We reveal all the medallists from this year’s Pinot Gris Masters, which drew attention to the brilliant peach- and pear-scented whites from northern Italy, but also parts of the US, Canada, New Zealand and eastern Europe.
What do western Romania, northern Italy, Marlborough and Napa have in common? Aside from the obvious fact that they are all vine-growing regions, each one of these areas was home to a top-scoring entry in this year’s Pinot Gris Masters. If one adds Alsace to this list, then you have a handful of the great places for this grape, although it should be stressed that the stylistic range is broad, even within this select number of sources.
Indeed, Pinot Gris is a grape that requires much knowledge from the consumer, or, at least, guidance from the seller, be they a sommelier, shop manager, or tasting-note author. For a start, it’s a variety with two names – Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio, which of course mean the same thing. Although we have chosen to use its French moniker, Pinot Gris, to reflect it’s historical home – Burgundy (where it started life as a colour mutation of Pinot Noir) – it is best-known as Pinot Grigio, due to Italy’s dominance when it comes to volume production of the grape, followed by California (and Germany, where it goes by yet another name, Grauburgunder).
Whether the bottle carries its French or Italian name, however, is not simply a question of source – it also has stylistic implications. Those who choose Pinot Grigio from Northern Italy, but also parts of the New World, may not realise this, but they are buying into a specific type of wine: a fresh, bright, generally light style of white, often dominated by citrus flavours. Should they opt for Pinot Gris, however, it is usually because they are seeking something with more weight, generally with yellow fruit characters, and sometimes a honeyed note, even some residual sugar – and in certain cases, oak influence too. Consequently, the fine wine expression of this grape is almost invariably sold as Pinot Gris. They are, of course, many graduations along this scale, with weighty, barrel-matured Pinot Grigio, and fresh, linear, bone dry Pinot Gris available on the market today.
Now, while the judges in this year’s Pinot Gris Masters, like those in former tasting competitions for this grape, tend to give the highest scores to the richer styles, this is not always the case. Pinot Gris can be picked early, or grown in cooler climates, to make something expressive without resorting to very ripe, sweeter and sometimes botrytised flavours associated with, in particular, the wines from the grands crus of Alsace.
As a result, you will see that this year we even awarded a Master – our ultimate accolade – to a Pinot Grigio from northern Italy, with a price tag of £9, called Antica Vigna. Hailing from the newly-formed Pinot Grigio delle Venezie DOC, this represents a white wine of outstanding value, with masses of peach, pear, lime and greengage fruit, and, while it does have a touch of oiliness to the mouthfeel, it finishes with a linear, crisp, dry sensation expected of Italian wines crafted from this grape.
Such a wine, along with the others at the opposite end of the stylistic spectrum, proved that this grape deserves a better reputation. And, especially when it comes to examples from Northern Italy, which is so closely associated with the cheaper end of the offer: inert, thin whites that offer refreshment, but little flavour. Indeed, the competition’s only other Master was also from the delle Venezie DOC of northern Italy, but a Pinot Grigio with a different character. Coming from La Ronciai winery, this had a delicious pineapple and cream flavour combination, due to the use of barrels for the fermentation of fully ripe fruit.
Also notable among the greats of this year’s tasting were wines from Cremele Recas in the Banat region of western Romania, along with those from Marisco and Te Pa in Marlborough, and Joel Gott in Napa, along with a lovely entry from Mission Hill in the Okanagan, not forgetting a range of fantastic samples from Alto Adige (Cantine Valle Isarco and Peter Zemmer) and the Veneto (along with the aforementioned Masters was a Gold for Tenute Salvaterra) as well as Fruili (Pradio) and Trentino (Cavit).
Although not a Gold-medallist, we also enjoyed an appealing creamy, pear and lime scented fizz from Ponte, which has taken Northern Italy’s Prosecco-making expertise to the grape, and to great effect too.
Finally, although this report has focused on the greatest expressions, it is important to note that general high standard seen among the wines made from Pinot Gris, which doubtless explains why this grape rose to such a crowd-pleasing status in the first place. Today, helped by tastings such as this, Pinot Gris deserves to reclaim a position as the base for characterful, refreshing, good-value offerings – not just basic, short-lived whites – while retaining its reputation for great, textural wines too.
Pinot Gris Masters 2018: The results
Good quality was in evidence at our inaugural Pinot Gris Masters. Appropriately for a grape with global significance, our judges enjoyed exciting examples from all over the world, writes Patrick Schmitt MW.
If one were to list the most commercially significant white grapes of the world, Pinot Grigio – or to use its native name, Pinot Gris – should certainly be among the first to be noted, along with Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.
