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Deep Dive:
Australia’s Best Pinot Gris

Wines Of Now
3 December 2021. Words by YGOW.

After the tidal wave of Kiwi sauvignon blanc that washed onto our shores, and continues to, pinot gris/grigio became a notable alternative for those bored with its overtly exuberant nature. Gris was a gentler and more aromatic alternative to chardonnay, while being nowhere near as gauche as some of the more pungently fruity sauvignons. And while the profile of gris made into a conventional dry white is often a relatively simple one, with notes of pear and apple and to a lesser degree hints of stone fruit and citrus, it can be made in many different styles from the achingly dry to the rich and luscious. Add to that a raft of cherry-red skinsy wines bursting with red-fruited flavour that have popped onto the market of late, and gris is looking like a vibrantly exciting category. So much so that a Deep Dive is called for.

We gathered a panel of the finest palates – Masters of Wine (two of them), winemakers, sommeliers, wholesalers/importers – to give us their take on what makes today’s Australian pinot gris/grigio tick. All wines were tasted blind, and each panellist named their top six wines. Below are the wines that made the panellists’ top six from the tasting.

Our panel: Kathleen Quealy, owner/winemaker Quealy Winemakers; Kate McIntyre MW, Marketing and Business Development Manager Moorooduc Estate; Meg Brodtman MW, head of Education and Global Outreach at Rob Dolan Wines; Dr Ray Nadeson, Winemaker and Owner Lethbridge Estate; Abby Moret, owner Atlas Vinifera; Evan Milne, director StockOnHand Wines; James Scarcebrook, owner/winemaker Vino Intrepido.

The Top Pinot Gris/Grigio in Australia

2020 Hughes & Hughes Pinot Gris, Tasmania $30 RRP

This was sitting neck and neck with the Tomfoolery, with both Nadeson and Scarcebrook putting it at the top of their lists. “Properly good,” wrote Nadeson. “A gorgeous, charming wine in a more voluptuous Rubenesque style. Powerful, complex aromas of ripe apple, poached pear, almond, acacia flower, toast and creamy honey.”
I often taste what I describe as a bloody ferric character in this style of skin-contacted pinot gris wines – it’s a flavour I always hope to find. All this complexity is complemented by a refined yet velvety palate with a long mineral-like finish.” “Great wine,” declared Scarcebrook. “Pretty sherbet notes, quince tart, very vibrant and fresh, lovely generosity and freshness, good length and concentration but also incredibly drinkable. Really tasty, very typical of the variety but in a really fun way, great presence on the palate, lots of texture, good amount of bite…”

 

2021 Tomfoolery ‘Fox Whistle’ Pinot Gris, Eden Valley $25 RRP

This took out the top spot for Brodtman. “Loads of confected red apple, lemon sherbet and toffee apple on the nose,” she wrote. “Super-fruity example showing layers of aromas. Fresh, zippy and refreshing with lovely texture and crisp acidity. A great wine showing what pinot gris can do in terms of texture and fruit.” “A classic grigio-style wine, with fresh river water, golden apple and spring flowers,” wrote Moret, who also gave it her top rating for the tasting. “A friendly and vibrant wine with a soft, approachable palate and lovely fruit concentration. An undercurrent of minerality underpins lively green apple and pear skin. Walks a perfect balance between delicacy of mouthfeel and intensity of flavour. Begs another glass. Sunshine, in the park, with friends, is the perfect pairing.”

 

2021 Vino Intrepido ‘Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing’ Pinot Grigio, Nagambie Lakes $28 RRP

“An intriguing nose of wood spice, lemon oil, nutmeg, honeysuckle and pineapple,” commented Moret, giving this second place on her top-six list. “Pleasantly complex. A core of sweet fruit is enveloped in the warm spice notes from the nose, on a glossy, weighted palate. …This is a wine that commands attention. It would pair beautifully with a wide array of food.” Quealy also had this towards the pointy end of her top picks. “Tropical lime and coconut to begin,” she wrote, “then sweet raspberry, good lees, honey on toast, sweet butter. The palate is big and ambitious; covers a lot of ground. The aroma evident in the palate. A very satiating wine.” McIntyre also rated this amongst her top six for the day. “A pretty, fragrant balanced wine: pale lemon in colour with a complex, fresh floral nose of green pear, honeysuckle, blossom. The palate is also quite floral with orange blossom water hints but not overwhelming. These flavours balance attractively with the medium acid and medium alcohol – a touch of phenolics adds character to this attractive, easy drinking style.”

 

2020 Rob Dolan White Label Pinot Gris, Yarra Valley $30 RRP

This just missed out on top place for Milne’s top-six list. “Pretty colour with a subtle pink hue,” he wrote. “Nice weight and texture, with a pleasing edge of bitter tannin adding to the mouthfeel. Screams for pork and fennel. Porchetta now please!” Nadeson placed it in exactly the same spot. “Excellent complex wine,” he wrote. “Wonderful rose-gold colour, hinting towards the use of skin contact in the winemaking. On the nose, a complex and very appealing melange of red and green pear skin, citrus and an intriguing touch of Turkish delight. The palate seamlessly integrating balanced acidity and velvety tannins.”

