[The bottles below were provided as samples for review purposes.]
As tactfully mentioned by the disclaimer above, I recently received a mixed six-pack of sampler bottles from the good folks at Mission Hill Family Estate winery in the Okanagan Valley. Two of these bottles, the 2011 Reserve Riesling and the 2011 Five Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc, have received separate PnP review treatment over the past couple of weeks: see here and here for the full write-ups. But I couldn’t bring myself to split up the other four bottles and rate them separately, because it was clear that they belonged together, bound as they were by a common provenance: the family name Pinot. Pinot Grigio, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Noir all sat side by side in the MH sample box like a monochromatic grape rainbow, their shared forename a reminder of their common genetic ancestor (Pinots Grigio and Gris are the same grape, and both PG and Pinot Blanc are mutations of Pinot Noir, which is well-known for being genetically unstable). Since the fortunes of these bottles were clearly tied together, and since it’s July 2012 and our athletes are preparing to head off to London for the Summer Games, I did the only thing I could do and hosted the inaugural Mission Hill Pinot Olympiad at my house over the weekend.
Here’s how our game was played: I invited over a couple of fellow wine enthusiasts, opened all four bottles of MH Pinot, and we tasted through the lineup and separately ranked each of the wines as against its peers, individually coming up with our gold, silver, bronze, and, um, whatever’s below bronze (lead? aluminum? tungsten?) medal choices. I then added all of the placements together to come up with a cumulative judges’ score (for example, a wine ranked 1st, 2nd and 3rd by the three different judges would get a total score of 1 + 2 + 3 = 6); the lower the score, the better. The lowest total score won the overall prize, which basically meant that the bottle was emptied the fastest. We tasted the wines from whites to red, lightest to heaviest, and my notes below are in the same order. Who emerged victorious? Read on!
2011 MISSION HILL FIVE VINEYARDS PINOT GRIGIO ($15)
If you know me or have read this blog for any period of time, you’ll probably know that I carry a rather intense dislike for Pinot Grigio. One of my friends this weekend called it “that grape you broke up with”, and that about sums it up: I tend to find it neutral to the point of boring and not usually worth my while. It was therefore with some trepidation that I kicked off the MH Olympiad, wondering how this 2011 white would compete against not only the 2011 Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc I had already tried but also my built-up library of PG prejudices. As it turns out, surprisingly well. The wine was a very pale lemon hue and showed a slight petillance in the glass that foreshadowed the sense of refreshment that good Pinot Grigio is supposed to provide. There was surprising richness on the nose, as the expected sharp green apple and grapefruit aromas expanded to reveal hints of cinnamon, caramel and a touch of nuttiness. This depth of flavour didn’t fully translate over to the palate, where tart lemon and other citrus fruits melded with mineral/briny notes in a much sparer flavour profile, culminating in a crisp, slightly sour finish. Both of my fellow judges talked about drinking this on a patio somewhere, which meant that this Pinot Grigio was exactly what it was supposed to be. Further, I didn’t hate it…I actually kind of enjoyed it. There is no greater praise for a Grigio than that.
2010 MISSION HILL RESERVE PINOT GRIS ($20)
I intentionally put the Pinots Grigio and Gris back to back because, well, they’re the exact same grape. It’s rare to see a producer make two separate wines with a different PG alias on each label; in fact, I think this is my first encounter with such a manoeuvre. But to me it makes sense to split the varietal in half in this way, because each pseudonym of the grape carries with it a distinct set of expectations for the wine inside. Pinot Grigio, thanks to its most famous northern Italian expression, is generally a touch less ripe, resulting in lower alcohol, tart acidity, a fairly clean set of flavours and an inoffensive makeup. Pinot Gris, best known in bottles from Alsace, France, is riper, bigger, richer, more alcoholic, and with a wider (and wilder) set of flavours, from honey to mushroom to lanolin. The ripeness difference was evident in the alcohol levels between the two MH wines: 12% for the Grigio vs. 13.5% for the Gris. The Pinot Gris was also a year older, from the higher-level MH Reserve Series, and partly fermented in new French oak barrels, all of which pointed towards a higher level of fun and complexity and an unfair fight against a poor entry-level Grigio. Suffice to say that we were all surprised.
