Pinot gris is seen as a lightweight.

Pinot Gris is a grape variety with a chequered reputation in this country. While gris/grigio is one of the most popular grapes for consumers, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and riesling are still seen as our leading premium varieties.

Perhaps driven by the oceans of delicately flavoured Italian pinot grigio, it is still seen as a lightweight – a wine for casual drinking rather than something to be admired. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Pinot gris has enormous flexibility and can certainly be crafted into delicately flavoured grigio styles with subtly perfumed pear fruits. On the other hand it can, in the right climate, make full-bodied, richly flavoured and exotic white wines, often with a touch of balanced sweetness. In the best cases these are wines with the power and complexity found in great chardonnay combined with the aromatic appeal of riesling. Yet pinot gris remains an ugly duckling for many despite being a favourite among sommeliers.

Kevin McCarthy, Kathleen Quealy and Tom McCarthy.

It’s something that still bugs Kathleen Quealy, crowned some years ago as the ‘Queen of Pinot Gris’ thanks to her work pioneering the variety in Australia and working to drive its quality from her base in the Mornington Peninsula.

As she was told by a prominent wine distributor early in her career: “The problem with pinot gris is that it has never had the marketing dollars behind it.”

There has never been a big brand championing Australian versions on the global stage, unlike the other usual suspects. In addition, its traditional home in Alsace is not the most fashionable wine region compared with Burgundy and Bordeaux, all of which have conspired against it. Quealy likes to point out that gris vintages often sell out before chardonnay on the Mornington Peninsula, demonstrating the strong demand.

Pike & Joyce produce a tangy, juicy gris.

Pinot gris is a low acid variety and not well suited to making high-quality wines in warm climates, which rules out much of Australia but does help New Zealand, now a leading centre for quality pinot gris production.

Mildura has always been home to some handy, early drinking styles but it’s only really in the past 20 years and the opening up of cooler climate wine regions in Australia, particularly around Melbourne and Tasmania, that pinot gris has been able to show its true character. However, many of these cooler areas are also hit with windy conditions in spring, which can play havoc with fruit yields.

Much like its much-admired relative pinot noir, growing and making premium pinot gris takes dedication and persistence. It has proven to be highly site-specific and can only be gently pressed to keep its acidity intact and retain its innate fruit delicacy. However, it doesn’t mind high yield vintages that can help to keep its vines in balance.

It is also amenable to a whole range of winemaking techniques. While many early drinking styles are fermented cool in stainless steel before early bottling, there is increasing use of skin contact – which gives a pretty copper pink colour – plus barrel ferment, the use of wild yeasts and lees aging to make wines with greater complexity and textural richness.

Getting texture right is particularly important with pinot gris and balancing its richness with some phenolic grip. While more complex winemaking is certainly an important part of the journey towards better wines, Quealy also sees an increasing focus on vineyard location and particularly the search for and identification of exceptional sites as being vital for Australian pinot gris to live up to its significant potential.

Neil Prentice makes delicious pinot gris at Holly's Garden.

Pinot Gris to Try

2019 Pike & Joyce Beurre Bosc, A$25

This wine showcases the traditional style of Australian pinot gris. It’s mid weight, bright and fruit forward, with its citrus aromas and freshness providing vitality and focus. It’s then beautifully balanced with characters of ripe pear and peach skins that also provide weight. There is also a tangy, juicy feel that gives this wine a lovely drinkability over the short term.

2019 Quealy Tussie Mussie, A$29

This is a delightful expression from Kathleen Quealy that is instantly appealing. It explodes with bright aromatics that are then drawn into a web of lees complexity. The palate is more savoury than expected, graceful fruit and crisp acidity well balanced with textural richness – all punctuated by musky and spicy fruit complexity. The finish is long and strong suggesting this wine’s best days are ahead of it.

2020 Hughes & Hughes, A$30

A modern take that hits the mark. Tasmanian fruit part-fermented on skins, in barrel and in tank give the wine a beautiful onion-skin pink colour. Pretty floral aromas compete with orchard fruits but it’s the savoury elements that win in the end.

2019 Holly’s Garden Unfiltered, A$28

The King Valley has always been a happy home for pinot gris. This wine has been partly fermented in stainless steel and large old oak on lees, before being bottled sans fining and filtration. It is a wild style with exotic floral and guava fruits plus some savoury lees characters. If you are looking for pinot gris with personality, this wine has it in spades.