 

2021 XO Wine Co ‘Games Night’ Skin Contact Pinot Gris, Adelaide Hills $27 RRP

This was placed in the top half of the top-six lists for both Moret and Milne. “Pink salmon in colour,” wrote Milne. “Textural, lively and grippy but the inherent balance makes it an easy drink. Gentle saline aromatics marry well with the pear, apple and lemon notes. Did I mention the grip? Nice wine.” Moret saw “A lifted nose of musk, heady flowers, red apple, and an almost apple pie aroma with a touch of pastry and cinnamon. A silky wine with a sweet fruited moreish-ness, with a gentle phenolic grip. A hint of pink gives a flourish on what is an incredibly attractive, easy-to-love wine.” “This wine is an exciting example of ‘skinsy’ gris with texture, grip and a savouriness that calls out for food,” wrote Brodtman, placing it in her top six. “There is plenty of perfumed honeysuckle, dried orange peel and red apple demonstrating that fine balance between skin contact and fruit retention.”

 

2021 Port Phillip Estate ‘Amber’ Pinot Gris, Mornington Peninsula

This took out top spot for Quealy, while it also featured in the top half of McIntyre’s top-six selections from the tasting. “What a lovely skins-fermented pinot gris!” declared McIntyre. “Bright, textural fragrant and delicious! Salmon pink in colour with strawberry, salted plum, rhubarb, pomegranate and a touch of pickled ginger. On the palate, lovely crunchy red cherry and strawberry fruit, tangy rhubarb, some fennel and other herbal notes. Fine, firm tannins are balanced by just enough acidity and a fresh, long finish.” Quealy was positive but pithy in her reflections, according this top spot but keeping her notes concise. “This has a red to orange colour in the glass,” she wrote, “with aromas of citrus and berries. Nice and smoothly textured. Done!”

 

2021 Holly’s Garden Unfiltered Pinot Gris, Whitlands

“This is a really exciting big-aroma wine with that lovely paradox found in pinot gris where big is poised, stately but fragrant rather than overblown,” wrote Quealy, giving this a top-six finish. “Super-fine lifted palate that delicately bulldozed a long road with great length and finesse. A beautifully structured wine with the aroma fully integrated into the taste.” Scarcebrook also rated this in his top six. “Nice kind of pear tart … intriguing, lovely and dry, rich round but still focused … certainly an interesting wine. Wonderful florals, slight lees derived almost saltiness. Very generous on the palate, bold and good fruit ripeness, dry but … cuddly and round on the back. I like the drinkability, and the food-friendly texture, but also the varietal character.” Nadeson saw a “A beautifully poised wine where all the components were well integrated and interesting, aroma and flavours flowing seamlessly into each other.”

 

2021 Paradigm Hill Pinot Gris, Mornington Peninsula $55 RRP

“A wine tinged with blush from obvious skin contact,” wrote Brodtman, placing this in the top half of her top six. “The wine has plenty of mandarin, orange blossom and a hint of rose petal. Fresh and textured on the palate with delicious, chalky acidity balanced by a slightly leesy mouthfeel. Plenty here to keep you coming back for more.” “Pale pink gold, rose gold,” noted Quealy. “Aroma is youthful, engaging sherbet, with a spectrum of honey, hay and oyster shell. This is primary fruit at its freshest – textbook pinot grigio. Palate is dry and textured … really good to quaff. Quivering with energy. Really refreshing.” “Another springtime wine!” declared Moret. “Spring blossoms and alpine-river-water purity leap out of the glass. A plush texture with green pear and golden apple, with a fleshy, extremely drinkable quality to it, balanced by zippy natural acidity. A great example of a grigio style that is a definite crowd pleaser.”

 

2021 Longview ‘Queenie’ Pinot Grigio, Adelaide Hills $23 RRP

Scarcebrook had this just pipped for top position for the tasting. “Slightly more tropical on the nose initially, cumquats and some citrus notes, too, some hints of floral,” he wrote. “Lean, light, but also a bit rounder, slightly dense but freshens up on the back of the palate, finishes quite friendly and has length to it as well, a thickness. Extremely pleasant but also has something to say. Depth, generosity but freshness, lightness and length.” “This wine is all about florals,” wrote Brodtman, “honeysuckle, chamomile, white waxy flowers and blossom. The aromas persist on the palate and are supported by a mouth-filling texture with fabulous acidity. A really refreshing style with a hint of phenolic grip that doesn’t detract.”

 

2019 Kooyong ‘Beurrot’ Pinot Gris, Mornington Peninsula $32 RRP

McIntyre had this as her top wine of the tasting. “A dry style with loads of varietal complexity and texture but very balanced and quite elegant,” she wrote. “Pale gold in colour with a very attractive nose of green and yellow pear, ripe quince, savoury cheese on toast complexity, with a hint of honey and some minerally earthy notes. Fresh and clean on the palate with medium acidity balancing attractive phenolic texture, creamy cheese and savoury nutty flavours, tempered with a touch of honey that lasts long on the finish. A wine of restraint and delicious savouriness.”

 

2021 Foxeys Hangout Pinot Gris, Mornington Peninsula $32 RRP

This was Milne’s wine of the day, topping his list for the tasting. “Lifted and aromatic, with classic pear essence character,” he wrote. On the palate he found it “soft and supple with lovely balance in a larger frame of slippery glycerol texture,” noting that he detected a “gentle sweetness without excess”. Overall, he found it a “lovely, lively and balanced wine.”

 

2021 Main & Cherry ‘Rosy Gris’, Adelaide Hills $28 RRP

“Interesting and intriguing,” wrote Nadeson in placing it in the top half of his top-six list. “A well-handed use of skin-contact winemaking has resulted in a wine with amazing rose petal and spice aromas, complexed by a secondary overlay of nutty, toasty and mineral notes. The palate is powerful and dense, and aeration brings out some honey character as well as ripe white stone fruits. The finish is wonderfully long. This may not be a typical tasting profile for a pinot gris but for me it works.” “Unfiltered and slightly cloudy, pink hued,” wrote Milne. “Quite pretty redcurrant and red fruit aromatics set this wine apart in the line-up. Bright red apple tannins. I like the way this wine plays on the palate. Fun and interesting drink with the right kind of wildness.”

