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Featured Wine Grape: Alsace Pinot Gris


TRIMBACH PINOT GRIS RESERVE 2002,
RIBEAUVILLE, ALSACE, France, $16

We had a guest to stay the other weekend. He wouldn’t profess himself a wine expert, but he’s no neophyte either: many years ago, before the financial pressure of kids, he treated himself to a horizontal of all the 1983 First Growth Bordeaux. Anyway, we poured from an open bottle after he arrived, and it only took him a sip or two to sit back, stare at the glass in wonderment and announce:

“This may be the finest white wine I’ve ever tasted.”

Which is interesting, because I had had a similar reaction – both with this bottle and with my introduction to Alsace Pinot Gris. That would have been a decade ago, at a restaurant in Nottingham. I was dining a band on major label expense and for some reason, a bottle labeled ‘Tokay Pinot Gris’ called my name from the wine list. The band members and myself were all gleefully astonished at its supple stature and refined grace and worked our way through three bottles. When we were informed that we’d finished off the restaurant’s supply, we called it a night: no other wine was going to beat that one.

Alsace wines typically feature Teutonic lettering that’s confusing to outside buyers. Trimbach has so redesigned the label of this Ribeauville Reserve that you can’t tell the front from the back.

So, what gives?
Firstly, Pinot Gris is the same grape as Pinot Grigio, known as the “new Chardonnay” for its current knock’em-back popularity in bars and bistros all over the western world. However, the similarities end there. Alsace Pinot Gris and Italian Pinot Grigio are as different as a Ferrari from a Yugo.
Secondly, Tokay Pinot Gris has nothing to do with the great Tokay wines of Hungary and, indeed, starting with the 2006 vintage and under EU decree, Pinot Gris from Alsace can no longer use the word Tokay. That’s that confusion out the way.
Thirdly, it’s a well-kept secret that Alsace produces the world’s finest Pinot Gris. Dry autumns in this northern French region around Strasbourg allow for long hang times, enabling the grapes to reach full ripeness before picking; the religiously low yields further ensure full flavor. Terroir certainly plays its part, and several hundred years of Pinot Gris production (I’d like to say “uninterrupted,” but the Germans have occasionally occupied the region as their own; the frequently Teutonic labels confirm Alsace’s conflicted history) has done the rest.
Fourthly, Alsace Pinot Gris is famously bone dry and remarkably full bodied. Unlike Pinot Grigio from Italy, there’s no acidity in these wines, but that’s not to suggest they aren’t lively. This Reserve from the Ribeauville area, bottled by the respected merchant house Trimbach, was a vibrant golden color in the glass, with a delicate and relatively muted nose of almonds and lemons. It was only on the palate that the wine truly – though still subtly – expressed itself: Vaguely smokey, notably honeyed, there was a touch of orange, some marzipan, maybe some apricot, and an abundance of elegance, grace and class. If Pinot Grigio is indeed the new Chardonnay, then think of Alsace Pinot Gris as the equivalent of a high-quality Burgundy. At a fraction of the price.
Fifthly, yes these are ludicrously under-priced wines. While the 50 Grand Crus of Alsace can get expensive, this merchant bottling is a steal at just $16. You can barely buy a Pouilly-Fuissy (or a Pouilly-Fumé) for this price, and when you do, it won’t display this kind of voluptuous finesse. Even those who don’t like paying double figures for their wine should try a bottle like this, just to realize how much good wine is available for a good price if you just explore.
Sixthly, vintage, as ever, is close to everything. I picked up this Trimbach at Hurley Ridge Wines near Woodstock not so much because of the producer or the price, but because of the vintage. 2002 was an excellent year in the north of France, and the white wines have plenty of ageing potential. But with the heatwave of 2003 having dulled most French white wines beyond the possibly of enjoyment, they’re mostly sold out. White Loires and Alsace wines from 2002 are worth picking up on sight.
Finally, this is probably not the greatest white wine you’ve ever tasted. Such subjective pronouncements are, after all, precisely that: a matter of taste. But I defy any oenophile to taste a quality Pinot Gris from Alsace and not savor the sensation of this uniquely dry, full-bodied, well-rounded, confidently classy white wine. When it comes at a truly great price too, then so much the more to enjoy.

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