Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Gray Monk, the Godfather of Pinot Gris, wins again

Photo: Gray Monk Estate Winery

It is déjà vu all over again, to quote Yogi Berra, my favourite philosopher.

At the Okanagan Spring Wine Festival, Gray Monk Estate Winery’s 2012 Pinot Gris was the top Pinot Gris in the Best of Varietal Wine Awards. That is pretty good for a 12,854-case brand retailing only for $17.99.

I am willing to bet that no winery has won more awards with Pinot Gris than Gray Monk. In part, that is because they pioneered this fine Alsace variety in the Okanagan. When I was a judge at Okanagan Wine Festivals in the 1980s, Gray Monk’s Pinot Gris routinely won gold medals.

Today, Pinot Gris is the most widely planted white variety in British Columbia. It accounted for 22% of the white plantings and 10% of total plantings in the 2011 vineyard census. (That is the most recent census and, unfortunately, there are no imminent plans to update it.)

It is believed that Pinot Gris arrived in the valley in 1976 when the father-in-law of the Gray Monk founders sourced three varieties from an Alsace nursery for George and Trudy Heiss. As George remembers it, he had a mere 50 vines of Pinot Gris to start his block.

I recounted some of the history of the variety in the Okanagan in my 1998 book, Chardonnay and Friends, which is now out of print. But here is an excerpt.

The varietal was pioneered in British Columbia by Gray Monk, where the Heiss family, who own the winery, imported this variety, along with several others, from nurseries in Alsace. “Some of the first wines that we made -- in carboys in the basement -- were Pinot Gris, Auxerrois and Kerner,” recalls George Heiss Jr.  Pinot Gris also was planted in the Gehringer Brothers vineyard after that family bought the property, then in hybrid grapes, in 1981. Unfortunately, the vines became diseased and were replaced with Müller-Thurgau. The Gehringers came to regret choosing Müller-Thurgau, which makes a somewhat bland wine from a warm site, and decided in 1993 to return to Pinot Gris when an opportunity came along to purchase some grapes. The wisdom of their decision to re-introduce Pinot Gris into their vineyard was confirmed when the winery’s 1994 vintage from purchased grapes gained a “Best-of-Show” award for Gehringer at the Los Angeles County Fair. Beginning with the 1995 vintage, Gehringer released its Pinot Gris with a Private Reserve designation, a dry and disciplined wine successfully aimed at restaurant wine lists. The slowness with which other growers adopted the vine may have something to do with its undisciplined behaviour in the vineyard, where it likes to grow in all directions except upwards. “It’s more labour intensive to control the green growth,” Heiss says. “It’s not overly consistent, either.” In his experience, the vines produce heavily one year and lightly another year, perhaps because a good crop of grapes will not set in a year when there is rain or cool weather while the vines are in bloom.  “Oh well,” Heiss shrugs. “Every variety has its own quirks.”

The style of the wines made from Pinot Gris at Gray Monk has been consistently fruity. Heiss begins by crushing the grapes -- whose skins have a gray-pink blush at maturity -- and leaving the juice in contact with the skins for a time, extracting colour and flavour. He ferments cool and in stainless steel tanks only, racking the wine off the yeast lees soon after fermentation, all of which is aimed at capturing fruitiness. “I like the fruitier Pinot Gris,” Heiss says, which also is a reason why he does not age any in barrel.  “I don’t find that oak enhances it in any way. I like the flavour the grapes bring in themselves. Oak has a tendency of overpowering that.”

Now that growers have mastered the idiosyncrasies of the variety, consumers are offered a wide range of styles, even barrel-aged Pinot Gris which can be successful if neutral barrels are used. Obvious oak does not flatter Pinot Gris. There also are eccentric but delicious pink Pinot Gris made by Kettle Valley and by Nichol Vineyards. They get the colour and tons of flavour by giving the juice extended contact with the pinkish skins prior to fermentation.

Gray Monk did make a bone dry Pinot Gris in 1995 but quickly went back to its winning formula. The 2012 Pinot Gris has 12 grams of residual sugar and just under seven grams of acidity, both of which accentuate the fruity flavours.

Here are notes on the wine:

Gray Monk Pinot Gris 2012 ($17.99). The wine shows a delicate bronze blush in the glass. It has aromas of fine herbs, citrus and citrus peal. On the palate, the wine has a luscious texture with flavours of pear, apple and white peach. The wine is well balanced, with the residual sweetness plumping up the fruit in the classic Gray Monk style. 90.


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