In my continuing series of grapes that grow in the Puget Sound AVA, today I’m talking about Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc. As far as we can tell, Pinot Gris was first planted in the Puget Sound AVA by Gerard Bentryn sometime in the 1980s (There had been debate as to if he was the first in the whole state or not, but that’s neither here nor there) . He has told me that he acquired the “Rulander” clone of Pinot Gris, but he can’t remember the source of the cuttings. Then as far as I know, I am the first to plant any Pinot Blanc west of the Cascades.
A little history on Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc. Genetically, they are clones of Pinot Noir and have the same exact DNA (as with all clones of Pinot Noir). Pinot Noir is a pretty genetically unstable grape and is prone to mutation. Long time growers of Pinot Noir report seeing clusters of fruit on the the same vine having both red and white fruit on them. I’m sure some enterprising individual growing Pinot Noir in France hundreds of years ago saw these mutations and took cuttings from that shoot and replanted it and started growing Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc.
They grow pretty much the same as Pinot Noir in the field and are hard to tell apart until the fruit changes color at veraison. Generally, you would pick them earlier than Pinot Noir because you would want higher acid levels with them than you would with a red wine grape like Pinot Noir. Not much work had been to differentiate the clones of these two grapes as there has been for Pinot Noir, but as time goes on, there will be more research into different clones and such. Pinot Gris is enjoying huge boost in sales, mainly due to the Pinot Grigio trend. Pinot Blanc, while not quite as popular in this country, is always there being planted and sold because it simply makes delicious wines when planted in the right spot.
Let’s talk about these grapes in the context of the Puget Sound AVA. Since they are genetically identical to Pinot Noir it would bode well for them that they are able to ripen in this climate mainly because you would need to pick them earlier than Pinot Noir because you would want slightly higher acid levels. Bainbridge Island Vineyards has been growing Pinot Gris for 20+ years and has always made an exceptional tasting example. With the research into newer clones and rootstock combinations, it’s possible that we could enhance the ripening of the grape if needed. They make wines generally between 12-13% alcohol in our climate, but with tons of flavor. Alsace grows the most Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc in the world and sometimes those wines can reach higher levels of alcohol and many years they can do late harvest wines.
For those wanting to plant more traditional French varieties that would do well in the warmer areas Puget Sound AVA, I would recommend planting both of these grapes. I’ve got several Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc rows going (along with Auxerrois) and while I won’t be making a individual Pinot Gris/Blanc wine anytime soon, I will grow enough to take notes on it and make a blend. I know at least 3 other new vineyards going in that have large plantings of Pinot Gris so watch for some Puget Sound Pinot Gris wines in the next couple of years…