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Home Food & Wine Life is a Cabernet A Wine For All Seasons

A Wine For All Seasons

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You say pinot gris, I say pinot grigio. Whatever you call it, if what my panel tasted at the recent Florida International Wine Competition is any indication, pinot gris/grigio may be going down the same path chardonnay did some years ago. In my view, that’s not a good sign.

Chardonnay has long been the cash cow of the industry. If you don’t make white zinfandel—and few actually do (and those that do tend to be in the giant winery category, such as Beringer and Sutter Home)—chardonnay is the grape of choice for a quick turnaround and money in the till: from vineyard to table in less than a year.

It’s one of the world’s great grapes, but also one of the most malleable grapes: winemakers can do all sorts of things to it. You like butter bombs? Malolactic fermentation will take care of that for you. You like oak? New barrels ought to do the trick. You like cash? Make chardonnay in a narrow flavor range that is virtually indistinguishable by brand. If you want to see wine judges roll their eyes and groan, tell them they’ll be judging chardonnays.

At this point I need to offer a caveat: wineries such as ZD and MacRostie that have a particular fondness for chardonnay and take extra pains to make good wine from it, are exempt from my critique. A handful of other vintners are also in this category.

But for a large portion of the industry, chardonnay is made with the masses in mind, and for all intents and purposes is brandless.

In truth, I don’t have a problem with that. Wine enjoyment needs an entry point and, more often than not, chardonnay is it. The question becomes, once you’re ready for the next step, where do you turn?

For many people the answer is pinot gris or pinot grigio. Whether it goes by the French name (pinot gris) or the Italian name (pinot grigio), the grape is the same. But it has different manifestations depending on its origin.

Pinot gris hails from the Alsace region of eastern France along the western bank of the Rhine River between Strasbourg and Colmar. Wines from this region tend to be rich and full bodied.

The grape migrated to northern Italy a couple centuries back where it is known as pinot grigio, and displays different characteristics. It’s bright and crisp, light on the palate. It’s easy to like.

I love both expressions of this noble grape.

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Pinot grigio has been gaining traction as an alternative to chardonnay. It’s becoming a popular choice as a wine by the glass in restaurants, and, judging by the increased offerings I had seen the last couple years at retailers, is also becoming a popular choice to take home.

As you might guess, this trend also was recognized by those who make the wine, and judging from the pinot gris /pinot grigio that came through my panel in Florida this lovely varietal is now getting the same treatment that chardonnay has received for the past decade or two. In short, there was little differentiation between the entries.

We did give two double-gold medals as it turned out (judging is done blind) to two inexpensive California brands: Barefoot Cellars (one of Gallo’s brands), which sells for $7 suggested retail (you can usually find it a couple bucks cheaper at most retailers); and Oak Leaf (one of the many brands in The Wine Group’s portfolio), which sells for about $5 full retail. Both these wines are non-vintage. Also earning a gold medal was the Bella Sera 2010 pinot grigio, from Gallo’s Italian operation ($8).

From a consumer’s standpoint, you can’t go wrong. These are technically sound wines and affordable, and I encourage you to try them.

From a stylistic standpoint, however, they’re suspect: while tasting the wines blind, my panel members and I concurred that there was a sameness to the wines. Our observations were confirmed when we received the results: of 27 medal winning pinot gris/grigios, 12 are The Wine Group brands—44.4 percent of the medal-winning entries—and of those 12 brands, five are non-vintage. In other words, the labels may be different, but the wine isn’t.

So who cares? Well, I do. It matters to me because I like a wine that reflects where it’s grown—the soil, the microclimate, the things that make an area unique. There’s a reason pinot gris from Alsace and pinot grigio from northern Italy taste different. Likewise, there’s a reason that pinot gris from Oregon and pinot grigio from California taste different. And I embrace those differences.

I recognize that wine is a for-profit business and that wineries are going to produce wines that sell. When you’re in the $5 to $7 price range you need to appeal to the widest possible range of people. I believe that you can have that appeal—and in fact have even broader appeal—by allowing the character of the grapes to shine through.

It’s difficult to draw conclusions from these early competitions. Many California vintners didn’t enter the Florida competition; their wines will show up as the nascent competition season shifts back to California. So we’ll see what happens.

As a footnote, it was interesting to see the corporate presence returning to the competition. The corporate wineries significantly reduced their participation in wine competitions when the economy hit the skids four years ago. The fact that Florida had a sizeable corporate participation suggests that bottom-lines are getting better. That’s good news for all wineries.

Welcome back syrah! I had thought that the renowned native of France’s Rhone River Valley had really found a niche among wine lovers, but this last year its popularity seemed to fade.

While I don’t think anything will supplant Bordeaux varieties—particularly cabernet sauvignon—as a consumer or collector favorite, I had thought syrah and its brethren, grenache, mourvedre, and their resulting blends, had firmly established a beachhead as a trendy alternative.

Central Coast vintners have firmly established Rhone varietals as their signature wines over that past decade, with many scoring successes in wine competitions around the country and garnering critical acclaim.

Wineries such as Tablas Creek, Dover Canyon, Zaca Mesa, Eberle, Steinbeck, Croad, Arroyo Robles, l’Aventure, Halter Ranch, and others were producing some seriously good wines.

Last year I sensed that the cabernet juggernaut regained momentum, and that Rhone varietals weren’t getting the attention they had been enjoying.

But the on-line wine service, Snooth, recently reported that syrah was one of top sought wines in the first month of this year. Snooth attributed “years of downward price pressure” on syrah making it a great value.

On top of that, the best red wine of the competition at Florida was a syrah: the 2009 Klinker Brick “Farrah Syrah” from Lodi. Finishing second in the judges’ balloting for best red was another San Joaquin Valley wine, Silkwood Wines’ 2007 “Satin and Silk” petite sirah. Klinker Brick’s syrah is priced at a reasonable $20 suggested retail (I’ve found it for about $16 on various websites).

The soft economy can certainly be blamed for downward pressure on all wines, as wine is a discretionary buy.

But I think another factor was at play as well. Syrahs had gotten too high in alcohol. Alcohol levels on Central Coast syrahs routinely were north of 15 percent. A growing perception was that the Central Coast had become, as one California winemaker dubbed it, “the land of big wines.”

That perception was not lost on Central California winemakers; one told me that he was lowering the level of alcohol in his wines by at least a percentage point, bringing them into the 14 percent range. That means better-balanced wines that will likely have more appeal.

Bottle photos courtesy of Villa di Bella Sera, Barefoot Cellars; wine Glass©istockphoto.com/Igor Dutina

Article appeared in our 29-1 Issue - April 2012