 

2020 Polperro Pinot Gris, Mornington Peninsula $45 RRP

Quealy placed this second on her list of the top wines of the tasting. “Begins with an unctuous aroma of rich lees,” she wrote. “The lees in pinot gris are particularly attractive, the smell of fresh cream and brioche dough. It’s a subtle aroma – not baked, rather just before the proven dough is baked. The aroma continues with spice, freshly milled flour, some ‘salt air’, oyster shell. Bright honey. The palate is fine, refreshing, long and delicate, with excellent integrated acid. The palate has a full a generous sensation rather than any specific flavour, rather carries the aroma.”

 

2020 Crittenden Pinot Gris, Mornington Peninsula $34 RRP

This just missed out on first position on McIntyre’s top-six list. “Pale in colour with a complex, dry, quite savoury nose with quince paste, washed rind cheese and wild honey,” she wrote. “Soft on the palate with lovely flavour intensity, attractive balance of medium acidity and a good phenolic grip. Not too light, not too heavy – my kind of gris.”

 

2021 Brokenwood Pinot Gris, Beechworth $30 RRP

“The aromas on this wine are like a stroll through an orchard,” wrote Brodtman, according this second place for her wines of the day. “Lifted and perfumed with red and yellow apple and pear. An oily texture with a clean acid finish. Balanced and fresh, and yum. A perfect example of why pinot gris is such a great food wine thanks to its structure, fruit profile and acid.”

 

2021 Blind Corner Pinot Grigio, Margaret River $40 RRP

“Oodles of presence, dry good texture, really well made,” wrote Scarecbrook, placing this in the top half of his top-six list. “Super fun but super serious, not for the faint of heart, very textural, a really bold rosé style. Plenty of tannin astringency makes this very much a food wine. So different and so yummy.” Nadeson also included this amongst his wines of the day. “Amazing translucent salmon-red colour in the glass – super appealing!” he wrote. “The colour is backed up by an equally intense aroma of blood orange, wild fennel and apricot flowers. What I was particularly impressed by was the well-handled palate: good acidity, not too much for the weight of the wine, yet enough so not to become flabby. The textural tannins were persistent but not astringent. A fine example of the style.”

 

2020 Foxeys Hangout ‘Kentucky Road’ Pinot Gris, Mornington Peninsula $45 RRP

Brodtman placed this towards the middle of her top-six selections. “The nose on this wine is more savoury, with prosciutto, preserved lemon and a bit of solidsy funk,” she wrote. “Surprisingly fresh on the palate with hints of bacon bits, ripe pear and chamomile. Finishes beautifully and is fine lined along the palate. Upping the game in terms of varietal definition.”

 

2020 Timo Mayer Bloody Hill ‘Villages’ Pinot Gris, Yarra Valley $25 RRP

“An interesting mid-body style of pinot gris,” wrote Nadeson, placing this in the middle of his top-six list. “Would complement food but could easily be an easy-sipping fun wine for a lazy afternoon. Aromas of pear spice and honeysuckle are complemented by a touch of complexing reduction. The palate is a joyful melange of crunchy green apple and grapefruit pith with an impressively long finish.”

 

2021 Vino Intrepido ‘Grey Matter’ Pinot Grigio, Nagambie Lakes $28 RRP

“A pretty pale pink wine I would love to drink cold on a hot day with a good charcuterie platter and a couple of good friends,” wrote McIntyre in placing this in her top-six list. “It had attractive aromas combining the fragrance of musk sticks and raspberry drops with fresh red cherry and some green herbal notes (mint, fennel, and clover) tempering the sweet perfumes. On the palate, much less fragrant with dry, fresh crisp mouthfeel, vinous, with fresh acid and a long, appealing finish.”

 

2021 Hahndorf Hill Pinot Grigio, Adelaide Hills $25 RRP

“Fresh and clean, with vivacity and nerve, this reminds me of wet river stones and apple blossom, with flecks of wood rounding out the aromatics,” wrote Moret in placing this towards the middle of her top-six wines for the day. “A slippery and silken mouthfeel, the fruit has good intensity and length. A very attractive wine with lovely palate weight and stacks of character, finishing with some light phenolic grip. A very well-made wine with all the hallmarks of a classic grigio style.”

 

2016 Grey Sands Pinot Gris, Tasmania $50 RRP

“An unctuous and weighty style,” wrote Milne in including this amongst his top six wines from the tasting. “This has a textural long and powerful palate accompanied by a gentle sweetness that sits well in the wine, along with a lip-coating flavour of ripe pear and apple.”

2020 Port Phillip Estate ‘Quartier’ Pinot Gris, Mornington Peninsula $26 RRP

Scarcebrook placed this in his top-six selections for the day. “Pretty floral sweet green-tea notes, lovely ripe green apple, very pale and dry, some complexity, bit of depth,” he wrote. “A touch smoky, perhaps some barrel work, flinty on the nose, good density and drive on the palate, dry but a bit textural and fleshy, generous but dry and complex, very solid wine.”

 

 

2019 Pacha Mama Pinot Gris, North-East Victoria $28 RRP

“This is a delicious, complex but uncomplicated mouthful of wine,” wrote McIntyre. “Palest hint of rose gold in colour, with a rich nose of pear, quince, honey, nutmeg spice. Quite full bodied and textural on the palate, with good depth of flavour and fine phenolics – an attractive wine.” Scarcebrook also placed this in his top six. “Some barrel work, malo and lees work, nice generosity of fruit, mouth filling and rich but dry, a very slight creaminess on the back, very nice,” he wrote.