Yet, while we run Global Masters competitions for the latter two grapes, when it came to the former variety, we weren’t assessing it in our unique format: that is, a blind tasting of wines without any prior knowledge of their origin. However, in 2018, this changed, and we held our inaugural Pinot Gris Masters in March, using, as always, highly experienced judges, all of whom are Masters of Wine, Master Sommeliers or senior buyers.
About the competition
In a crowded wine competition arena, our Drinks Business Global Pinot Gris Masters stands out for its assessment of wines purely by grape variety rather than by region. Divided only by price bracket and, for ease of judging, whether the style was oaked or unoaked, the blind-tasting format allowed wines to be assessed without prejudice about their country of origin. The best wines were awarded medals which ranged from Bronze through to Gold, as well as Master, the ultimate accolade, given only to exceptional wines in the tasting. The wines were judged by a cherry-picked group of Masters of Wine and senior buyers on 8 March at Bird of Smithfield in east London.
It was an exciting prospect – this is a grape of great global significance – and the outcome was revealing, highlighting great places for the variety, while confirming the quality of established regions. But the first thing we discovered was a pleasing lack of faulty versions.
Indeed, the only issue we witnessed during the day’s tasting concerned some slightly tired samples at the cheaper end, which we later discovered were from the 2016 vintage or older.
As one judge, Jonathan Pedley MW, said: “Modern fermentation regimes (cultured yeast, refrigeration, inert gases) can give a young wine a superficial estery freshness, but after 18 months this façade is already wearing thin.”
However, it is worth noting that there were no wines with excessive S02 or TCA taint, suggesting there are good levels of quality control and winemaking in the category.
The other positive we picked up on was the good general quality of wines at entry level, with plenty of relatively inexpensive versions showing an appealing combination of orchard fruits and bright acidity. Where the wines performed less well, it was suspected that yields had been pushed too high, diluting flavours and acids.
Another general stylistic observation made by the judges after the day’s tasting was the grape’s affinity for fermentation and/or ageing in oak, as long as the vessel is relatively inert – very few samples show excessive vanilla flavours, but we tasted some wonderful wines with a touch of oak influence, be that in texture or flavour.
Although we saw few examples of the classic late-harvest style of Pinot Gris associated with Alsace, the top scoring wines in the tasting had a touch of oily richness and exotic fruit, the traits that make this variety, when it’s cropped low and picked fully ripe, so delicious.
So what of the origin of the best wines? One thing we noted was the quality of Pinot Gris/Grigio hailing from Italy, particularly Trentino.
Indeed, as many as one fifth of the medallists were from the Tre Venezia of the Veneto, Friuli and Trentino Alto Adige, newly united under one DOC called Pinot Grigio delle Venezie. Such a result is important to note because the new DOC has been implemented to guarantee quality and safeguard the image of Pinot Grigio from this part of Italy, which covers 24,000 hectares, representing an annual production of a little more than 200 million bottles (around two thirds of the global total).
But northeastern Italy wasn’t the only source of great Pinot Grigio. An immensely exciting find, and our top-scoring wine of the competition, hailed from just over the border in Slovenia, where Puklavec makes a Pinot Grigio called Seven Numbers – a title given to its top single-vineyard wines.
Made in Slavonian oak, but using modern winemaking approaches, this is a clean, apple and pear-scented wine, with a touch of yellow fruit, and a lovely rounded texture, balanced by a bright and slightly stony finish.
Coming close in quality, however, was the similarly styled Marco Felluga Collio Pinot Grigio Mongris, proving that quality is rife in this part of Europe.
In our unoaked category, it was a wine from the southern hemisphere that picked up a Master. And that was the Te Pa Pinot Gris from Marlborough, New Zealand, which displayed layers of exotic fruit, a delicious viscous texture and a cleansing freshness. Impressing the judges, it showed that Marlborough can craft classleading Pinot Noir and Pinot Grigio, as well as Sauvignon Blanc.
While there were just a few wines that reached such high points, plenty of wines in the tasting were of an excellent standard, and hailed from a broad range of nations, including Australia, Hungary, France, Moldova, the US, New Zealand, Slovenia, the UK and Chile.
In short, this tasting highlighted the hot spots for Pinot Grigio, as well as this grape’s ability to produce good results in a range of places.
It is a variety of huge commercial importance, but also, impressive stylistic diversity, and great quality potential. Like other tastings in our Global Masters series, the competition for Pinot Grigio proved that this variety is no one-trick pony, but professional assessment is required to pick out the best examples at a range of price points.
Scroll through to view the results for the sparkling, unoaked, oaked and rosé categories.