Pinot Gris, Pinot Grigio, Rulander, Grauer Burgunder, the random off-spring of one of my favorite reds (Pinot Noir), is often considered a noble variety but given it’s bastard origins I am hard pressed to consider it noble in any respect. As the name Grauer Burgunder suggests it’s true home is Burgundy and while there are some remaining plantings the Burgundians have largely given up on their embarrassing love child. Pinot Gris is a mutation of Pinot Noir. One day several hundred years ago a Frenchman tending his newly planted vines cried “Sacrebleu!” As the Frenchman inspected his new Pinot Noir clones he realized that he had been duped and did not have Pinot Noir at all but rather some random bastard of a vine. He stormed back to the other Frenchman who had sold him the “fake” Pinot Noir and cut off his left leg; such was the custom of the time. But in fact it was not the now monopedal Frenchman that had duped him but Mother Nature herself!
|What a Bastard!|
Grape vines, the ones that are used to make wine at least, are propagated through cloning. Cloning is when a piece of vine, say Syrah, is cut off and put into the soil so that an identical vine, more Syrah, may then grow. This form of vine reproduction has been practiced for millennia. Were vines solely propagated through sexual reproduction we would have no way of bringing Syrah to Australia, or Sauvignon Blanc to New Zealand. When vines have sex the seed that is produced will have bits of each of its’ parents DNA so Australia might end up with Syrah Blanc, and New Zealand a Sauvignon Syrah. Cloning is a means to just straight up steal the DNA of a given vine, but biology is sloppy and sometimes messes up, such is the case with Pinot Gris. While Pinot Gris is genetically identical to Pinot Noir it is in fact visibly and tastily different.
The mutation of clones is actually a pretty common thing in the world of wine. Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Auxerrois and Pinot Meunier are all mutations of Pinot Noir or some other more distant relative. Brunello is a mutation of Sangiovese, Zinfandel of Primativo(debatably), Shiraz of Syrah… Okay that’s not true when Syrah arrived on the shores of Australia the Aussies just decided Syrah was too girly of a name and changed it to Shiraz. While theoretically a clone of plant A should be in every capacity the same as plant A sometimes nature messes up and changes certain attributes; this is a mutation. While plant A may have black grapes every once and a while the clone that is taken from it may grow white grapes. I’m not a scientist, I don’t really understand how any of this works, but apparently when a vine mutates the DNA remains the same. I was always under the impression that DNA is exactly that that dictates the characteristics a thing will exhibit but apparently there is more to it than that. As far as I understand it a mutation will exhibit different characteristics than the plant it was taken from even though it shares the exact same DNA. If you want to know more go ask a scientist because I’m just plum confused on this bit.
|DNA: Seriously what the hell?|
Most mutations are undesirable and discarded; some stand the test of time and are kept around. Mutation are not the only way that new grape varieties come into being, often new grape varieties are a result of good old fashion breeding which sounds more sexy than it is… surprisingly. Basically in order to breed two vines one must simply stand over vine A (at the height of its sexual arousal) with vine B and shake the hell out of B so that all the pollen falls onto the ready and awaiting A, preferably consensually. We could get into more detail than that but it would ruin the sheer beauty that is two vines mating. This form of grape making creates a vine with unique DNA and unique characteristics. Scientists are continually breeding grapes in this manner, crossing one variety with another, in hopes of creating an even better variety.
Pinot Gris has actually propagated its own descendents over the years but that is really neither here nor there. For whatever reason the people of Germany, Alsace (when it wasn’t in the hands of the Germans) and Italy have felt it proper to continue the survival of this most vexing mutation. Pinot Gris despite its name is not in fact Gris (Grey) at all but more likely(the colour does kind of vary, clones aren’t always that stable, and you have to factor in terrior, one must never forget about terroir) a surprisingly dark shade of red for what is meant to be a white wine. As any lover of British Colombian wine (I’m not putting myself in this camp, nor am I excluding myself) can tell you Pinot Gris can often take on a pinkish tinge, in fact I would argue many of the province’s “white” Pinot Gris’ are in fact roses, which may help you understand why I am not particularly fond of this grape: no one likes a ginger.
There is no standard way to treat this grape, nobody can agree on how it should be made, although I think the Burgundians chose the proper solution: banishment. Pinot Gris is the French name and in France the grape is treated as a strong, full-bodied, boozy, boxer. The Alsatians’ deliver a classic full-bodied, high alcohol, honey and spice combo, which is strange given its northerly position and relatively cool climate. Theoretically Alsace would be more apt to produce high acid light bodied wine. Further south where the weather is much warmer the style is much lighter. Italy produces Pinot Grigio that is definitely patio wine, light and crisp and mineralistic, the wine will help you beat the heat but that’s pretty much it. And in Germany… well I can’t really speak from experience, and I’d rather not just regurgitate information. For some reason B.C. hates German wine, finding a Riesling is hard enough; good luck finding a Rulander/ Grauer Burgunder/ Pinot Gris.
Italy and Alsace manage to claim the two competing paradigms for this grape, light and fruity vs. full and honeyed. Typically if you see a wine labeled Pinot Gris that isn’t from France it will be made to fit the Alsatian archetype, if the label reads Pinot Grigio it should be closer to the Italian style, however in wine, much like in life, there are no guarantees.
As much as I argue against it maybe I should just try and embrace it. After all the Grey Pinot has been around for quite some time now. The New World is slowly embracing the grape as one of their own, and the nearest grape growing region to where I now sit has clearly fallen in love with the grape. In fact one of my favorite BC wines is an oaked Pinot Gris by Blue Mountain, should you ever get the chance I highly recommend drinking a full bottle. I’m currently sipping an Alsatian and finding it harder and harder to resist her charms. I guess I’ll throw in the towel and admit that I do kind of like Pinot Gris but while I understand why she is attractive I very much doubt that I will ever court her.