2021 Oakridge ‘Garden Gris’, Yarra Valley $30 RRP

“A deeply coloured pinot gris with beguiling and unusual characters of strawberry, cumquat, orange peel, fennel seed and hints of boiled lollies,” wrote Moret. “While sporting plenty of tannin from the skin contact, it is well integrated with juicy fruit and an almost cloud-like mouthfeel. An accomplished and well put together example of a skin-contact style, without the drying tannins of some other examples. Demands food, but would be versatile with a lot of different cuisines.”

2020 The Other Wine Co. Pinot Gris, Adelaide Hills $26 RRP

“Pale gold and excellent clarity,” wrote Quealy. “The fruit aromas dominate with cream, clove and honey. There appears to be very little contribution from complexing lees, but I quite like this confidence, and this simplified approach to focus on the fruit character. Palate … has really good complexity. I suspect a wine for dinner where time and food will unfurl what the winemaking and the vineyard were thinking.”

2020 Apogee ‘Alto’ Pinot Gris, Tasmania $45 RRP

This rounded out Milne’s list of the most engaging wine of the tasting. “Hyper aromatic, cooler climate style,” he wrote. “Great texture, wonderful weight and balance. Lively and energetic drinking. Lifted pear, red apple and some fine citrus notes, honey and gentle spice.”

Australian Pinot Gris/Grigio – The Backstory

Shades of grey

Gris means grey in French, while grigio is grey in Italian, and the more common German synonym for the variety is grauburgunder, which is easy enough to decipher. Well, the first bit at least. The Burgundy reference (the burgunder bit..) may be clear enough to translate, but it may have some scratching their heads given that pinot gris is widely acknowledged as an Alsatian staple. The grape’s birthplace is Burgundy, as a probable mutation of pinot noir, with it also drifting to Champagne. In Alsace, though, it found a more suitable home, where it has thrived.

In that most Germanic of French regions, pinot gris has become both a workhorse grape for simpler textural whites as well as making many profound Cru wines, with its propensity to developing botrytis making it a canvas for some of the great sweet wines of the world. There is almost twice the amount of pinot gris planted across the border in Germany, if it perhaps does not reach the same level of acclaim.

The consistent theme of greyness in the nomenclature relates to the skin colour of the grapes, though it is not that evocative a descriptor, as the grapes may have a greyish overlay, but they can also be quite rich in a pink to reddish purple – grape coloured, if you will – colour, and sometimes are a little browner toned. Either way, they carry a lot of pigment in the skins. The colour will depend on the growing conditions and when they are harvested, but those skins can be used to transform the resultant wine from a bright white redolent of orchard fruits and citrus to one deeply coloured with notes of cranberry, redcurrants and Campari, along with plenty of spice – evoking its pinot noir connection. Pinot gris is certainly no one-trick pony.

The Alsace region of France borders with Germany. The labelling of wines with the names pinot gris and pinot grigio in Australia is often a means of expressing style. Those using the French nomenclature were often indicating that the wines were more akin to the textural, richer styles that predominate in Alsace.

The labelling of wines with the names pinot gris and pinot grigio in this country is often a means of expressing style. Those using the French nomenclature were often indicating that the wines were more akin to the textural, richer styles that predominate in Alsace, while those using the Italian moniker were zippy, dry and mineral styles. It was meant to be helpful, a guide for the consumer.

Naturally, this gave rise to people believing that they were actually two grape varieties, which of course they are not. Also, while the broad brushstroke reference to Alsatian wines generally holds up, the pigeonholing of Italian styles is hopelessly inadequate.

The Italian job

Most Italian pinot grigio is grown in the north, primarily the Veneto (38 per cent), Friuli-Venezia Giulia (27 per cent) and Trentino-Alto Adige (17 per cent), and the styles vary significantly. The simple wines that are made under the Delle Venezie DOC, which can be from anywhere in the Veneto, Friuli-Venezia Giulia or Trentino, are the wines most likely associated with this idea of an Italian style, and mostly from those produced in vast quantities.

That overview of Italian pinot grigio is hardly an unreasonable one, given the saturation of simple, dry and lean examples on the market. The driving force of these is made by the Veneto’s Santa Margherita, who export oceans of the stuff, primarily to the American market – some 6.6 milion of their production of 10 million bottles. That wine helped change the course of the grape in Italy, and it shaped our perceptions of what Italian pinot grigio is.

“It is fresh, it is crunchy, it is delicious. When it is made in a gris style, it is textural, it is rich, it demands food. When it is made as a rosato, it is complicated, it is different, it is not another grenache rosé. And when it is made as a skinsy, it is a whole other ballgame. And that stylistic portfolio is much more interesting to a consumer, and I know my customers love it.”

Count Gaetano Marzotto founded his estate in 1935, later calling it Santa Margherita. The Count had won the land in a bet, 1,000 hectares of Veneto swamp essentially, which at the time was populated by mosquitoes and muskrats. And while he rehabilitated that land for vineyards, the wine that changed things was made from vineyards in Alto Adige, which the estate makes a specific bottling from now. The wine was one of the first made in a clean and modern way, with Marzotto inspired by the making of modern sparkling wine in steel tanks.

