Pinot Gris
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Yours to Discover: Ontario’s pinot gris breaks away from neutral territory

June 15, 2022

Pinot gris (or pinot grigio as many still refer to it as) is a white wine grape variety that is made from grapes with grayish, white-red, pink and or purple skins (it’s no coincidence that the word gris/grigio translates to mean grey in both French and Italian).

In theory, wine bottles labeled as either pinot gris or pinot grigio are the same, as both are made from the same grape. In practice, however, these names are suggested terms that define two different flavour profiles – a bit of a ‘grey’ area, to be sure, and definitely not some written rule.

Read Also: Yours to Discover: A beginner’s guide to Ontario cabernet franc

We generally know pinot grigio as the Italian-style – light bodied and crisp, with pear, green apple and stone fruit flavours – sometimes even floral aromas, such as honeysuckle. This is a style that has become very popular with consumers, especially since the late 1990s when the ‘anything but chardonnay’ movement was taking shape and restaurants seemed forced to deplete their cellars of chardonnay and instead chose to replace those bottles with pinot grigio – a wine that proved to be very consumer friendly for its neutral, straightforward flavour profile.

The French-style pinot gris, meanwhile, tends to be a wine that’s richer and spicier and, if one chooses, can be cellared and aged. Pinot gris from the Alsace region, in particular, is dry and very rich, which makes it ideal for serving with food.

Although France and Italy are determined benchmarks for this grape, substantial plantings are now found in many other countries, especially Canada. In fact, pinot gris is British Columbia’s most planted white variety and is second overall to merlot.

Pinot Gris

Pinot gris is Ontario’s third most planted and harvested white grape variety.

In Ontario, pinot gris is the third most planted and harvested white grape variety, representing nine percent of total production as of the 2021 harvest, trailing only chardonnay and riesling. It is the fifth most planted overall (cabernet franc and merlot are just ahead of it). In each of Ontario’s defined designated viticultural areas (Niagara Peninsula, Prince Edward County and Lake Erie North Shore), pinot gris thrives and can be quite noticeably different from one appellation to the other, but often is made in a style closer to Alsace.

One will find that even here in Ontario, both the French and Italian names are used, once again, often varying based on the intended style. They are typically dry or off dry wines with a medium body and flavours and aromas of pear, honeydew or cantaloupe melon, lemon, and sometimes a little honey, with noticeable minerality and hints of baking spice.

Even the wine’s colour can be visibly different based on winemaker interpretation. Many can take on a deep and shimmering gold colour, and some are a plainer straw yellow. Others can be almost copper-like or even blueish pink – real beautiful colours, and usually a more flavourful wine by way of its longer skin contact. Pinot gris grapes also tend to be the most popular variety for producing orange wine or skin-fermented white wine.

Overall, it’s a wine that has truly come into its own over the last several years. And, whereas many Ontario consumers can still ask for and receive the traditional, more neutral flavoured ‘pinot grigio’ styled wines, more and more are embracing the texturally rich, distinctly flavoursome and terroir-expressive styles that winemakers seem to be having much more fun with – and tend to be labelling as ‘pinot gris’ as a way to identify it as a more liberated interpretation.

Ultimately, whichever name winemakers decide to put on the label, Ontario’s pinot gris/pinot grigio wines are unmistakably different and are evidently worth discovering for yourself.


pinot grisRosehall Run 2020 and 2021 ‘Hungry Point’ Pinot Gris

Having the chance to taste two separate vintages side by side is always a rewarding experience. The ’21 vintage will be released later this summer, but only differs slightly from the remarkable 2020. Aromas of lemon zest, apple and a hint of pineapple lead to palate flavours of apple, peach and a splash of minerality. This alongside a structured, and hallmark Prince Edward County acidity, makes for a beautifully complex and food friendly wine. Juice for the 2021 was put in 500L neutral French oak puncheons and aged on the lees for seven months prior to blending and bottling. The nose is still quite tight at the moment, but by the time it is released, it will be right there with the 2020. ($26)

 

 


Pinot GrigioMastronardi 2019 Pinot Grigio

From Ontario’s southernmost appellation, in Essex County, this is a style more suited to the name pinot grigio – although the winery’s Italian heritage could be a telling factor of the intended style. This is a crisp and lively expression, with good acidity and plenty of flavour profile. It’s citrusy, yet I can also detect notes of apple, pear and some minerality. There’s a lemony finish to it. A good choice to pair alongside most seafood dishes or lemon-herbed chicken. ($15.95)

