In this month’s Five Wines Under $15, we take a look at Washington Pinot Gris with a cyber special 2:1 wine list. Read previous Five Under $15s here. Table - 2009 Pinot Gris Production by Brand Wine Cases Chateau Ste. Michelle Pinot Gris 2009 58,000 Columbia Crest Pinot Grigio Two Vines 2009 50,000 Hogue Pinot Grigio Columbia Valley 2009 31,200 Columbia Crest Grand Estates Pinot Grigio 2009 14,000 Columbia Crest H3 Pinot Gris 2009 5,000 Milbrandt Traditions Pinot Gris 2009 3,972 Mercer Pinot Gris Yakima Valley 2009 2,396 Waterbrook Pinot Gris Columbia Valley 2009 1,958 Dusted Valley Boomtown Pinot Gris Washington 2009 1,800 Ross Andrew Pinot Gris Columbia Gorge 2009 550 Hyatt Vineyards Pinot Gris Rattlesnake Hills 2009 814 Total Cases 169, 690 NB: Columbia Winery made 8,376 cases of Pinot Gris in 2008. 2009 numbers were not available.
Scan the wine and grocery store shelves and you will find a good selection of Oregon Pinot Gris. You might be surprised then to hear that Washington makes more Pinot Gris than Oregon. In fact, Pinot Gris is Washington’s third most planted white grape at over 1,500 acres. The obvious question then is, where are all the wines?
Pinot Gris plantings have been on an astronomical rise in Washington in the last several years. According to the USDA, there were a mere 488 acres of Pinot Gris in Washington in 2006. By 2011, total plantings were 1,576 acres, meaning they have more than tripled in the last five years. No other grape in Washington has shown such a large percentage increase over this time. Nothing is even close.
As one would expect, production has increased dramatically as well. In 2006 Pinot Gris was fifth behind Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, and even Gewurztraminer. By 2010 it had vaulted to third with 6,100 tons produced.
Meanwhile, Oregon produced 5,312 tons of Pinot Gris in 2010 from 2,747 acres. That’s right, Washington is currently making more Pinot Gris than Oregon - one of the state’s mainstay grapes.
Does something seem strange about this picture? Where is all of that Washington Pinot Gris?
Let’s look for it.
Yakima Valley is home to more than half of the state’s plantings at 855 acres. Columbia Valley is second at 248 acres and Horse Heaven Hills third at 138. After that there are a smattering of plantings in the Columbia Gorge, Rattlesnake Hills, Lake Chelan, and (gulp) Puget Sound.
But where are the wines? Again, in 2010 Washington produced 6,100 tons of Pinot Gris. Assuming a conservative 50 cases of wine per ton of grapes, one would expect to see over 300,000 cases of Pinot Gris produced in Washington in 2010. Recent production numbers don’t look remotely close to this.
In 2009, the last year for which good data are available, major wineries account for less than 200,000 cases of Pinot Gris (see table at bottom of post). This would leave a gap of more than 100,000 cases.
Where is all of this Pinot Gris going?
There would seem to be two possibilities. The first is that a wave of Washington Pinot Gris is about to come our way. Given the large acreage increase in the last five years, many of these vines are just coming on line. If this is true, we can expect to see an increasing amount of Washington Pinot Gris on the shelves in the coming years. Still, this doesn’t account for what happened to the 6,100 tons of Pinot Gris in 2010.
A second possibility is that a large amount of Washington Pinot Gris is being blended into other varietal and non-varietally labeled white wines to stretch them out. The most likely candidate for varietal wines would be Chardonnay and then, perhaps, Sauvignon Blanc. At $765 per ton, Pinot Gris is considerably less expensive than Chardonnay ($899) and Sauvignon Blanc ($843) in Washington. Outside of comparably priced Semillon ($761), only the lowly Chenin Blanc at $688 per ton is less expensive in the state (NB: The only reason there is so much old vine Chenin Blanc in Washington is because it is used to stretch out other white wines).
It is also possible that Pinot Gris is making its way into large production, generic white blends. But what wines?
Regardless of where it’s all going and whether wineries are looking to stretch out their white wines or not, why would Washington vineyards be planting so much Pinot Gris in recent years?
Nationally, Pinot Gris is on the rise. The Wine Market Council recently noted that Pinot Gris consumption has increased steadily in the last five years with 39% of wine drinkers drinking the wine in 2010 up from 27% in 2006. According to Nielsen, Pinot Gris has had one of the largest volume increases in sales for white wines in the past year behind Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc. So there do appear to be reasons for planting the grape.
Is Pinot Gris poised to become a hallmark white wine for Washington? It doesn’t seem likely. While many of the wines reviewed below were enjoyable, none gave particular cause for excitement. Unlike other grapes that have been on the rise recently in Washington – think Malbec, Grenache, and Tempranillo – Pinot Gris’ ascent seems to be caused more by market dynamics than by high quality wines that have captured consumer or critical attention.
Is there a common thread to Washington Pinot Gris? Looking at releases from the 2009 and 2010 vintages below, it is difficult to say. Washington’s Pinot Gris are all light in color. Most are lightly aromatic with spice, straw, and apple notes, occasionally veering into a more tropical realm. The wines are medium to medium-plus bodied, separating them from many of their white wine peers. Most are 100% varietal and fermented and aged in stainless steel. But there the story ends, without something truly distinguishing or distinctive.
