"Working the Land" (Viticulture)

Viticulture: Pinot Gris/Grigio At-A-Glance
Vigor (low/high)
Vigor is considered moderate to moderately low, although this is affected by site characteristics, such as soil depth and temperatures.
Does well in an array of soils—best in deep soils with high mineral content.
Yield (potential)
Left unchecked, yields for newer clones/selections can be extremely high. Need to watch for excessive ripeness, which can equate to higher sugar levels/ABV and lower acidity
Growth Cycle
Early budding (risks spring frosts) and early ripening. Matures relatively early, with high sugar levels. Individual clusters of Pinot Gris may feature a variety of colors, ranging from bluish grey to light copper or beige
Somewhat prone to botrytis and downy mildew, but generally good resistance otherwise

Growing and Making Pinot Gris/Grigio (in California)

The most significant determination with Pinot Gris/Grigio in California is deciding upon the end goal. If the plan is to make a premium example, redolent with fruit and highlighting the best of what the grape can present, that is one goal. Alas, that intent reflects a small percentage of what is produced in the Golden State. Of the total hectare/acres planted, approximately three quarters are in warmer areas, where the grape is cultivated for volume and making easy quaffable wines, or to augment inexpensive blends. Only a small fraction is grown in cooler climates and made into premium mono-varietal interpretations.

Working the Land

Does soil influence the flavor of the final wine?

Traditionalists answer unequivocally “Yes!” Soil is a key element of “terroir,” the natural environment in which vines are grown, along with climate (temperature, rainfall), topography (altitude, drainage, slope, aspect) and sunlight.

A more unorthodox view holds that the influence of soil on what you taste in the glass is a myth. Maynard Amerine and Ann Noble, two famous names at UC Davis, California’s premier wine school and research facility, conducted a study on the topic. Though based on Chardonnay grapes, the study concluded that the following holds true for all wine grapes: “No outstanding sensory differences were observed in wines produced from different soil type locations.” The key word is “sensory” (sight, smell, taste). They are not saying that the soil doesn’t affect vine behavior (yield, growth cycle, etc.). 

Frankly, little in terms of bespoke viticulture is practiced specific to Pinot Grigio in general, and even less so in California. Not unlike still/table wines, decisions as to clone, planting density, pruning method, local climate, and soils are individually addressed, based on location/provenance and attaining desired grape quality. In Italy, the consensus is that Pinot Grigio expresses itself best in the hills of Friuli, where soils tend to be marl and limestone and growers can choose the ideal slopes and exposures to ensure full ripeness at lower to moderate yields. In the Alsace region of eastern France, volcanic soils are preferred, but it’s not axiomatic. In the end, and in California, the reality is that there are simply no specific studies focused on viticulture explicitly for Pinot Gris/Grigio production.

Pinot Gris/Grigio is often a tale of two extreme choices: if the crop is harvested too early, it is unripe, tart, and flavorless -- akin to lemon water; if harvested too late, the wines become neutral, flabby and lacking in satisfying floral and fruit aromas. Further, the accompanying higher alcohols act like a solvent; during fermentation, any juice-to-skin contact allows higher alcohols to extract more tannin.

The variety tolerates climates ranging from cool to warm, but the warmer the weather, the more generic the character of the wine becomes. Examples with gravitas tend to share the commonality of cooler climates, lower, restricted yields and, to quote Andrew Jefford “... allusive force, naturalness of articulation and the innate, often perfumed sensual exuberance which the variety always exhibits at its best.”

In California, 14 different clones of Pinot Gris are registered with FPMS (Foundation Plant Materials Service) and UC Davis. The original, Pinot Gris 01 was collected by Harold Olmo from the Alsace region of France on a 1951 trip seeking improved grape varieties for the FPMS collection. Pinot Gris 01 came to FPMS in 1965 from the vineyard of the former Foothill Experiment Station near Jackson, California. Finally, FPMS received the following three Pinot Gris clones from OSU (Oregon State University) as a result of the Winegrowers of California Project: Pinot Gris 04 and 09 came to FPMS in 1987.  Pinot Gris 04 is reported to be French clone 53 (originally INRA #152) from the Colmar station in the Alsace region. Pinot Gris 09 is reported to be French clone 52 (originally INRA #146), also from Colmar. These clones are historic workhorses, though more contemporary selections from ENTAV in France have diversified the plant material.

In Europe, one can find pergola and classic Guyot training used for trellising the grape. In the U.S., Pinot Gris can also be planted using horizontal wires spread between stakes, with the most popular being Vertical Shoot Positioning (VSP).

Icon sustain

Sustainability and California

As an agricultural industry, the California wine community has a long history of adapting to change and demonstrating its commitment to sound environmental practices and social responsibility. Building on these efforts are the educational and certification programs of the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA). Established by the Wine Institute and the California Association of Winegrape Growers, the CSWA is the most comprehensive and widely adopted wine sustainability program in the world and, together with other important sustainability programs in regions throughout the state, has made California’s wine industry a leader in addressing climate change.