By Julianna Hayes
You say toe-meh-toe and I say toe-MA-toe.
You say Pinot Grigio and I say Pinot Gris...so?
When it comes to grapes and wine, I get a lot of queries about varieties that are bottled under slightly different names. The two aforementioned are a case in point. And let’s not forget que Syrah, Shiraz.
People are always asking me to explain the difference between them and I’m tempted to reply, “not a darn thing.” But that would be an oversimplification.
Let’s start with the Pinots. The Gris is what the French call the grape, Grigio is the Italian version. In theory, the terms also refer to two different winemaking styles.
In France, particularly the Alsatian region, the wine from this variety is known for being peachy, floral, perfumy and full-flavoured, with some winemakers opting for oak contact making it even more robust. The Italian version is far more austere and often described as being lean, racy, fresh and lemony crisp, largely due to the fact that winemakers there tend to pick the grapes earlier so they aren’t as ripe. Oak use is rare.
As one writer put it: “The theory is that one’s fat and one’s skinny, like a kind of Laurel and Hardy duo of wine.”
Now for the Syrah/Shiraz conundrum. The former is again French, typically grown in the Rhône Valley, while the other is Australian, the name stemming from the belief that the grape's origin is the town of Shiraz in Iran.
Again there are contrasts in the winemaking styles. The French like their Syrahs earthy and spicy, while in Australia – where the grape is a true workhorse – vintners lean toward big, full-bodied, fruity styles.
That all seems basic enough, but where the concepts get truly tricky is when the Pinot Gris/Grigio or Syrah/Shiraz in question is neither French, Italian nor Australian.
Indeed, these two grapes are gaining popularity in wine regions in all corners of the globe, not the least of which is in British Columbia. It likely hasn’t escaped your notice that B.C. vintners haven’t adopted one name for each of the varieties. Indeed, there’s a plethora of locally-produced Gris, Grigio, Syrah and Shiraz on the market. In fact, some wineries even use all four names.
One would think if you picked up a bottle of, say, Okanagan Pinot Gris, you might expect the fat, French version. But that isn’t necessarily the case. In fact, several wineries are producing Pinot Gris that is more like the Italian version. And example of this is the Blasted Church 2006 “Pinot Gris” which exhibits fresh, citrus, mineral and apple skin characteristics – delicious, but not at all like the Alsatian style. Then there’s the 2006 Gris from Red Rooster, which critic Anthony Gismondi described as a “clean fresh citrus flavoured styled gris that tastes more grigio-like this year.”
On the flip side is the 2006 “Pinot Grigio” from Noble Ridge, which can hardly be described as lean and dry. With some oak contact and some residual sugar is has fat, tropical fruit aromas and flavours and quite a lot of leesy character.
You’ll have better luck with Shiraz/Syrah in terms of name equaling style. Syrah actually is the most commonly used term by vintners growing this variety, which has cropped up in droves in recent years. Only a handful wineries have adopted Shiraz on their labels, including, not surprisingly, La Frenz, which is owned and operated by a pair of Aussie transplants, Jeff and Niva Martin. But here’s the kicker, the one made by Jeff Martin, the winemaker, “is not a jammy Australian Shiraz,” says critic John Schreiner. And neither is it French-like. It is instead, according to Schreiner, “one that expresses the cool-climate terroir of the Okanagan’s Naramata Bench.”
The B.C. versions are invariably compared to the “originals” – the Mission Hill 2005 Shiraz was described by Gismondi as “true to its Oz-like styling,” while he pegged its 2004 Syrah as “a more Euro style.” But the sudden success of this variety locally (practically unheard of in the 1990s with only one producer, it is now the fifth most widely planted red grape in B.C.) is owed to its own emerging styles. Schreiner says Okanagan Syrah in general has “classic peppery notes,” and Naramata Bench-grown Syrah in particular is known for its “sensuous elegance.”
B.C.-made Syrah/Shiraz is certainly being judged favourably on its own merits. In the last two years, wines made with this variety took three of the 10 coveted Lieutenant Governor’s Awards of Excellence. And in 2006, the wine world was turned on its ear at the prestigious International Wine and Spirits Competition in London when it was announced that the Rosemount trophy for World’s Best Shiraz was going not to an Australia winery, but to a British Columbia one. Jackson Triggs Okanagan made history by taking home this haughty prize for its 2004 Proprietor’s Grand Reserve Shiraz.
Not bad for a wine critics argued could not be made in B.C.
95-100 Sets the bar.
90-94 Outstanding, has wow factor.
80-89 Good to very good.
70-79 Average, may have minor flaws.
60-69 Drinkable, but not recommended.
Mission Hill 2004 S.L.C. Syrah
Appearance: Intensely dark cherry red colour with brilliant undertones
Aromas: Black cherry, smoke, pepper, licorice, roasted bell pepper, mocha, leather
Flavours: Black cherry, plum, cocoa, peppery spice, licorice and herbs
Body and Finish: Silky entry on the palate, medium weight, moderately tannic and tight on the finish. Good length
Overall Impression: A spicy but elegant wine that should improve with age.
Would I Buy It? Yes, to cellar
Cellaring Potential: Age 2-8 years
Availability: BC LDB, VQA shops, private retailers
La Frenz 2005 Shiraz
Appearance: Deep, black cherry colour
Aromas: Earthy, cherry, plum, pepper, a bit of smoke and meatyness
Flavours: Spicy, plum, blueberries, cherries, sweet oak
Body and Finish: Elegant and silky texture, medium weight, supple tannins and elongated finish
Overall Impression: Beautifully executed wine that is both delicious and good value.
Would I Buy It? Yes
Cellaring Potential: Age 2-6 years
Availability: Sold out. Future vintages direct from winery.
Blasted Church 2006 Pinot Gris
Appearance: Crystal pale straw colour with a slightly green tinge
Aromas: Citrus, green apple skin, mineral, touch of peach, lemon
Flavours: Fresh apple, peach, lemon, citrus rind, mineral
Body and Finish: Clean, fresh entry, medium to light body, citrusy finish. Good length
Overall Impression: A racy, clean fruit forward effort. Nicely refreshing.
Would I Buy It? Yes, to sip on the patio or match with simple summer salads and white fish
Cellaring Potential: Drink now
Availability: VQA shops, private retailers