Pinot gris continues to be a varietal wine with legs in B.C. and the fact that it’s quickly becoming part of the local lexicon of wine has no doubt been beneficial to import versions too. In the Canadian market you will encounter some versions labelled pinot gris while others boast the typical Italian moniker pinot grigio.
Many of the best pinot gris, at least in my view, come from British Columbia, Northern Italy and New Zealand. The French version, from Alsace should not be ignored, but it tends to be so rich and heavy in style that it has little in common with its cooler climate cousins. California is awakening but, like Oregon, has yet to produce much more than what might be described as chardonnay look-alikes.
The latest statistics from the British Columbia Wine institute show pinot gris second among all white grapes planted in B.C., with 13.21 per cent of the space. Chardonnay leads all white varieties in the ground at 27.5 per cent of the total plantings.
Pinot gris is said to be a mutation of the pinot noir grape, although after that its origins are murky. Some historians point to the Cote-d'Or in Burgundy during the Middle Ages. Hungary boasted plantings as early as 1375, while an Alsace Baron brought pinot gris cuttings back to France in 1568 after fighting the Turks at Tokaji. He called the grape Tokay d'Alsace, a term since prohibited by the European Economic Community.
In the 18th century, a German merchant Johann Ruland discovered a wild vine growing on his property. He liked the wine he made from it and subsequent propagations were called rulander in his honour. The wild vine was pinot gris planted some 300 years earlier. Today, Germany’s dry version of pinot gris is called grauburgunder while the sweeter version is called rulander.
In Italy, the varietal is known as pinot grigio. Like so many Italian varieties, its history is shrouded in mystery and romance but it does date back to the 1830s. David Lett, owner of The Eyrie Vineyards in Dundee, Oregon planted that state’s first pinot gris in 1966 in the Willamette Valley. Today over 50 wineries are making Oregon pinot gris.
Gray Monk was the first to offer the varietal in B.C and has been among the leading producers since the late 1980s. The wine’s character varies with its origin and the winemaker's style, although the best are often un-wooded with medium-bodied, good fruit and some underlying spice. They are best enjoyed young.