In Praise of Pinot Gris

The other night, still under the influence of the recent holidays, I chose to accompany a simple pork loin roast with a more important wine than I would usually use for a weeknight dinner: an Albert Boxler Pinot gris, Grand Cru Brand 2004. In one sense, it was a mistake, in another, a splendid choice. The wine stole the show. The pork roast – Berkshire pig, well-fatted and slow-cooked – was succulent and rich. The Pinot gris was more so.

boxlerAlready golden colored – that deep, lovely tint that most of us know from white Burgundies of great age – and so aromatic that you could be forgiven for thinking the grape a kin to Muscat, the Pinot gris was mouth-filling and intense. Slightly oily on the palate, its fruit was so forceful that my initial thought was that I was drinking a sweet wine, and it took a few seconds for my brain to register that all that fruit was fully dry – dry mango, dry peach, freshly made bread, and a congeries of smoke-and-earth flavors, all clamoring for attention. The finish went on forever. That was the (very) good news. The bad news was that that scrumptious pork really took a back seat to the wine, instead of interacting with it. A less magnificent wine would have been a better match, a lesson I will take to heart in the future. In happy dining, balance is everything.

That’s not an uncommon problem with Alsace Pinot gris, which is often as forward and assertive as my bottle of Boxler was. I love Pinot gris, but it can be hard to find the right dish for it. It’s a complicated grape, from almost any point of view. Palatally, it most resembles a blend of Viognier and Muscat with maybe a little Gewurztraminer thrown in. It never even remotely recalls Pinot grigio, which of course is the very same grape – or clones thereof – grown almost anywhere but Alsace. In Italy, where Pinot grigio has become ubiquitous, it is usually harvested pretty early, while the grapes still retain plenty of acidity. It is then vinified quickly at relatively low temperatures and in stainless steel to produce a wine that was once racy and brisk and refreshing and now has become (with a very few exceptions) a pleasant stand-in for water.

pinot grisIn Alsace, the grape ripens longer on the vine, its acidity drops, and its other components flex their muscles. Vinification and skin contact are longer, and the wine that emerges is a different beast entirely – bigger, rounder, with a very distinct spicy flavor and a very forceful personality. In a world of well-mannered white wines, Alsace Pinot gris swaggers. Not a white wine for everybody or everyday, but those who like it – and I am one of those – regard properly aged Pinot gris as one of the world’s greatest white wines.

Pinot gris probably originated as a mutation of Pinot noir, as its name hints. Where and when that happened is very much a matter of conjecture, though the variety does have a verifiable history of several centuries. Pinot gris has tagged along on Pinot noir’s worldwide dispersal, but – while some good ones are grown in the US Pacific Northwest – its best production zone unquestionably remains Alsace. There, it stands as the third most popular grape (behind Riesling and Gewurztraminer) and accounts for about 15% of the vineyards under cultivation (about 6500 acres in all). So there is not a huge amount of Pinot gris in the world, and even Alsace’s production is not of uniform quality.

My bottle was from an excellent small producer whose family home sits right in the middle of a Grand Cru site in the village of Turkheim: Brand, famed for Riesling even more than for Pinot gris.

Boxler vineyards

Boxler vineyards just outside Turkheim

There are about 50 Grand Cru sites scattered through the 105-mile-long ribbon that is the Alsace growing zone, and they are not all equally grand. At the same time, some sites that experts consider very fine have not been designated Grand Cru, so the designation is not a foolproof sign of quality but rather a general indicator. Alsace’s terroirs are extremely varied: Brand, for instance, is among a handful that have granitic soils, which makes its wines quite distinctive. Zind-Humbrecht, which is famous for the intensity of its varietal wines, also owns a portion of the Brand vineyards. Its Pinot gris is perhaps the most powerful wine of them all, and is usually priced accordingly.

In addition, Alsace, like Burgundy and the Italian Piedmont, has benefitted from global warming. It has enjoyed more excellent vintages in the past 10 or so years than in the 30 preceding – so this is a good time to acquire and put away some of this intriguing variety to develop the wonderful character it is capable of. Young Pinot gris is certainly pleasurable, but I like them best between 5 and 10 years old, when they still show an intensity of fruit but add to it more complex, developed flavors. Of course, the very best vintages – my 2004 wasn’t even one of those – can go longer than that and grow yet more complex and powerful with each passing year.

2 Responses to “In Praise of Pinot Gris”

  1. Tom Maresca Says:

    Joe:

    I suspect many more people share your view of Alsace than mine. It’s a fact that Alsace wine is uneven in quality, and it is also a bit of a specialized taste. Lovers of German Riesling usually find Alsace Riesling harsh and lacking finesse, for instance: It takes a real palatal adjustment to cross the Rhine, and it even takes a bigger one to enter Alsace from the Loire or the Rhone.

    You seem to be familiar with a list of the major producers, all of whom make at least some top-flight wine — Trimbach’s Clos St Hune Riesling, for instance, or the bottlings in Hugel’s Jubilee line. And there are many smaller growers, like Boxler, that are well worth knowing. The quickest way to find about these is through the very best short introduction to Alsace that I know of, in Andre Domine’s excellent encyclopedia (simply called Wine). He includes a very useful and quite varied list of producers of some of the best Grands Crus wines, with production details and individual label recommendations. (For my money, Domine’s is over-all the most successful and most often accurate of the modern wine encyclopedias.)

    Happy hunting!

  2. Joe Calandrino Says:

    HI Tom:

    Of all the vineyard’s of France, including Burgundy, I find Alsace the most mysterious, exasperating and disappointing. Perhaps I simply lack the experience necessary to understand the wines. Apart from 2008s ( I’ve tasted only a smattering of these, and those I’ve tasted are merely good), only the 1990s and 1994s move me. Some of the wines in these vintages are stunning examples of their types: I remember the 1990 Pinot Gris from Trimbach and Zind-Humbrecht as being profound, and the 1994 vendange tardive Gewurtztraminer of the latter producer as being complex, dense and delicious ( I had it with a fork).

    I cannot appreciate any positive effects of climate change in Alsace in the last 20 years apart from these notable exceptions. I have no experience of the 2004 Boxler and I am completely ignorant of this producer (this is what I mean by my inexperience: I know only the big and famous producers). The 2004s generally seemed to me to be uninspired, and merely correct renditions of the type.

    But when everything fits into place, I agree that Pinot Gris is every bit as great as a Burgundy. They are intense, to say the least, and when well-made, push the envelope near to caricature though never succumb.

    Can you tell me more about the producers whom you admire? Again, I am familiar with the Trimbachs, Zind-Humbrechts,Josmeyers, Beyers, etc., so I am in need of a good dose of reality before I can join you in your hymn to Alsace and praise of Pinot Gris.

    Warm regards,
    Joe

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