The Pinot Gris was deeper in colour than the Grigio, a rich medium lemon, and it was rounder and creamier on the nose, with pear the predominant note (if you want to get specific, my fellow judges were adamant that it was the concentrated smell of Del Monte canned pears), mixed with distinct nutty notes of almond and walnut. However, the Gris didn’t quite explode on the palate like I had hoped, coming across as almost more neutral than the Pinot Grigio (gasp) with faint pear, cantaloupe and honeydew melon fruit peeking through a bready/yeasty note that was likely the result of the wine spending 4 months on its lees (the dead yeast cells left over after fermentation) while aging. The finish was quiet and almost salty. It was a tamer expression of Pinot Gris than we were expecting, and while it wasn’t offensive, it actually left us yearning for the surprising pizzazz shown by the Grigio. This is why I don’t write these things in advance.
2011 MISSION HILL FIVE VINEYARDS PINOT BLANC ($15)
Pinot Blanc always reminds me of Chardonnay’s kid brother: never as acclaimed or intriguing as its older sibling, but with a similar makeup, texture and flavour set (although it lacks Chardonnay’s affinity for oak). This one fit my unoaked-Chard expectations to a tee: pale as the Pinot Grigio in colour, it was shy and a touch austere on its creamy, red-appley nose, but it picked up the intensity on the first sip. The lonely apple was joined on my tongue by white peach, Asian pear, bath salts and white flowers, all in a near-full body with languid acidity and quiet, Grigio-esque (12%) alcohol. Pinot Blanc is usually on the less adventurous side, but I caught a touch of exotic spice on the finish and enough hits of flavour throughout that it kept my attention. My fellow judges were not quite as taken with the bottle, but for me, the varietals for which I had the lowest expectations in this Pinot vs. Pinot competition continued to shine the brightest.
2010 MISSION HILL FIVE VINEYARDS PINOT NOIR ($20)
The lone red of the bunch and the head of the Pinot family tree rounded off the tasting, and after three delicately flavoured whites it was nice to dive into something a little more forward. The Noir was a surprisingly deep, nearly opaque purple colour, thicker and darker than your standard Pinot, only translucent at all near the edge of the rim. Its main attraction was its glorious strawberry nose, all red ripeness on top of sweet cherries, bubble gum and a slight hit of earthy funk on the tail end, but that lushness and sweetness didn’t fully carry over to a much more reserved palate. Replacing the field of aromatic strawberries was bramble, saskatoon berry, earth and some woodiness from its 9 months of oak aging, which also provided a pronounced hit of tannin on the finish, resulting in a slightly bitter aftertaste. The other judges were supporters of this wine, and on the nose I was fully with them, but for me the palate didn’t keep the bottle near the top of the podium.
You can probably come close to guessing my ultimate hierarchy of Mission Hill Pinots from my notes above, but it’s time to put the results from all three judges together and award some fictitious medals. The verdict please:
PINOT GRIGIO: My Ranking = 1st; Other Judges = 2nd, 1st; Total Score = 4
Yes, I know, I crowned a Pinot Grigio the victor in a wine competition. The Earth will now crash into the Sun.
PINOT GRIS: My Ranking = 4th; Other Judges = 3rd, 4th; Total Score = 11
It probably suffered both from immediately following the Pinot Grigio and from not mercilessly crushing it like I anticipated.
PINOT BLANC: My Ranking = 2nd; Other Judges = 4th, 3rd; Total Score = 9
Some diversity of opinion here, but here I am putting another varietal with which I am not overly enamoured on the podium.
PINOT NOIR: My Ranking = 3rd; Other Judges = 1st, 2nd; Total Score = 6
As you can see, there was near-unanimity with respect to the PGs and near-total chaos everywhere else. That’s why multiple viewpoints are important!
FINAL RESULTS: Pinot Grigio (GOLD), Pinot Noir (SILVER), Pinot Blanc (BRONZE), Pinot Gris (LEAD)
So there you have it — Pinot Grigio wins something in my world, PnP is sufficiently topical the week before London 2012, and many Pinots sacrifice their lives in the name of taste and science. Thanks so much to Mission Hill for their support of this blog and their sample generosity…as you will see shortly, although I’m through my initial six-pack of bottles, I’m not quite done with the MH lineup of wines yet. I will definitely be doing this again at some point, if only for the excuse to open 4 bottles of wine for 3 people in a completely socially-acceptable fashion. Cue PG’s Italian anthem…