It makes perfect sense that Pinot Gris has exploded in popularity in the Pacific Northwest in the past decade.
The grape has blown past Chardonnay as the most important white wine in Oregon, and it has outdistanced Sauvignon Blanc as the No. 3 white wine in Washington, behind Riesling and Chardonnay.
Pinot Gris originates in the Burgundy region of France, where it is thought to be a mutation of the genetically unstable Pinot Noir grape. It is important in the Alsatian region of France, as well as in Italy, where it is called Pinot Grigio.
The grape is no recent arrival to the Northwest. In fact, David Lett of Eyrie Vineyards in Oregon's Dundee Hills planted the first Pinot Gris in the United States in the mid-1960s. By 2000, it had surpassed Chardonnay as Oregon's top white grape.
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In Washington, Pinot Gris has been slower to catch on. In 1999, just 150 acres were planted. By 2003, 1,900 tons were harvested, and in 2010, Washington winemakers crushed 6,100 tons.
Just as exciting are Pinot Gris coming out of British Columbia's Okanagan Valley, where the region's naturally high acidity helps to produce a wine that combines bright fruit and racy acidity.
So why is Pinot Gris such a perfect fit for the Pacific Northwest? For us, it's all about food. The Northwest is loaded with fresh ingredients from farms and the sea, and Pinot Gris pairs beautifully with a wide variety of dishes. On the seafood side, it's hard to go wrong with scallops, mussels, prawns, clam chowder, halibut or salmon. For landlubbers, consider ham, chicken, quiche, stir fry, pasta ina light sauce or roasted vegetables.
Here are a few Pinot Gris to try. Check for them with your favorite wine merchant or contact the wineries directly.
Elk Cove Vineyards 2010 Pinot Gris, Willamette Valley, $19: This is one of the top Pinot Gris in Oregon. It opens with aromas of spearmint, lemon oil, starfruit, dried apricot and lime. It's a big, fruity, delicious and expressive palate, with flavors of tangelos, Mandarin oranges, pears, peaches and grapefruits. There is a ton of acidity to balance the fruit and the hint of sweetness.
Latah Creek Wine Cellars 2010 Pinot Gris, Washington, $11: Aromas of pear, lime, lychee, almond and slate give way to flavors of Asian pear, Granny Smith apple, white peach, tangerine pith and peach pit.
Kudos 2010 Pinot Gris, Willamette Valley, $12: This wine is all about fruit, starting with aromas of dusty pear, starfruit, pineapple, wintergreen, flannel and minerality. Bold fruit and delicious acidity stream through the mouth, starting with Jonagold apple, Bartlett pear and lemon chiffon pie flavors. It carries just a hint of sweetness.
Airfield Estates 2010 Pinot Gris, Yakima Valley, $15: This wine opens with aromas of Pink Lady apples, lemons, pineapples and spearmint. It's a hedonistic wine on the palate, showing off flavors of fresh Bartlett pears, mint, lemons, pineapples, white peaches and jasmine blossoms. The acidity is clean and refreshing.
Erath Winery 2009 Pinot Gris, Oregon, $14: This opens with aromas of lemons, peaches and a hint of toast, followed by flavors of yellow grapefruits, ripe peaches, oranges and slate. It's a bright wine, perfect for shellfish or halibut.
Waterbrook Winery 2010 Pinot Gris, Columbia Valley, $12: This opens with approachable aromas of apples, peaches, oranges and sweet spices. On the palate, it offers luscious flavors of tangerines, orange zest, pears, peaches and guava. Pair with seared scallops.
Willow Crest Winery 2010 Estate Pinot Gris, Yakima Valley, $10: This delicious and affordable white wine offers aromas of spices, peaches, apples, minerals and grapefruits, along with a complex note of nuttiness and flowers. On the palate, it reveals flavors that reminded us of applesauce and peaches.
*Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman run Great Northwest Wine, a website that provides news and information about the wines of Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and Idaho.