Pinot Gris – Pink or Grey?

The role of Pinot Gris as a growth product to complement sauvignon blanc and pinot noir has been the subject of much recent discussion.  It is reported that winemakers seem to loath handling the grape, but consumers can’t get enough.

Globally, pinot gris seems to have been touched to some degree by the magic associated with the word “pinot”.  But not without its own grey clouds.

Under the guise of pinot grigio, primarily from Italy, pinot gris is the largest selling imported varietal wine in the United States.   However, pinot gris has already experienced multiple periods of (sometimes brief) fashionable popularity.  In the broader sense pinot gris suffers from twin identity issues: like pinot noir, there are only a limited number of countries that grow it successfully and, more importantly, it suffers from a significant lack of a global benchmark.

In fact, there are several different regions of the world that tend to be identified with pinot gris/grigio in the minds of winemakers and of the consumer – and rarely do these seem to align.

Within the winemaking community, when an effort is made with pinot gris it seems that the benchmark in the past has tended to be that of Alsace in France, where pinot gris (until quite recently often labelled as “Tokay d’Alsace”) tends to be made primarily as a fuller, rich, mostly but not always dry style, sometimes with an unctuous or oily texture not unlike many viogniers.  However, it must be said that this style has never become especially popular with consumers and Alsatian wines in general (including its rieslings, gewürztraminers and pinot blancs) have experienced declining sales during recent years – especially in the Anglophone countries that are also New Zealand’s major customers.

The largest producer in the world today is Italy, primarily in its northern regions, where the wines are labelled pinot grigio.  The vast majority of pinot grigio is made in a relatively light, usually dry style, not notably fragrant but suited to consumption with food.  Although demonstrably popular with consumers, especially in Europe and the USA, this style is often viewed with disdain by New World winemakers.

The third main European style is that of Germany, where the wines are commonly labelled under the local names for the variety: rulander and grauburgunder. German rulander may be dry or offdry through to sweet and typically has slightly higher acidity than the Alsatian and Italian pinot gris wines; and it has a flavour and palate profile arguably falling somewhere between those two styles.  This style is not widely exported, having little international profile, and it is largely consumed in the German domestic market.  Within Germany rulander is, after all, very much a minor grape variety.

The most successful New World producer to date has been Oregon in the USA.  Oregon Pinot Gris wines also tend to vary between mimicking the Alsatian and Italian styles depending on the producer, but are more likely to be labelled as “gris” than as “grigio”, and this template has been largely adopted elsewhere outside of Europe.

New Zealand plantings are still relatively small in the context of the wider industry, but have grown fast as a consequence of its increasingly disproportionate importance.  Sales have increased strongly, exports have followed, and many producers have struggled to keep up with demand so that grape prices have been relatively robust until only recently (when downward price pressure on other varieties has unavoidably affected pinot gris).  It remains to be seen what impact later plantings will start to have.

It is only recently that exports of pinot gris wines from New Zealand have started to threaten domestic sales – only five years ago sales were almost completely domestic.  The largest export market is Australia, where almost as much is sold as in the 2nd and 3rd largest markets, the USA and United Kingdom, combined.  It is not clear if the widely commented on stylistic divergence of New Zealand pinot gris wines contributed to the initial slow export uptake, although this now appears less of an issue.  Most New Zealand pinot gris tends to range from just off-dry to medium sweetness, but even within this band there is wide stylistic variance.  While there are some producers aiming to emulate the dry fuller-bodied Alsatian style, others use pinot grigio labelling and a nod to the Italian style.  In between, and especially from the more southerly regions, there may actually be a closer affinity to the German rulander styles.

The export growth of the last 2-3 years definitely suggests potential for New Zealand pinot gris, notwithstanding the stylistic issues.  There are still only a few countries in the world that possess the climate conditions suited to the grape – notwithstanding the fact that it is grown in Northern Europe and yet also in Italy.  This is hardly surprising given its pinot noir genetic origins.  Even so it is grown from the very north of the country to the very south (and in fact the regions that grow more pinot gris than sauvignon blanc are Northland, Auckland, Gisborne and Central Otago).

Interestingly, plantings in several of the Southern Hemisphere producers that are perceived as competition for New Zealand in several grape varieties, such as Chile, South Africa and Argentina, are relatively small.  Australia grows twice as much pinot gris as New Zealand, most grown either in cooler southern regions (Victoria, Tasmania) or else picked early in the hot irrigated regions.

World Pinot Gris Hectares Year % Share
Argentina 347 2008 0.7%
Australia 2835 2008 5.7%
Austria 293 2006 0.6%
Canada 230 2006 0.5%
France 2360 2008 4.7%
Germany 4413 2007 8.8%
Italy*1 11600 2007 23.2%
New Zealand 1460 2009 2.9%
USA – California 11958 2008 24.0%
USA – Oregon 2600 recent 5.2%
USA – Washington 500 recent 1.0%
Other*2 11300 various 22.6%
       
Total World 49896    

*1  It has been estimated by Attilio Scienza that based on production and sales data Italian plantings may actually be closer to 14,000 ha

*2  Estimate – Includes unverified data regarding plantings in Eastern Europe (esp. Moldova, Romania, Hungary, Slovenia, Ukraine) as well as minor producers

The Market Question

So the real question is that of the market for pinot gris, both in New Zealand and internationally.

In my opinion a quite complex (and concerning) issue is that of the “palate polarisation” of the mass white wine drinking public. This is the situation where a large number of sauvignon drinkers profess dislike for pinot gris and chardonnay, chardonnay drinkers profess dislike for sauvignon blanc and pinot gris, and where pinot gris drinkers profess dislike for chardonnay and sauvignon blanc. These preferences can seem even to verge on snobbery.

Whether or not they actually do becomes increasingly moot.  It could be argued that there are similar issues within red wines, but I suspect these are far more limited given the wider range of red varietal and blended wines readily available.  The same cannot be said for white wines in much of the New World, with alternatives such as the aromatics and Rhone varietals both either less available or terminally underappreciated by the majority of people who want to drink the “big three”. (As I have posited in previous posts, there is a sense that riesling, for example, is more likely to be liked or appreciated by a pinot noir drinker than by most other white wine drinkers).

The absence of alternatives looms as a huge problem if palate boredom leads to changes in fashion, because socially acceptable fashion drinking is very much the demand driver here.

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