Tasting Panel - Pinot Gris

, from Issue #56. October 30, 2014
Tasting Panel - Pinot Gris

Summer is slowly arriving, which means it's time for a glass of pinot gris in the sunshine! Here are the results from our last Tasting Panel, in which an expert team blind judged 160 New Zealand made Pinot Gris to decide on the best available...

Varietal/Style: Pinot Gris

Tasting Date: October 5th

Entries: 160

Judges: Cameron Douglas MS (Senior Lecturer AUT and Master Sommelier), Jane Boyle (Wine consultant), Jane SkiltonMW (Wine writer, tutor and Master of Wine), James Rowan (Winemaker at West Brook Winery), Nikolai St George (Winemaker at Matua Valley). Panel led by Dish wine editor Yvonne Lorkin. 

(NB: all wines are judged blind and the scores of judges for their own wine cannot exceed those of other judges.)

Rating System:

Gold ★★★★★ 

Superb. Strongly recommended.

Silver    ★★★★

A cut above the rest in quality.

Bronze    ★★★

A good-quality crowd pleaser.

Notes from Yvonne: Pinot gris has proved an unstoppable force in this country, particularly over the last decade. Kiwis have grabbed the grape with gusto and our wine producers are now crushing a whopping 24,000 tonnes of the variety – that’s almost one and a half thousand times what they were processing in 2005! Clearly, we love the stuff; it’s the fourth most widely planted varietal on our shores and things don’t look like decreasing anytime soon. Here at Dish, we felt the time was right to take a snapshot of how pinot gris was looking, both in quality and style. It would be no easy feat because pinot gris comes in a number of guises: some so bony and dry they’re practically skeletal, right through to the luxuriously rich, sweeter styles. However, our two teams of highly experienced judges were more than up for the challenge. 

160 entries were received and categorised into classes based on their levels of residual sweetness and then served blind and under competition conditions by Janet Blackman and her expert stewarding team at AUT.
Most people expect to smell and taste things like pear, apple, quince, stonefruit and spice in their gris, however there are no set rules for what pinot gris should look, smell or taste like. Mostly it’s about ‘balance’: how pleasant is this to drink? “The acid to sugar ratio is only part of the story,” says Cameron Douglas MS, “managing the phenolics was a critical component of the finer examples.” 
‘Phenolics’ are the compounds responsible for that ‘furry’ or ‘astringent’ feeling in the mouth, often derived from skin contact during the processing. 
Our judges were looking for synergy that sweet spot between the acidity, alcohol, sweetness/dryness and phenolics to reveal a sensational sip. 

Our top 12 wines (those which scored at least 52.5 out of a possible 60 points) are absolutely superb examples from both islands and two thirds hail from 2013. However, if our top two wines are anything to go by 2014 will also be outstanding, once those wines mature a bit in the bottle over the coming months. It was wonderful to see some subtle oak influence adding texture to many entries and some even contained a splash of gewürztraminer which, when managed well, added roundness and a touch of extra spice.  

One thing our judges felt could be improved was the increasingly high alcohol levels in the wines and the use of excess sugar to mask them. That ‘heat’ proved a distraction from the fruit in many of the entries. Botrytis does pinot gris no favours unless it’s made in a deliberate, late-harvest style and sour rot smells leached through into the palate in a number of the wines. Pinot gris is very unforgiving, so any faults in the fruit or hiccups in the winemaking process will stick out.

“New Zealand’s competitively-priced pinot gris are generally falling into a style profile that has good natural acidity, some sweetness on the finish and are really easy drinking,” said judge Nikolai St George. One thing is certain, there’s definitely a pinot gris out there for every palate – happy hunting!  

Top Wines of the Tasting

1. Esk Valley Hawke's Bay Pinot Gris 2014 ($19.99) ★★★★★

This is an absolutely stunning example of what good gris is all about. “Good precision and definition with lovely white florals and layers of flavour,” noted James. Yvonne was wowed by its “...clean, rich, classically varietal nose and incredibly rich vibrancy in the mouth.” While warm and inviting on one hand, this brand new wine boasts subtlety, elegance, purity and deliciously refreshing presence. Superb. 

A word from our winning winemaker: “I’m excited!” says Esk Valley Senior Winemaker Gordon Russell. “I think our pinot gris has often been overlooked yet a lot of thought and effort goes into it every year.” Esk Valley has produced pinot gris since 2001 and has crafted myriad styles over the years. “Initially the grapes were picked very late, creating a full style often high in alcohol and sugar, but over recent years we’ve endeavoured to produce a drier, more food-friendly style, the best of which is definitely our 2014.” A combination of rigorous site selection and advancing vine age plays a critical part in producing this, their top pinot gris. “16-year-old vines from The Barber’s vineyard in Esk Valley provide richness and body in the finished wine, while fruit from the cooler Keltern and Noetzli vineyards (inland at Maraekakaho), provides fragrance and acidity,” says Gordon. “This is our unique take on pinot gris from a great Hawkes Bay harvest." 