Stop blushing

The traditional practices with pinot grigio invariably would have meant some skin contact would have occurred, and given the grape’s dark skins, most of the wines would have a had a coppery blush. That style was taken further in Friuli, where ‘ramato’ wines were traditionally made with an even longer time on skins to make a purposefully deeper hue (ramato means coppery in Italian) and impart more structural grip from tannins in the skins.

What Marzotto did was to press the grapes quickly and use refrigeration and other modern techniques to avoid colour and tannin and focus on the pear, citrus and white floral side of the grape. It was a revelation for the time, and that first wine, from the 1960 vintage proved a successful one when released the following year. It was in 1979, though, that it really took flight.

“For me, pinot gris is about a voluptuous mid-palate, and that lovely length you have from natural acid.”

Legendary US importer Anthony Terlato saw an opportunity, and after convincing the Count to enter his wine in a blind tasting, it triumphed as Italy’s finest white wine – in America, at least. What followed was a mammoth global success story, and it also influenced makers in Italy and abroad. Santa Margherita’s Pinot Grigio wasn’t a bargain-priced wine, but it was democratically affordable, and it spawned a legion of imitators that charged considerably less.

Marzotto’s wine was not unlike those made in Australia at a similar time – though from riesling, semillon and the like, not grigio – when technology was starting to have a significant impact. Refrigeration, sterile filtration, more efficient presses, effective yeast cultures, stainless steel tanks… they all changed the course of wine in the 20th century, and it was just as true for pinot grigio, if not more so, where the nature of the skins means they have a significant impact on a wine even after brief contact.

More complex than it looks

Even without skin contact, the grigios of Italy vary greatly. The alluvial soils of the Isonzo and Grave plains in Friuli make finer, gravelly wines, while heading to the hillier country of the Collio and Colli Orientali near the Slovenian border, the wines from the sandstone and marl soils, locally called ponca, can be quite powerful, intensely flavoured and full-bodied white wines. Over in Alto Adige, the morainal soils (formed by ancient glaciers), elevated cool climate and ample sunshine result in crystalline, pure wines with fruit depth.

Additionally, there has been a return to roots in Friuli, with makers again making skin-contact styles – which were all but wiped out with the arrival of technology – some with a light coppery hue and some with deep colour and a spicy profile. One of the champions of the style was Livio Felluga, whose wine was already in the American market before Santa Margherita. Felluga’s wine was also bright and fruit forward, employing modern methods, but his had a gentle petroleum-like tinge of copper. And it remains that way today.

It was producers like Gravner and Radikon that reinstated older traditions in the new millennium, leaving wine on skins for extended periods and ageing in clay amphora and old oak, respectively. Those producers are now focused on the indigenous white grape ribolla gialla, but the impression they made on makers of pinot grigio with their skin-contact versions was no less profound.

Pinot gris in Australia

Catalogued as “pineau gris” in Busby’s list of imported cuttings in the 1830s, the grape never made a lasting impression. In fact, all the pinot gris in this country comes from more modern sources. The first was via Charles Sturt University at Wagga Wagga (though it wasn’t called Charles Sturt until 1989), where Brian Croser and Tony Jordan had planted the grape in the late ’70s from a UC Davis clone (D1V7) in a nursery block of mixed varieties.

Though it had been planted elsewhere, pinot gris’ moment in the sun came when Kathleen Quealy and Kevin McCarthy saw its potential for the Mornington Peninsula. The pair were lodged in the region making wine for others in the late 80s, with pinot noir and chardonnay the order of the day, as they still are. Quealy believed the cool and long growing season of the region was perfect for unwooded white wines. Convincing her employers at the time was another thing, though, with chardonnay the dominant white grape and big, opulent styles in vogue. So, the pair’s T’Gallant label was born in 1990, with unwooded chardonnay the first release, followed by a pinot noir rosé, Holystone, the early following year.

Opposite: Kathleen Quealy and Kevin McCarthy. Above: The T'Gallant cellar door – at the winery they founded in 1990.

The pair believed that the region’s climate would excel for pinot gris viticulturally, and they were also drawn to its versatility to make different styles. They tried to convince growers they worked with to plant it, but that was about as successful as trying to get people to make more refined chardonnay, with Quealy saying that they would have approached 50 growers at the time. The first fruit they managed to source was in 1992, and they decided to plant in ’94, doing so in a way that the site would readily yield two styles, one leaner and one that would achieve higher ripeness and make a more textural style.

They made a few different bottlings, some labelled gris and some grigio, following, or perhaps establishing in this country the line between the two. From crisp and bright wines to those more textural and to late-harvest wines, T’Gallant defind the grape at the time and they helped build a market in this country. That success, along with their other well-regarded wines at the time, saw T’Gallant sold, with it now sitting in the Treasury Wine Estates stable.

Rapid growth

Even though the wines of McCarthy and Quealy had a significant impact, it took a little longer for the grape to take off in a broader commercial context. But catch on it did. In 2004, there were 329 hectares recorded around the country, and in 2012 there were 3,767 hectares. That’s a more than elevenfold increase in a mere eight years.

And though the vineyard data is a little out of date, with the last national survey being in 2015, the percentage of the national crush (the total tonnage of harvested grapes) shows that it is indeed growing, with the grape accounting for over 10 per cent of white grapes. The vineyard percentage was 7.7 per cent in 2015, and though higher yields from some varieties over others will skew this, it is still a clear indicator of growth.

Above: Kim Chalmers. Opposite: A pinot grigio grape bunch at the Chalmers vineyard.
“We got lucky with the clone,” stated Quealy. “Look what happened to pinot noir. People pulled out their first vineyards, because they planted the wrong clone. We were lucky that we started with a great clone, but perhaps we planted it in the wrong regions, and it got dismissed by the wine elite and it continues to be dismissed. That’s what happened with all grape varieties in Australia. That’s what happened when cabernet was taken to cool climates and was thrown out. Pinot noir was taken to hot climates and was thrown out. It’s the same story, but the wine elite won’t acknowledge it.”