 

 

 


The Organized CrimeThe Organized Crime 2021 Pinot Gris

Seemingly immune to the rather challenging harvest conditions of 2021, this copper-coloured pinot gris from Niagara’s Beamsville Bench sub appellation seems to deliver year after year. No wonder this wine has such a cult following. To extract that signature colour and aromatics from the skins, about half of the fruit is allowed to macerate for 24 hours of skin contact. The result is a wine with a lifted nose of pear, nectarine, cantaloupe and citrus. The body is rich yet balanced by natural and vibrant acidity, presenting wonderful citrus flavours, especially nectarine, melon and ocean spray. The finish is minerally and clean. ($21.95)

 

 


RedstoneRedstone 2020 Pinot Gris

Another selection from the Beamsville Bench, it’s important to show how a wine can contrast even those from its very same sub appellation. From a superb 2020 Ontario vintage, the nose is not exactly telling, but after allowing this to open up in the glass one discovers some peach and pear, with subtle floral aromatics (thinking honeysuckle). The palate is dominated by refreshing mineral and saline notes, with subtle flavours of citrus, orange and mild grapefruit. Some may consider this to be a mild expression, however I really enjoyed its clean and fresh angle – focusing less on intense acidity and allowing the fruit to express its terroir. ($26)

 

 


Thirty BenchThirty Bench 2020 ‘Small Lot’ Pinot Gris

Completing a set of three from the mighty Beamsville Bench is this top contender from one of Ontario’s prestige producers, Thirty Bench. Bright yellow in colour, this pinot gris has a tantalizing bouquet of honeyed melon, pear and a whiff of rain. Dry on the palate, the wine is medium to full-bodied with a richened and textured mouthfeel, all backed with steely and purposeful acidity. Flavours are of melon, spice and brined mineral notes that really give this wine a certain electricity. The finish is of mild citrus and apple. Far from a mere textbook expression, this is an offering that surely ranks among the best in the province, if not the country. The one snag, for me, is its increasing price point. This is now among the higher priced in the category, which might draw hesitant vibes among QPR consumers. ($32)

 


Pinot GrisClosson Chase 2021 ‘Ridge Vineyard’ Pinot Gris

Not to be confused with their equally stunning KJ Watson Vineyard Pinot Gris – which is sourced from Niagara each year – the Ridge Vineyard is all Prince Edward County and according to winemaker Keith Tyers, it “has the potential to deliver rich fruit, almost marmalade like, with honeyed tones and that chalky finish that defines Prince Edward County.” Floral aromas, along with stone fruit, citrus and wet stone immediately foreshadow this wine’s complexity. Crisp and very focused, the palate flavours are refreshing, highlighting that trademark County acidity and limestone, all the way through the finish. This is just the second vintage harvested from this vineyard, so there’s much to look forward to as vines mature. ($29)

 

 


Muscedere Muscedere 2020 Pinot Grigio

Another from Ontario’s Lake Erie North Shore appellation, this is a fine-tuned grigio with lovely acidic balance and enticing aromas of apple, pear and hints of peach. The palate is fresh and clean with more apple, pear and subtle tropical flavours that push on to the mineral finish. Varietally correct, it’s consistent with previously tasted vintages. Assuming we’re keeping score, chalk this one up in the pinot ‘grigio’ column. ($18.95)

 

 

 


LighthallLighthall 2021 Pinot Gris

From vineyards located within a warmer micro-territory (called South Bay) in the cooler Prince Edward County appellation, this pinot gris is refreshingly lighter on the ABV (12%/vol.) with a quite noticeably creamy and rich texture to it – largely attributed to malolactic fermentation and cold-stabilization methods. The winemaking team also uses an Alsatian yeast strain and fermented one quarter of the juice in neutral French oak, with the other 75 percent in steel tank. The result is a complex wine, with an intriguing flavour profile, including ripening pear and a freshened mineral characteristic that really sets this apart. I even get the hint of nutmeg that I’m being told to look for in this. Will develop further with a bit more time in bottle, that I am certain of. ($26)