notes to go with melon, moderate acidity and a honey-kissed finish.
Creekside Select Late Harvest Pinot Gris 2007 ($24 for 375 Ml, winery, 4.5 stars) — Super fine nose of sweet peach, apple and apricot with wild honey and a wonderful viscous feel on the palate.

Alsace Pinot Gris.
Alsace Pinot Gris.

Some other Niagara Pinot Gris to try (all rated 3.5-4 stars): Inniskillin Winemaker’s Series Pinot Gris 2009 ($19), Fielding Estate Pinot Gris 2009 ($19), Hillebrand Artist Series Limited Edition Pinot Gris 2008 ($19), Riverview Pinot Grigio 2009 ($15), Coyote’s Run Red Paw Vineyard Pinot Gris 2008 ($18).

The Okanagan Valley’s Pinot Gris was generally finished in a drier style but the tasters were impressed with the three examples of this grape from the west coast. All rated 4 stars including Tinhorn Creek Pinot Gris 2009 ($17), 8th Generation Vineyard Pinot Gris 2009 ($20) and the sweeter Wild Goose Vineyards Pinot Gris 2009 ($26).

The treat of the tasting was the Alsatian Zind Humbrecht Clos Saint Ubain Rangen de Thann Grand Cru Tokay Pinot Gris 1992 in magnum. This is where Niagara could be headed, but Alsace has about a 400-year head start of growing this variety in France. Such amazing poached pear, lanolin, caramel and integrated wild honey and spice. A blockbuster!