Back in the formative years of my professional career Pinot Gris was a life-jacketed castaway clinging to a barrel stave in the vast sea of wine. Its most significant presence was in Alsace, but even there it was treading water and a second fiddle to Riesling. Gewürztraminer was an afterthought and continues to flail close behind. Sure it was planted in other places around the world but nowhere that really mattered. The Pinot Grigio boom was yet to materialize and the great white hope of Oregon was still a glimmer in David Lett’s eye. As a consequence, my early education included none of the baggage that saddles the variety today and afforded me an unbiased view of what I thought at the time was a very interesting grape.
My first encounter was an odd one: a 1976 Pinot Beurot from Domaine Thevenot Le Brun in the Hautes Côtes-de-Nuits. Like many white Burgundies from back in the day it was all matchsticks and minerals but there was also something ineffable that distinguished it from the other whites of the Côte d’Or. I think it was the texture—warm and lubricious—two features I’ve since come to recognize as characteristic.
My next foray was a much more conventional one: a golden 1978 Trimbach Pinot Gris (Tokay d’Alsace) that was lush, low-acid, thick, slightly sweet and redolent of spicy pears and ginger. For a bachelor of limited means this and Chinese carry-out were my fireplace and my cuddly pair of slippers. Not to mention a rare, affordable luxury.
The next example blew my mind and really set me on a path to Pinot Gris discovery. That seminal bottle was a 1982 Pinot Grigio from octogenarian and guardian of autochthonous varieties Giuseppe Toti from Prepotto in Carso. His was a traditional, ruddy-hued specimen that reeked of decaying irises, roses and the slightly morbid linalools that foreshadow floral death. The obvious skin contact imbued it with a structural component that presaged the orange wines from neighbor Edi Kante and well known examples from Slovenia and Croatia. It was pure nectar and I never tired of drinking it. Alas, there is a sad conclusion to the story. Signor Toti committed suicide—jilted by a younger lover. But his feisty spirit was embodied in that wine—one of the most important of my life—and why, as a veteran observer, and unlike many of my contemporaries, I’ve never been put off by orange wines.
Today the popularity of contemporary Pinot Grigio holds fast and has spawned many iterations and many millions of gallons of plonk. And despite a fast start in Oregon, the early ambitions were ultimately dashed—save for a few stalwarts from among the old guard. In the intervening decades the grape floundered despite improvements in Germany and New Zealand. Tellingly, Chardonnay was ordained Oregon’s new white darling and the schizophrenic “am I sweet or am I dry” saga continued unabated in Alsace.
The search for a dry, fully ripe and nuanced Pinot Gris continues to this day.
Ladies and gentlemen, I propose to you that Switzerland is ideally situated to bridge the style gap—quite literally in geographic terms but more importantly in terms of intent. The leading producers here have embraced the drier style but with a gravitas that eludes most Pinot Grigio. Even though the variety seems like an afterthought—only 230 hectares or 1.55% of the Swiss vignobles—it enjoys a foothold in every canton. In Valais, for instance, where it’s known as Malvoisie, there are seventy-four hectares. The Swiss-German cantons record seventy hectares of what they call Grauburgunder. Vaud is relatively far down the list with less than twenty hectares. But as seemingly insignificant as its presence is there it’s a variety the dedicated few take seriously and no one more than Raymond Paccot of Domaine La Colombe.
La Colombe’s reserve Pinot Gris, “La Colombe Grise”, is sourced from 40-50 year old vines planted in two communes that are, improbably, mere meters apart. Petit Clos in Mont-sur-Rolle and Bérolon in Féchy are separated by a stream that tumbles from the Jura to the lake bringing stony rubble and debris down from the mountains to dress a substantially limestone base. At five-hundred meters in elevation it’s relatively high for the area but beautifully exposed to the lake and its moderating influence. Ripeness occurs late here but the acid profile is never threatened. Nevertheless, Raymond chooses to block malolactic fermentation to retain as much freshness as possible. He aims for wines with finesse.
