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Gris overtakes Riesling

Published:  23 July, 2008

Jo Burzynska reporting from New Zealand
As one of the many Riesling lovers vainly holding out for the variety's long-prophesied but never-nigh renaissance, my heart sank a little with the news that plantings of the Germanic great had been overtaken by Pinot Gris in the vineyards of New Zealand.

The country has started to produce some stunning Rieslings, but wine drinkers across the world languishing in an apparent vinous Dark Age, prefer Pinot Gris - or maybe that should be Pinot Grim, looking at some of the bland blends being quaffed internationally.

On the bright side, New Zealand has the cool climes and increasingly the quality clones capable of producing examples at the exciting end of the spectrum - although what styles suit the different regions across the country in which Pinot Gris is now grown is less clear. Variety is the somewhat confusing spice of life within New Zealand Pinot Gris at present as winemakers experiment with this newcomer to produce wines that range from the simple and fruit driven to intense and complex, lean and mineral to fat and spicy, steel fermented to barrel aged, dry to luscious and everything in between.

The Kiwis are pretty confident that the current penchant for Pinot Gris - which saw Brits knock back 70% more of the variety last year - is no fad, and are planting accordingly. Despite the fact some growers still need persuading that it's worth sacrificing lucrative Sauvignon space for this relatively untried interloper, its area in production has shot up from just 21ha in 1996 to more than 1,000ha in the coming year, and far more will shortly be hitting foreign shores.

No one is suggesting that Pinot Gris will ever overtake Sauvignon Blanc, but many here feel that New Zealand needs to develop a reputation for more whites than just its flagship variety. It's important for New Zealand to nail another aromatic white in the market and become known as a major aromatic producer in the world along with Alsace,' thinks David Babich, general manager at Babich.

As winemakers get to grip with Gris, quality has proved a little patchy. Producers who've been Pinot Greedy or just plain Pinot Green and taken the high yields that come easily to this vine have made some uninspiring examples - not that this has deterred domestic drinkers, who've been prepared to pay high prices to quench their seemingly insatiable thirst for the variety, and in the process perhaps fortunately soaking up much of these early wines.

However, producers who've treated it more like its ancestor, Pinot Noir, are making some seductively spicy specimens. And as experience grows, better clones come on stream and the Pinot Gris market becomes more export focused, quality can be expected to increase, while the different styles and quality levels find their appropriate price points.

What these will be in the UK market is still under debate. Some have spotted the slot between Pinot Grigio and Alsace Pinot Gris and are looking to line price New Zealand versions with or just slightly higher than their standard Sauvignons. We want to create a definitive New Zealand style to which consumers can bring their existing references,' says Pernod Ricard NZ's global marketing manager, Matt Adams. We hope there will be those who have trialled Pinot Grigio at the lower end of the market that are looking to trade up and come into New Zealand Pinot Gris.'

Large companies like Pernod Ricard NZ may have the muscle to make sound varietal expressions at these price points, but with Pinot Gris requiring far lower yields to develop decent flavours and greater winemaking input than Sauvignon Blanc, the country's numerous boutique producers will have to aim higher. And at this level they'll be competing head to head with Alsace.

I think we can do the serious style well,' notes Stuart Smith, owner of Fairhall Downs, a veritable Pinot Gris veteran of eight vintages, but this style is more expensive to produce and I'm not sure if there is enough room in the market for all Gris to be made at that end of the market. The market will decide over time and wine makers will respond to its signals.'

I might be doing a bit of Pinot Grieving over the fact it's not Riesling that's New Zealand's next great white hope, but the country appears have the potential to excel in the variety. And if it turns the world's wine drinkers on to New Zealand's wider aromatic offering, I guess I'll have to concede that it could well be Pinot Great for New Zealand.