Only a handful of California wineries make good wines from Pinot Gris. One of them is the round-textured 2011 Handley Cellars Pinot Gris from their Helluva Vineyard, with its lemongrass and honeysuckle aromas. Another winner from this year’s Critics Challenge annual wine competition, it’s a white that combines coastal freshness, nectarine and mineral flavors, and enough weight to match rich salmon or pork dishes.
Milla Handley was one of Anderson Valley’s pioneers. She first made wine there in 1982, when she fermented and aged 10 barrels of Chardonnay in her home basement. Now the winery produces a wide range of varietals, from Gewürztraminer to Pinot Noir (she makes four), and an excellent sparkling wine, too.
Most vintages of Handley’s Pinot Gris are blends of grapes from three vineyards located in both the cooler and warmer ends of the valley. But cold, rainy weather in 2011 posed even more serious challenges than usual in the Anderson Valley — especially in the cool northern end closer to the ocean. On my tasting tour during last fall’s harvest, I encountered worried winemakers bemoaning the gray skies, hoping for some sun to ripen the grapes, and wondering how long they could dare to wait before picking.
Grapes in two of Handley’s Pinot Gris vineyards were pretty much a washout. Only those in Helluva vineyard, near Boonville in the hotter, southern part of the valley, managed to ripen, which is why the 2011 is labeled as a single vineyard. Even so, the alcohol level is nearly a degree lower than Handley’s 2010.
The same and different: Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio
Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio (as it’s known in Italy) are actually the same grape. Yet the two names have come to stand for quite different styles of wine. Pinot Grigio is generally lighter and crisper and all too frequently fairly innocuous. Wines labeled Pinot Gris tend to be modeled on the fuller-bodied, richer examples from Alsace that can age for decades.
Handley’s version is closer to Alsace, but 2011’s cool weather gave it a tangy acidity. That combination of crispness and luscious round texture makes it a terrific — and versatile — food wine for summer or the rest of the year.