To some this may sound like a recipe for Pinot Grigio but that is to ignore the terroir. Raymond believes the true expression from his vines is in the texture—viscous and mineral—and everything else reflects vintage and variety. Who am I to argue?
La Colombe’s vineyards are farmed biodynamically and yields are low. The wines are fermented on their native yeasts in stainless steel cuves and aged sur lie in a mix of stainless steel and barriques.
This tasting was held for a few invited guests with Raymond, wife Violaine, daughter Laura, and cellar master Arnaud Mathey in attendance. The wines were not tasted blind. The pace was leisurely and a discussion after the tasting ensued. What follows are my notes.
La Colombe Grise, Domaine La Colombe (Féchy, La Côte, Vaud)
2015—Very pale straw in color. Honey and pollen with background herbs. There is a billowy, talcum powder element that suggests heliotrope. Apple, honey and stone-fruit flavors are rich, ripe, vivid and persistent. Medium-weight with fine acids. Lovely texture, slightly oily but never straying from finesse. This has the potential to be the best of the previous ten years.
2014—Very pale almost clear. Tight nearly unexpressive nose. Some lift from blossomy fruit. Lean and compact at the moment with fresh herbs and lemon flavors. A touch light and diffuse. Balanced to acid. Might MLF have softened this a bit? Nothing wrong, just lacks a bit of ripeness and intensity from this difficult vintage.
2013—Very pale straw in color. Warm nose of baked apple and honey. Apple crisp flavors with some sweetly spiced streusel and green almonds. Seamless palate that is both viscous and lively. Very fresh. Finishes clean with a vivacious acidity. This is one of the best of the group. Drinks beautifully now but will hold for several more years.
2012—Pale straw in color. Herbs with a botrytis tinge that recalls Sauternes. Beautifully knit barley sugar candy and creamy cashew meat. Palate filling with great amplitude and length. Seems mature but still with loads of freshness and cleansing acids to finish. Faint Sauternes flavor. Another winner.
2011—Pale straw in color. Herbs, green peas and a touch of children’s aspirin. More aspirin and apples on the palate buttressed by firm acids. Not quite enough stuffing to match the acids. Clearly a less ripe vintage that may have benefitted from MLF. Decent.
2010—Medium straw in color. Fabulous creamy nose with malted milk and citrus fruit. Barley sugar candy and lemon flavors with bright acids. The mineral and viscous texture is on full display in this wonderful wine. Bright, warm and complete. Fresh and utterly delicious. My coup de cœur with lots of life ahead.
2009—Straw colored. Pretty quince, lemon and freesia scents. Billowy with talcum and sawdust. Flavors of reglisse, apricot and citrus with a creamy, viscous texture. Acids are freshening and inviting. Crisp finish. The second in a pair of excellent consecutive vintages.
2008—Straw colored. More nuts and grain than fruit on the nose. Pear and roasted barley on the palate but mostly acid driven. A ,little disjointed and not as rich as the nose promises. According to Raymond a very difficult vintage and, perhaps, a candidate for MLF.
2007—Gold with some browning. Clear signs of oxidation. Flat muted nose but with some honey and raisins. Some sweetness of fruit but ultimately flat. Black tea astringency. By no means DOA but must be drunk soon. Signs of botrytis were confirmed by Raymond.
NB: Botrytis and its frequent sidekick laccase (a fungal enzyme) can cause accelerated oxidation and browning due to the enzyme’s interaction with phenols. The resulting quinones bind with aroma and flavor compounds thus masking their expression. This wine shows those symptoms.
2006—Gold in color. Not oxidized per se but showing definite signs of evolution. Still has lots of sweet fruit but with a black tea astringency. Beginning to dry. Drink up.
1997—(Raymond opened this baby as a thank you for coming. No thanks were necessary but I was happy to oblige.) Gold in color. Quince with a subtle rum-like aura. Sublime spicy, salty quince paste flavors. Really savory and dry but not at all tired. Beautiful balance of mature flavors and youthful structure. Nectar at 20 years old and a worthy representative of skilled winemaking.