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.
Already 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.
In 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.
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.