Chalmers nursery added to the genetic diversity with a clone taken from Friuli (VCR 5), which is lower yielding and thus generally more intense in flavour and with a looser bunch structure that is less prone to botrytis. That was introduced in 2001. Kim Chalmers believes the first clone originally came into Victoria in about 1964 before making its way to Wagga. “Apparently there are also others,” she says. “D1V10 and E6V3 both CSIRO 1968, and INRA, NSW 1969, although I have never heard of them being commercially planted/propagated or used anywhere.”

There is little doubt that the bulk of the genetic material is the Davis clone via Wagga, with that propensity to high vigour and yield no doubt a boon to growers keener on yield than character, and given that over 80 per cent is grown in the hot, irrigated zones of South Eastern Australia, it would not be seen as a deficit. But it’s a clone that Quealy believes is highly successful when managed as you would any vine intended for quality wine.

“The main clone in Australia is shaped like and behaves like MV6 pinot noir,” she says. “A small-berried, small-bunch variety. Australia was fortunate to begin its pinot gris journey with such a superior clone, and I suspect is why little attention has been spent finding alternative ones.” That facility to make premium wine and also service a price-competitive market is no doubt a distinct advantage.

Site matters

Kathleen Quealy believes that while these regions may produce decent fruit for simpler wines, you need the right conditions to make textural wine. “I think pinot gris has grown up in Australia,” she says. “And notions about skin colour are top of the list of concerns. When pinot gris is grown in regions of great heat and sunshine, there’s a tendency to hide the grapes in a lush overhanging canopy, but grapes are green rather than the deep purple necessary to signal full ripeness.”

Quealy says that grapes with green skins will produce like flavours in the fruit and wines. “Pinot gris is susceptible to vegetal aromas and tastes when canopies are piled with leaves and the sunshine does not hit the grapes,” she says, noting that dulled colour can also be a warning sign. “In my experience the vivid purple can brown up in poorer years, perhaps with the overapplication of irrigation. I think in premium pinot gris, the vines are treated as pinot noir – maximum exposure and minimum or zero irrigation.”

“When pinot gris is grown in regions of great heat and sunshine, there’s a tendency to hide the grapes in a lush overhanging canopy, but grapes are green rather than the deep purple necessary to signal full ripeness.”
Kathleen Quealy at our Deep Dive blind tasting.
“Pinot gris grown in deeper soils with corresponding longer hang times typical of say Main Ridge, Red Hill and parts of Adelaide Hills requires massive exposure to cool sunshine to ripen their flavours and to avoid the latent botrytis emerging in the moist late autumn,” she says, noting that lighter soils generally can’t sustain a healthy canopy to keep the grapes replenished over a long season.

Naturally, Quealy is an advocate for the cool climate of her region for gris, and she believes that the soil profile is just as important to obtain ripe, healthy grapes. “Pinot gris grown in deeper soils with corresponding longer hang times typical of say Main Ridge, Red Hill and parts of Adelaide Hills requires massive exposure to cool sunshine to ripen their flavours and to avoid the latent botrytis emerging in the moist late autumn,” she says, noting that lighter soils generally can’t sustain a healthy canopy to keep the grapes replenished over a long season.

Skin in the game

And while some of Quealy’s wines are made with skin contact, she generally prefers not to do so with pinot gris. That’s a style choice, but makers are increasingly using it as a component of wines made in this country, with everything from wines that look like a classic Provence-styled rosé to those that are deeply coloured and flavoured along with a red wine structure.

Meg Brodtman MW, head of Education and Global Outreach at Rob Dolan Wines – who make a skin-contact gris – believes that skins can add plenty of complexity. “Extended skin contact followed by pressing allows you to extract some phenolics and colour,” says Brodtman. “Phenolics are a bit like baby tannins, adding mouthfeel and grip to skin-contact wine. Extended skin contact, say 4–24 hours, also extracts more flavour and aroma compounds as well as adding to that oily texture you sometimes get in gris.”

“The aroma and flavour profile changes from pear, quince and honey to rhubarb, strawberry, pomegranate, salted plums and pickled ginger, and the phenolics are also really satisfying. The best skin-fermented pinot gris behave like very light red wines and they work so well with lots of foods that are quite difficult to match to wine – tomato, artichokes, chilli, raw fish, wasabi. Also, that colour is so damn pretty!”

Brodtman notes that the colour will naturally increase with longer time on skins, too, with the colouring matter (anthocyanins) held in the skins, but it is the management of the grape tannins that she believes is critical. “When I’ve made a full skins gris, I leave the wine on skins for anywhere between 3 weeks to 3 months, but taste every day to check the grippiness and ensure balance in the wine. For me, it is all about layering on complexity and structure,” she says.

Under her family’s Mooroooduc Estate label, Kate McIntyre MW is a strong advocate for their classic ‘gris style’ that has become a Mornington staple, but she is almost evangelical in her love for their skinsy version. “The colour we get in the skin of our pinot gris is so intense that it seems a shame to just chuck them out,” she says, “and when we ferment on skins you can really see the family resemblance between pinots gris and noir, and I think that is why I am such a fan.

“The aroma and flavour profile changes from pear, quince and honey to rhubarb, strawberry, pomegranate, salted plums and pickled ginger, and the phenolics are also really satisfying. The best skin-fermented pinot gris behave like very light red wines and they work so well with lots of foods that are quite difficult to match to wine – tomato, artichokes, chilli, raw fish, wasabi. Also, that colour is so damn pretty!”