Ultimately, while Washington Pinot Gris is still in its early days, it’s hard to see why one would drink these wines over say Chardonnay (light to medium bodied, often with more acidity), Sauvignon Blanc (more acidity), or Riesling (more aromatic, more acidity, and considerably more diverse). Still, with all of this Pinot Gris planted, some Washington winemakers are sure to create wines that capture the imagination. Could a Pinot Gris gold rush follow? Only time will tell.
Columbia Crest Grand Estates Pinot Gris Columbia Valley 2010 $12
Rating: + (Good) Pale lemon yellow. Moderately aromatic with spice and pear. Palate is broad and medium bodied with a drawn out mouthfeel. Lingers on the finish. A pleasing, well made wine. 97.5% Pinot Gris, 2.5% Pinot Blanc. Fermented and aged in stainless steel. 13% alcohol. Recommended.
Dusted Valley Vintners Boomtown Pinot Gris Washington State 2010 $13
Rating: + (Good) Just the slightest tinge of color. A lightly aromatic wine with bananas and other tropical fruit and apple. The palate has a spritzy feel and is full of mango and banana flavors with a crisp finish. A very clean, enjoyable wine. 100% Pinot Gris. Evergreen Vineyard. Fermented and aged in stainless steel. 13.0% alcohol. Recommended. Reviewed November 18, 2011
Sockeye Pinot Grigio Columbia Valley 2010 $12
Rating: + (Good) Pale lemon yellow. Considerably more aromatic than the other wines sampled here with grass, lemon, hay, and bananas. The palate is medium bodied, full of banana flavors, with a rounded feel. 75% Pinot Gris, 16% Sauvignon Blanc, and 9% Roussanne. Canyon Ranch, Phil Church, A&R, and Willow Crest vineyards. 13.0% alcohol. 0.37% Residual Sugar. 1,542 cases produced. Recommended
Columbia Crest H3 Pinot Gris Horse Heaven Hills 2009 $15
Rating: + (Good) Pale lemon yellow. Very lightly aromatic with straw and a distinct aniseed note. Palate is medium bodied and broad with a textured feel, full of apple flavors with a spice filled finish. Despite the small percentage used, the oak plays a notable part in this show, broadening out the wine and contributing to spice flavors on the finish. 92% Pinot Gris, 8% Pinot Blanc. 92% fermented and aged in stainless steel. 8% fermented and aged in two-year-old American oak. 13.0% alcohol. 5,000 cases produced.
Chateau Ste Michelle Pinot Gris Columbia Valley 2009 $13
Rating: + (Good) Pale lemon yellow. A fairly aromatic wine with yellow apple, straw, and buttery spices. Palate is medium-plus bodied with an almost creamy feel accented by moderate acidity. 94% Pinot Gris, 6% Viognier. Fermented and aged in stainless steel. 13.5% alcohol.
Hogue Cellars Pinot Grigio Columbia Valley 2010 $11
Rating: + (Good) Pale lemon yellow. Very lightly aromatic with yellow apple, spice, and traces of tropical fruit. Palate is medium bodied with a broad feel. Appears to have just the slightest touch of Residual Sugar. A very enjoyable, well made wine. 50,000 cases produced. 13.4% alcohol.
Columbia Crest Two Vines Pinot Grigio Columbia Valley 2009 $8
Rating: ./+ (Decent/Good) Pale lemon yellow. Very lightly aromatic with yellow apple and spice notes. Palate is medium bodied and a bit more generous in texture than the other wines sampled here with a drawn out feel. Overall an enjoyable, easy drinker. 12.5% alcohol. 50,000 cases produced.
Waterbrook Winery Pinot Gris Columbia Valley 2010 $11
Rating: ./+ (Decent/Good) Considerably more aromatic than most of the wines sampled here with ripe yellow apple, pear, white grapefruit, and banana. The palate is tear dropped shaped, starting out broadly and then tapering off with abundant pear and floral notes. 100% Pinot Gris. 0.54% Residual Sugar. 12.3% alcohol. 2,000 cases produced.
Barnard Griffin Pinot Gris Columbia Valley 2009 $12
Rating: . (Decent) Very pale in color. Aromatically the wine has a distinct funk to it along with spice notes. The palate is medium bodied with a slightly tart finish. Caroway Vineyard (Columbia Valley), Gunkel Vineyard (Columbia Valley), and Freepons Vineyard (Yakima Valley). Fermented and aged in stainless steel. 12.01% alcohol. 0.2g/100ml Residual Sugar. 560 cases produced.
Columbia Winery Pinot Gris Columbia Valley 2009 $11
Rating: . (Decent) Pale lemon yellow. Very lightly aromatic with straw, spice, and apple. Shows some alcohol. Medium bodied, the wine comes off as somewhat short, tart, and bitter. On the low end of this section of the scale. 13.0% alcohol.
Table - 2009 Pinot Gris Production by Brand
Chateau Ste. Michelle Pinot Gris 2009
Columbia Crest Pinot Grigio Two Vines 2009
Hogue Pinot Grigio Columbia Valley 2009
Columbia Crest Grand Estates Pinot Grigio 2009
Columbia Crest H3 Pinot Gris 2009
Milbrandt Traditions Pinot Gris 2009
Mercer Pinot Gris Yakima Valley 2009
Waterbrook Pinot Gris Columbia Valley 2009
Dusted Valley Boomtown Pinot Gris Washington 2009
Ross Andrew Pinot Gris Columbia Gorge 2009
Hyatt Vineyards Pinot Gris Rattlesnake Hills 2009
NB: Columbia Winery made 8,376 cases of Pinot Gris in 2008. 2009 numbers were not available.