Step aside, sauvignon blanc! Pinot gris has come to town and it’s taking over the bars and wine lists. Ben Canaider delivers a primer on getting on top of the pinot trend—and making the most of it while it lasts.
Anyone who runs a small business loves a cash cow. It is that one product or that one service that keeps the till ringing and the cream on top of your weekly takings. If it is a cash cow with an attractive profit margin, even better. The ultimate contemporary expression of such a hospitality industry cash cow is probably found in coffee. Indeed, so successful has coffee become that coffee is all that some small hospitality businesses now do. Full stop.
On licensed premises, however, the cash cow that’s been keeping the wine list happy has—for about the last decade—been sauvignon blanc. And this white wine is still going strong. There are a number of reasons for this. Sauvignon blanc’s taste and smell is fairly unmissable. Better still, you don’t have to be a wine aficionado to realise that when you have sauvignon blanc in your glass, you really have something in your glass. Its strident and pungent flavour profile registers on everyone’s tastebuds. And, on another occasion, when the customer next drinks sauvignon blanc, they are reminded of the last occasion on which they drank it. This cognitive-memory ability is otherwise known as wine connoisseurship, and the more of it you can engender in your bar, then the more customers you will have. The additional fact that most sauvignon blanc drinkers are women is another impressive factor—or so I’m told by the
many bar owners who are keen, no doubt, to be constantly addressing gender imbalance issues.
Sauvignon blanc’s days of dominance may be challenged, however. Both in vineyards and on bottleshop shelves—and in bars and on wine lists—a new white is making its mark. Pinot gris.
Posh wine people with a healthy level of wine cynicism are not surprised by this emerging rivalry. According to them, pinot gris is invariably just as awful as sauvignon blanc. Ipso facto: it shouldn’t be surprising that pinot gris is becoming more popular. Pinot gris’s story is a little more interesting than that, however.
Before that story, there is one minor hurdle for customers and some bar staff to straddle. It is to do with names. Pinot gris and pinot grigio are one and the same grape. Gris is a white wine made more in the Alsatian manner—it is rich and quite fat, and fairly opulent. In France’s Alsace, it has earned a high reputation among the world’s wine lovers, particularly for the way it ages. Pinot grigio, however, is made in a very different style. Often picked early, grigio made its name in the north of Italy, where it produces lively, fruity, essentially dry but otherwise fairly neutral white wines. In this sense—and with scant regard for contemporary socio-sexual mores—gris is a wine for your step-father; and grigio a white wine for your niece. (Or should I have that the other way around?)
Gris’s popularity in Australia certainly has something to do with the fat and rich flavour it offers. It is loud. It is loud in a bit the same way sauvignon blanc is loud. The two wines might have very different flavours, but they are both wines that shout. Sauvignon blanc has high aromatics and a mouth-puckering taste; gris has a slippery, velvety viscosity, and gris provides wine drinkers with a very obvious palate presence. And gris made in Australia also adds another dimension—high alcohol. High alcohol levels in table wines help to cheat flavour. Get above 13 per cent ABV—particularly in white wines that are supposed to be aromatic—and the extra alcohol exacerbates existing flavours. Australian pinot gris is not uncommon at 14 per cent ABV.
Another factor helping to promote pinot gris’s worth is its name. Wine with two names is always better than wine with one name. In this regard, wine appreciation and popularity is more about language acquisition than beverage quality. Thirty years ago, chardonnay kicked this sort of pretentiousness off because it was a three syllable French word we could all say. sauvignon blanc carried on the trend thanks to it being a two-word French phrase. Pinot gris is a simple extension of this wine drinking pattern. Yet, importantly, when sauvignon blanc became known colloquially as ‘sav blanc’ (or worse still, ‘savvy’) pinot gris found some room in which to manoeuvre. In bars during the 6 pm to 8 pm weekday networking moments, it’s pinot gris that’s making a name for itself—principally because it is not “sav blanc thanks darls”.
The long and the short of all of this is that you need to stock and sell, by-the-glass, pinot gris. If you don’t want to drink it yourself, well, I’m not going to report you to the ombudsman. But pinot gris is what the customers want—at least, for the moment. Personally—as a trend—I’m giving it two or three years; vineyard plantings suggest winemakers think differently, however …