That process is taken to further extremes by some makers, with wines that see extended skin contact, as well as whole-bunch fermentation, becoming polar opposites of the light, bright and mineral Italian ‘grigio style’ that many of us were schooled on. Those wines evoke pinot noir references along with a kinship with notes typical to vermouth and Italian aperitifs. Complex wines, in other words, and not for everyone, but entirely valid, and dramatic illustrations, along with textural ‘gris styles’, of just what a vibrantly interesting grape variety pinot gris, or grigio – call it what you will – really is.

Outtakes from the tasting

We gathered a panel of the finest palates – Masters of Wine (two of them), winemakers, sommeliers, wholesalers/importers – to give us their take on what makes today’s Australian pinot gris/grigio tick. All wines were tasted blind, and each panellist named their top six wines. Below are the wines that made the panellists’ top six from the tasting.

Our panel: Kathleen Quealy, owner/winemaker Quealy Winemakers; Kate McIntyre MW, Marketing and Business Development Manager Moorooduc Estate; Meg Brodtman MW, Today, head of Education and Global Outreach at Rob Dolan Wines; Dr Ray Nadeson, Winemaker and Owner Lethbridge Estate; Abby Moret, owner Atlas Vinifera; Evan Milne, director StockOnHand Wines; James Scarcebrook, owner/winemaker Vino Intrepido.

All wines tasted 'blind'.

Brodtman found the sheer breadth of styles engaging but a challenge to judge some very different wines against each other. “The diversity of styles makes it difficult,” she said. “Are you judging as a grape variety, or as a style…? We saw the diversity in the tasting. When you judge it in shows, it’s always a class that most people are a little dismissive of. And they say they’ll never get golds, and they’re never ‘up-there’ wines. But if you judge them as drinkable, fruit-expressive, varietally expressive wines, then it’s very interesting.”

“I was looking for deliciousness,” said Milne. “I probably gravitated towards textural wines with weight and aromatic complexity, which didn’t have to come from skins, but from where the fruit was grown and how it was handled in the winery. Of my top six, there was one wine I would drink by itself, but the rest I would match with food.”

For Nadeson, he found the exciting part was that the grape allowed the expressiveness of the maker. “So, there is this amount of fingerprint that is evident in the wine,” he said. “Whether there is an expression of terroir in the wines is another matter, and we don’t really talk about it with pinot gris. It’s potentially there, but we’re really talking about winemaking, and that’s still kinda cool.”

“It’s underrated by the wine elite,” reiterated Quealy. “You only have to look at the Mornington Peninsula Wine Show… and that’s the best region to grow pinot gris, and the gris just does so, so badly.”
James Scarcebrook, Meg Brodtmann, Ray Nadeson.
“I’ve never seen, I think, and that includes Mornington, a pinot gris that’s got a gold,” stated Brodtman. “I think we don’t understand it as a style. You look at New Zealand … when you judge in New Zealand, and they make their wines often with barrel ferment and a bit of sweetness, which is not a style we see much here, but those wines are held up as very serious wines. I think here, as Kate said, we’re guilty of treating it as the next ‘savvy b’.”

“Viticulture is everything,” noted Quealy. “Pinot gris is like pinot noir. It is very regionally specific; it is site specific, and site expressive. The best pinot gris, like pinot noir, is grown in the cooler parts of Australia. The best pinot gris are made without acidification to let them have their voluptuous palates…”

“I work with vineyards from Drumborg, and they’re proper cool climate expressions of pinot gris, but a lot of what we see out and about is from vines grown in less-than-ideal places,” agreed Nadeson.

“We got lucky with the clone,” added Quealy. “Look what happened to pinot noir. People pulled out their first vineyards, because they planted the wrong clone. We were lucky that we started with a great clone, but perhaps we planted it in the wrong regions, and it got dismissed by the wine elite and it continues to be dismissed. That’s what happened with all grape varieties in Australia. That’s what happened when cabernet was taken to cool climates and was thrown out. Pinot noir was taken to hot climates and was thrown out. It’s the same story, but the wine elite won’t acknowledge it.”

Opposite: Abby Moret, Evan Milne and James Scarcebrook. Above: Meg Brodtmann and Ray Nadeson.

“A lot of people have planted it to be the next sauvignon blanc and overcropped it and made it cheap and cheerful and low flavour,” added McIntyre. “It’s not underrated by consumers, but I also think that producers are treating it with greater and greater respect and trying to get as much character and flavour out of it.”

“It’s underrated by the wine elite,” reiterated Quealy. “You only have to look at the Mornington Peninsula Wine Show… and that’s the best region to grow pinot gris, and the gris just does so, so badly.”

“Pinot gris doesn’t do well in wine shows,” agreed McIntyre.

“I’ve never seen, I think, and that includes Mornington, a pinot gris that’s got a gold,” added Brodtman. “I think we don’t understand it as a style. You look at New Zealand … when you judge in New Zealand, and they make their wines often with barrel ferment and a bit of sweetness, which is not a style we see much here, but those wines are held up as very serious wines. I think here, as Kate said, we’re guilty of treating it as the next ‘savvy b’.”

Above: Kate McIntyre. Opposite: Abby Moret, Evan Milne and James Scarcebrook.
“Whenever I’ve been involved in a wine show, I’ve been told that pinot gris doesn’t get a gold medal,” stated McIntyre. “You get told that before you judge, and that’s ridiculous. It’s a ridiculous statement, but it happens again and again. …I think it’s a grape variety that’s underappreciated.”

