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May 27, 2014
Perhaps the perfect white wine for a Pacific Northwest summer is Pinot Gris.
The grape often associated with France and Italy grows extremely well throughout the Northwest, and it pairs perfectly with our region’s cuisine, particularly seafood.
“When it comes to pairing Pinot Gris, my favorite is grilled salmon,” said Adam Campbell, who makes the best Pinot Gris in the Pacific Northwest. Campbell, second-generation winemaker for Elk Cove Vineyardsin Oregon’s Yamhill-Carlton American Viticultural Area, has been crafting great Pinot Gris for years, and it consistently earns top ratings regardless of vintage. Campbell said his secret is treating Pinot Gris with importance.
“It’s not just our default white variety,” he said. “It’s made intentionally. We love Pinot Gris, and it just happens to be the best white wine for our climate.”
Campbell produces all of his Pinot Gris from about 100 acres of estate grapes. Even though Pinot Gris is Oregon’s No. 1 white grape, he is concerned about keeping a steady supply available. In fact, he has planted about 40 additional acres in the past couple of years so he can bump up his production a bit. Even with 17,000 cases each year, Campbell runs out of Pinot Gris by November or December, leaving some of his best restaurant accounts high and dry during their busiest time of the year.
Pinot Gris has been Oregon’s favorite white wine since it overtook Chardonnay in 2000. Today, Oregon wineries crush three times as much Pinot Gris as Chardonnay. In Washington, the crisp white wine has grown to the state’s No. 3 grape, surpassing Sauvignon Blanc and Gewürztraminer years ago but still light years behind Chardonnay and Riesling.
The story of Oregon and Washington Pinot Gris is a tale of two styles of farming. In the cool Willamette Valley, grape growers are happy to get 3 tons of Pinot Gris per acre planted. Meanwhile, in the warm, arid conditions of Washington’s Columbia Valley, it’s not unusual to see 6 tons per acre.
This shows up in the price of the grapes, too, with Oregon Pinot Gris costing upward of $1,500 per ton, while Washington winemakers are able to buy it for just $800. This is one reason Oregon Pinot Gris can cost $6 to $8 more per bottle.
None of this concerns Campbell.
“We have to focus on what we do best and not focus on competing with other areas,” he said. “Getting lower yields is kind of an advantage because we’re getting more interesting flavors” — something he refers to as “cool-climate freshness.”
Regardless of which side of the Columbia River your Pinot Gris originates, it will pair beautifully with seafood (think halibut or salmon), shellfish (oysters, scallops and clams), as well as white meats such as chicken or pork.
Northwest Pinot Gris can show off flavors that range from the crisp — pear and apple — to the ripe — pineapple, lychee and mango. The hallmark is its acidity: crisp, bracing and mouthwatering.
We conducted a blind tasting of 81 Pinot Gris from Oregon, Washington and Idaho, most of which were from the 2012 and 2013 vintages. Our judges for this judging were Heather Unwin, executive director of the Red Mountain AVA Alliance; Jessica Munnell, winemaker for Mercer Estates in Prosser, Wash.; Gregg McConnell, editor and publisher of Wine Press Northwest magazine; Ken Robertson, columnist for Wine Press Northwest; and Mike Rader, a longtime consumer and accomplished wine judge. The competition was conducted by Great Northwest Wine on behalf of Wine Press Northwest magazine.
Here are the results:
Maryhill Winery 2013 Pinot Gris, Columbia Valley, $12: In a little over a decade, Maryhill has developed into one of Washington’s brightest stars. Winemaker Richard Batchelor captured bright, refreshing fruit in this young white wine. It opens with notes of Asian pear, apple and minerality, followed by flavors of lemon, honeysuckle and white peach. Said one judge: “This is a benchmark example of Pinot Gris.” (5,370 cases, 13.8% alc.)