Sixteen shades of Pinot Gris

Thursday, 4 April, 2013
Graham Howe
Graham Howe reports on a tasting of the “grey grape” at De Grendel and growing consumer demand for this cult variety now made by sixteen cellars in the Cape.

We’re at De Grendel in the Durbvanville Wine Valley to taste a vertical flight of the first five vintages of Pinot Gris, and match it with specially created dishes - probably a first for the variety in South Africa. Certainly a first for a “gris-beard” like me.

Over a muddled wine cocktail made from fermented Pinot Gris juice, red grapes, lychee and lemon, we study a platter of small, grey-blue/pink Pinot Gris grapes on incredibly compact bunches picked earlier at De Grendel on 11 February. “The name means “pinecone grey” explains Elzette du Preez, the winemaker at De Grendel, a woman with a passion for Pinot Gris who has worked on eight vintages at this cellar.  

The trouble with Pinot Gris is it goes by many monikers - enough to confuse anyone. Called Pinot Gris and traditionally Tokay in Alsace, Pinot Grigio in Italy, Ruländer and Grauburgunder (“Grey Burgundy”) in Germany, the grey grape has more aliases than the scarlet pimpernel on the vine. A mutation of Pinot Noir once interplanted in Burgundy, it has spread to Austria, Hungary (as Szürkebarat - meaning “grey monk”), Romania, Switzerland (aka Malvoisie) and Slovenia - and beyond to California, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. (Jancis Robinson’s “Guide to Wine Grapes”.)

“The wine is made in two styles” explains Elzette. “In Italy they tend to pick Pinot Grigio earlier in a lighter, more acidic house wine style at price-sensitive points. We try to make a Pinot Gris style wine - using new clones to make a richer, riper, medium to full bodied wine, blending in a portion of barrel-fermented Pinot Gris for ageability and complexity. We’re picking at lower sugar to reduce the alcohol from 14 to 13%”.

Over a smell vial test, Elzette introduces us to eight of the signature organoleptic qualities of Pinot Gris - a gently perfumed wine with a spectrum of apple, pear, lime, grapefruit, quince, melon, peach, floral, fynbos and honey aromas. We then taste tank (picked at lower ripeness) and barrel (Romanian oak with smoky aromas) samples of the new 2013 vintage - whole bunch pressed and coming along nicely in the cellar. “We don’t want consumers to pick up oak on our Pinot Gris” says Elzette. Malolactic fermentation helps shape the house style of buttery richness and length on palate.     

Winemaker Elzette du Preez has made five vintages of Pinot Gris at De Grendel in the Durbanville Wine Valley - one of two versions of the variety to win four stars from Platter She comments, “Pinot Gris is a big trend in Europe, the USA and New Zealand. Many consumers are moving away from Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. We sold our Pinot Gris at the cellar-door and restaurant only for the first three vintages - but to meet demand, increased from 94 cases of our first vintage in 2009 to 500 in 2011 and 1000 cases in 2012. We’re selling Pinot Gris out there now”.

In the Cape, only 276 hectares are planted to Pinot Grigio, a niche variety which makes up a miniscule 0,27% of plantings and ranks 24th in our national vineyard. First planted here in 1975, one of the white grapes of the Alsace is a unique offering for around sixteen Cape cellars today which make single varietal bottlings at present.

First released by L’Ormarins in the mid-1980s - now under Rupert’s Terra del Capo label - Pinot Grigio is also made by Distell under its Flat Roof Manor (in both white and rosé styles), Two Oceans, Obikwa and Hill & Dale labels. Other producers are Dido, Fairview, Idiom, Eagle‘s Cliff (4 Platter stars), Van Loveren, Robertson Winery, Usana and Waverley Hills. Apart from De Grendel, Fairview and Usana, most are labelled as Pinot Grigio - including the new two litre box of Pinot Grigio under Woolworths Longmarket label sourced from Van Loveren in Robertson.

Elzette du Prez says the trouble is that Pinot Grigio tends to get overshadowed by the more aromatic, fuller flavoured varieties it goes up against in tastings grouped under “other white varieties” - alongside, for instance, Gewürztraminer and Riesling (two key Alsace varieties) and Viognier. And Pinot Noir, its sleek big brother (with 1000 ha of Cape plantings compared to 276 ha of Pinot Grigio) tends to steal the show.

De Grendel restaurant created a sublime four course menu to match each vintage of the cellar’s Pinot Gris. The maiden 2009 vintage with its honeyed mouthfeel and texture - paired with a pork, scallop and black pudding dish with pernod, sweet potato, orange and cabbage - was a superb match, enhancing the citrus flavours of the wine (and the ageability of Pinot Gris). An apple crème brulee brought out the fresh, pungent apple and pear flavours of the 2010 vintage - while the prawn and ricotta ravioli in Pinot Gris butter enhanced the buttery richness of the 2011 vintage.

Distell has embraced the variety in terms of volumes and brands - with recent releases by Flat Roof Manor (made by Estelle Lourens at Uitkyk), Hill & Dale, Obikwa (exported to the USA, Australia and New Zealand) and Two Oceans (sourced from Breede River Valley vineyards) - in the R30 to R39 price category.  

Lize-Marie Gradwell, marketing manager of Cape Legends, comments on the extension of the Hill & Dale range to feature Pinot Grigio. “Pinot Grigio was chosen to meet growing local demand for this variety which is very much in vogue today, especially in the UK. Although its local popularity is of very recent origin, the vineyard from which the grapes for our wine were sourced (Stellenbosch) was planted 30 years ago and is now at its peak.” Guy Webber at Stellenzicht, the winemaker, adds, “It is an uncomplicated wine but nevertheless very satisfying whether sipping it on its own or enjoying it with crispy green salads with olives and anchovies.”

Graham Howe

Graham Howe is a well-known gourmet travel writer based in Cape Town. One of South Africa's most experienced lifestyle journalists, he has contributed hundreds of food, wine and travel features to South African and British publications over the last 25 years.

He is wine and food contributor for Eat Out and WINE.CO.ZA, which is possibly the longest continuous wine column in the world, having published over 400 articles on this extensive South African Wine Portal.

When not exploring the Cape winelands, this adventurous globetrotter reports on exotic destinations around the world as a travel correspondent for the Intrepid Explorer and - and for the weekly travel show on SAFM radio.

Over the last decade, he has visited over fifty countries on travel assignments from the Aran Islands and the Arctic to Borneo and Tristan da Cunha - and entertained readers with his adventures through the winelands of the world from the Mosel to the Yarra ."