“Whenever I’ve been involved in a wine show, I’ve been told that pinot gris doesn’t get a gold medal,” agreed McIntyre. “You get told that before you judge, and that’s ridiculous. It’s a ridiculous statement, but it happens again and again. …I think it’s a grape variety that’s underappreciated.”

“I don’t think we really understand it,” reiterated Brodtman.

“I don’t think wine drinkers care about wine shows,” countered Moret. “We can talk about this from a wine people’s point of view until the cows come home, but the reality is people love pinot grigio.”

“Thank you,” said Quealy, nodding.

“It is fresh, it is crunchy, it is delicious,” continued Moret. “When it is made in a gris style, it is textural, it is rich, it demands food. When it is made as a rosato, it is complicated, it is different, it is not another grenache rosé. And when it is made as a skinsy, it is a whole other ballgame. And that stylistic portfolio is much more interesting to a consumer, and I know my customers love it. And they don’t see it as sauvignon blanc. Sauvignon blanc is much more one dimensional. My customers will now just drink Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé. They’re much more interested in pinot gris … It’s not a white grape; it’s somewhere in between. It’s a chameleon of a grape. It doesn’t really matter if it wins a gold medal or not, people are drinking it, and they fucking love it!”

Kathleen Quealy.

“For me, pinot gris is about a voluptuous mid-palate, and that lovely length you have from natural acid,” said Quealy after a burst of applause for Moret’s impassioned speech. “There’s a great pinot grigio style from the hotter regions where you make these slightly neutral but piquant, crunchy white wines. Then you have these lovely new styles, which are… well, they’re really rosé styles, aren’t they? They’re left on skins for a few days, like rosé, so that’s what they are.”

“It’s a very mutable grape variety,” agreed McIntyre. “It is open to manipulation depending on where you grow it, how you grow it, when you pick it, how you make it… and that’s the most obvious thing we’ve seen today. We’ve gone from early picked, light, crunchy styles to full skin-contact wines. Some are made like rosé, but some are made like red wine, at the most extreme… It’s a very exciting time for pinot gris because so many people are taking it seriously.”

“It’s because of people like Kathleen and Kevin who persevered with it, to show people that you could make a much better-quality wine and people are prepared to pay more for it,” added Scarcebrook.

“It’s just a great region,” said Quealy, softly.

“Pinot grigio used to be such a watery boring wine from overyielding vines,” concluded Moret. “But the fact that we’re now looking for concentration with early picking to keep acidity, but with that fruit concentration… and site is just so important. The quality has increased because we understand it more, and it’s been phenomenal.”

The Panel

Kate McIntyre MW is the Marketing and Business Development Manager of Moorooduc Estate, her family’s winery on the Mornington Peninsula. After an early foray into studying languages and the theatre, McIntyre was drawn into the world of wine, joining the parent’s estate in 2004 while studying for wine’s most gruelling qualification, becoming a Master of Wine in 2010. McIntyre also works broadly as an educator, writer, communicator and wine judge.

Meg Brodtmann MW began her career as a medical research scientist before studying winemaking at Adelaide University. She worked internationally as a consultant winemaker throughout Europe and South America while also completing her Master of Wine qualification – the industry’s toughest test. Today, she is head of Education and Global Outreach at Rob Dolan Wines in the Yarra Valley.

Dr Ray Nadeson is the winemaker and owner of Lethbridge Wines. During a career researching and teaching neuroscience at Monash University, Nadeson founded Lethbridge Estate with his partner Maree Collis. He also managed to squeeze in a winemaking degree in his spare time. Since 2003, Nadeson has been focused solely on the estate, farming with biodynamic principles and making wine from home vines, select local vineyards and as far afield as Heathcote, the Pyrenees and Henty.

Abby Moret has been working in the retail wine industry since she was 18, including working in London for Majestic Wine, gaining her WSET Level 3 Certificate while there. She was the Promotional Manager of Vintage Cellars, before moving into buying and product development for the national chains. After gaining her WSET Diploma, Abby founded Atlas Vinifera in 2017, an independent, boutique wine bar and wine store in Richmond that specialises in small-batch, interesting, hand-crafted and cult wines from all over the world.

Evan Milne is the director and owner of Stock on Hand, a niche wholesaler and importer. Formerly a leading sommelier and restaurateur, he worked for key importers and wholesalers before launching his own wholesale wine business a decade ago. Milne represents artisan makers from around the country as well as from New Zealand and South Africa, while also having his own passion project, Monkey Brains Wines.

Kathleen Quealy was one of the pioneers of pinot gris/grigio in this country, alongside her husband and collaborator, Kevin McCarthy, with the pair founding Mornington Peninsula’s T’Gallant in 1990. After the sale in 2003, Quealy Winemakers became the instrument for exploration of pinot gris, pinot noir and several Italian varieties, particularly friulano. Skin contact is also a big part of the picture. The Quealy wines are made from organic home vineyards and those sympathetically managed by the family. Quealy was made a Legend of the Vine by Wine Communicators of Australia in 2016.

James Scarcebrook graduated from The University of Adelaide as a Master of Wine Business before a 16-month global wine adventure saw him visit ten wine-producing countries, including working two vintages in Germany. Scarecebrook has worked in fine-wine retail, as a representative for two leading importers, both with a focus on Italian wines, and now makes wine full-time under his Vino Intrepido label. That label is centred on Italian varieties and a quest for finding Victorian sites where they excel, teased out in a way that reflects on Italian tradition but seen through a new lens.

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