Alsace Pinot Gris
Pinot Gris is an interesting and unusual grape variety. First of all, it goes under two names around the world. With other varieties, that’s usually a case of local variants for the same grape. But Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio signify two different styles. Pinot Grigio, the Italian name for the grape, is picked earlier, retaining refreshingly high acidity but with neutral aromas. This makes it an ideal summer sipping wine. Pinot Gris, in contrast, is picked later with lower acidity but much more complex aromas and a fuller body.
The second distinctive feature of Pinot Gris is its pink skins – it is technically possible to make a rosé from the variety. Depending on how the wine is made, there may be some colour to the wine and often some tannins, both unusual for a white wine. Those tannins mean that some sweetness is beneficial to balance the tannins (something the lower acidity may fail to do).
Finally, there are few regions that make great Pinot Gris despite it being such an historical grape. It’s long fallen out of favour in Champagne, where, known as Fromenteau, it used to be the most important variety alongside Pinot Noir. Likewise in Burgundy, where it used to be known as Pinot Beurot. Both New Zealand and Oregon are trying, with some success, to specialise in Pinot Gris, although I often find the wines fruity and uninteresting.
The one region that continues to produce world-class Pinot Gris is Alsace. Here, plantings of the grape have risen hugely in the last thirty-five years – from 550ha in 1981 to over 2,000ha, so that it now accounts for 15% of all plantings in the region. This increased popularity is perhaps because it marries the qualities of two of the other classical varieties of Alsace – the body and weight of Gewurztraminer and the floral aromas and mineral texture of Riesling.
I recently attended the Wine Bloggers Conference in Santa Rosa, where I enjoyed a tasting of Alsace Pinot Gris. Pinot Gris is just one of four varieties allowed to be planted in the 51 Grands Crus in Alsace, located on rocky steep slopes that capture the sun for full ripeness but work the grapes for concentrated, intense structure and aromas. It’s these difficult slopes that produce the most complex representations of Pinot Gris – where body, sugar, acidity, and tannin are all balanced.
We tasted wines from three historic producers of three different styles. Trimbach are still family owned – they’re on the thirteenth generation, having made wine since 1626. Their 2014 Réserve ($26; ✪✪✪✪) is not from a Grand Cru vineyard, but nevertheless it’s still from steep slopes resulting in rich aromas of stone fruits and spices as well as pleasant floral aromas. It’s off-dry (5.4g/L), adding to the richness of the wine but that small amount of residual sugar is off-set by the acidity. The wine’s now three years old, but still fresh and vibrant.
As attractive as this wine was, Zind-Humbrecht’s Grand Cru Rangen de Thanu 2012 ($90; ✪✪✪✪✪) was another level up. Alsace is criticised for having too many Grands Crus, but this wine demonstrates the distinctive quality those vineyards can produce. The sunshine that the slopes receive result in an extra ripening, to the extent that the wine has 14.5% ABV and residual sugar of 38g/L. That sweetness adds to the body and weight of the wine as well as complexity, with rich tropical fruit and honey aromas. The acidity isn’t high enough to confuse the wine with Riesling, but there are mature smoky, sweet spice aromas which give it a similar complexity and concentration.
The rarest style of wine made in Alsace is Sélections de Grains Nobles. These are wines made from noble rot, not something that often develops in the dry climate of Alsace. It was a real treat to try Albert Mann’s Attenbourg SGN Le Tri 2007 ($115; ✪✪✪✪✪✪✪). This was an astonishing wine: rich noble rot aromas of marmalade, orange peel, dried apricots, and honey; lusciously sweet at 237g/L, but balanced by an acidity surprisingly high for Pinot Gris (10.2g/L TA); and then mature aromas of toast, nuts, sweet and pungent spices. This is a wine that could be mistaken for sweet Riesling, and one that has many years left in it yet.
These three wines demonstrated the variety that Pinot Gris can produce, as well as the quality. They’re rich, powerful white wines, to be drunk with food (creamy fish or white meat dishes), and which can develop complex mature aromas with age. They’re not quite as vibrant as the best Riesling, but they certainly hold their own.