2. Farmers Market Marlborough Pinot Gris 2014 ($20) ★★★★★

“Youthful, fresh, vibrant, lots of spice and grigio in nature,” remarked Cameron. The word ‘fresh’ appeared in every judge’s note for this fantastic entry. Boasting baked pear, rose apple, quince, succulent stonefruit and almond characters, this wine has sensational poise, balance and persistence of flavour on the finish.

An absolute standout.


3. Georges Road Waipara Selection Pinot Gris 2013 ($24.50) ★★★★★

“2013 was perhaps Waipara’s greatest ever vintage,” says winemaker Kirk Bray. “The fruit was perfect without any concessions to harvest timing or disease pressure.” The judges agreed: “Rich, ripe and well structured,” noted Nikolai, “with inviting fruit and a tight, savoury finish.” Classic, vibrant and showing lush lanolin-like purity and a splash of sweetness.  



4. Clearview Estate Haumoana Pinot Gris 2013 ($26) ★★★★1/2

This dry style impressed Nikolai with its lift of florals, lime, lychee and pawpaw, while Jane Boyle noted an interesting nuttiness and Cameron found a little bit of funk. There was no denying the appeal and drinkability of this charming, mildly spicy, mineral-edged wine.  

5. Quartz Reef Central Otago Pinot Gris 2013 ($26) ★★★★1/2

“Balance” was the word du jour from our judges here, who also noted “lovely, tropical fruit”, “good phenolic texture”, “crisp citrus bite on the finish” and “charming”. Nikolai even felt it had a “mojito note” and commented on the purity and richness of this highly aromatic super southern example.  


6. Stoneleigh Rapaura Series Marlborough Pinot Gris 2014 ($27.95) ★★★★1/2

Our judges felt this was a solid example of a new release. Juicy and jam-packed with fresh apple and “peardrop” characters, commented Jane Boyle. A very pretty, floral-forward style that Jane Skilton MW felt had a “silky texture” in the mouth. Delicious.



7. Hawkshead Central Otago Pinot Gris 2013 ($26) ★★★★1/2

This wine had “sweet melon and candyfloss” characters, according to Nikolai, while its spicy, oily elements really appealed to Cameron Douglas. The fleshiness, viscosity and poached pear notes also impressed James. 



8. Mt Difficulty Bannockburn Pinot Gris 2013 ($26) ★★★★1/2

Our judges agreed this was a tasty, ultra-fruity wine with lingering length, balance and presence on the palate. “Nice lifted aromatics,” commented Cameron and Nikolai agreed, citing rich peach juice and spice characters.  

9. Cloudy Bay Marlborough Pinot Gris 2013 ($29.90) ★★★★1/2

If you’re looking for elegance you’ve come to the right place. This wine has precision and depth, lovely fruit definition and serious complexity to complement rose-like florals and generosity in the mouth.



10. Linden Estate Hawke’s Bay Pinot Gris 2013 ($20) ★★★★1/2

With attractive pear and peach notes on the nose and palate, a hint of nut, pithiness, a squeak of sweetness and solid length of flavour, our judges agreed this was a very well made wine. “Inviting”, “harmonious” and “musky” appeared in our judges’ notes.



11. Jules Taylor Marlborough Pinot Gris 2013 ($24.99) ★★★★

“Bright grapefruit pith, citrus and almond notes, bright, crisp acidity and decent concentration and length,” noted Jane Skilton MW. Yvonne Lorkin found pear crumble and punchy complexity: “Fresh, zesty mid-palate, lithe and lovely.”



12. Aronui Nelson Pinot Gris 2014 ($21.95) ★★★★

Heady citrus blossom aromas and a splash of sweetness add to the spicy, moreish mid-palate in this little cracker from Nelson. An attractive, drinkable style, with good balance, definition and personality on the finish. 

Picking the Right Pinot Gris

Given the wide range of sweetness across pinot gris Cameron Douglas MS has mooted the idea of a code on bottles to help consumers identify what they prefer. “Some consumers may be turned away because they keep on buying sweeter versions when they actually prefer the opposite. A code such as  ‘D’ ‘MD’ ‘M’ ‘MS’ ‘S’ on the front label might work.”