Ferment, February 2009

In the last couple of months I’ve opened countless bottles of wine, mainly for friends and family. Mindful of the glorious weather, the demand hasn’t been for complex, interesting older bottles but for fruity, fresh New Zealand whites, which we’ve drunk outside on the deck, by the beach or over dinner.  And without fail there has been one type of wine that has been received more enthusiastically than any other.

Pinot Gris.

What a confession. I seem to come from a family that likes pinot gris and have friends that do too. How will I live with the shame ? Poor old Pinot Gris has long been derided by NZ wine writers as one of the most lowly of wines, devoid of much inherent personality and which usually has to be helped along by some residual sweetness. But I’m really at a loss to understand why Pinot Gris comes in for all the criticism.

Some say that it is boring. But it would be a brave man who wouldn’t own up to having drunk a dull New Zealand Chardonnay, dreary Sauvignon Blanc, lacklustre Riesling. Aren’t most bottles of wine are drunk almost immediately after purchase, normally within the first 48 hours? Then Pinot Gris is a great choice, instantly appealing and not really designed for cellaring.

Some say that it is off dry at best, medium sweet at worst. But why shouldn’t there be a bit of sugar ?  Last time I looked, almost every packaged foodstuff on the supermarket shelf had sugar in the list of ingredients. Pasta sauces, cereals, bread, biscuits, chips. The list is endless.  Customers, whether they acknowledge it or not, seem to like a touch of sweetness.

Another aromatic variety, Riesling, doesn’t come in for nearly the same disapproving looks.  Oh I forgot, Riesling is the most noble of grapes, the one that real wine drinkers drink.  It is just a pity that the poor old consumer is too stupid to realise what they are missing. They continue to order Pinot Gris when any fool knows that the really smart money is on Riesling. Certainly Riesling is a lovely wine.  I say this having just polished off a bottle of Fritz Haag’s 1995 Brauneburger Juffer Sonnenuhr Riesling Sp├Ątlese and particularly toothsome it was too.

But why not celebrate the fact that Pinot Gris is an uncomplicated, easy drinking wine? There are of course some ‘serious’ examples ; Bilancia Pinot Grigio (which I lasted enjoyed on a steamy Singapore evening with a dish of chilli prawns).  Or Escarpment Pinot Gris.  There’s another goodie.

It would be lovely to think that NZ wine drinkers were uber cultured, only shopping at farmers markets, eating biodynamically grown produce and accompanying home cooked meals with appropriate wines. But supermarket shelves groan with precooked sausages, sliced bread, processed cheese slices and prepared meals.  Someone must be eating them.  Perhaps the same people are fond of pinot gris ?

New Zealand wine is great, but let’s be under no illusions about its place in the market. There are some magnificent wines but there is still a long way to go. If the rumours are to be believed, vintage 2009 is going to be another whopper. Stories abound of wineries with unsold 2008 Sauvignon Blanc still in tank.  There are ‘deals’ and ‘cancelled export orders’ all over the High Street.  Perhaps it is time that the NZ wine industry realised that, whilst there are some shining stars, the great percentage of New Zealand wine is technically well made, fresh, fruity and (lets be honest) a bit safe.  Instead of showing contempt for Pinot Gris why not celebrate its simple charms ?

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