Alsatian Pinot Gris–the Unpinot Grigio
From the first drops out of the bottle you can tell this is not your typical Pinot Grigio. As the golden liquid fills the glass and you catch scents of apricot and honey you might have a moment of dislocation. That’s because it’s Pinot Gris from Alsace. Same grape, completely different wine.
Although the Italian version may steal all the limelight (and market share), the very same grape grown just over the Alps produces a completely differently style of wine. Where the Italian version is light, crisp and always dry, the Alsatian one is rich, full bodied, and made in a range of styles from dry to sweet. Where Pinot Grigio delivers lemon and almond (though not much else), Pinot Gris offers up a complex plate of apricots, orange, honey, and honeysuckle. The two styles are so distinct that in New World regions where the grape is grown, such as Oregon and California, the wine is labeled according to style: Pinot Grigio for light and crisp, Pinot Gris for full bodied and fruity.
One of the benchmark producers in Alsace is Olivier Humbrecht, who Robert Parker once declared “may well be the best winemaker in the world.” That is high praise, especially since all the vineyards of Domaine Zind-Humbrecht are farmed biodynamically, a practice Parker has a mixed record on, to put it mildly. But Humbrecht is a serious winemaker, with a pedigree of 16 generations behind him and a Master of Wine degree. Since 1997 he’s been tending his 40 ha of vineyards (4 grand crus and 6 single vineyards) according to the biodynamic principles set forth by Rudolph Steiner in 1924. He is also currently president of Biodyvin (www.biodyvin.com). The key concept is in thinking of the vineyard as a whole. Maintaining the health of the soil is key to maintaining the health of the vines. To that end he uses no chemical pesticides or herbicides. For Humbrecht, who was recently in New York, it was a revelation. “We solved so many problems that we struggled to deal with in conventional farming.”
It is often said that 90% of winemaking occurs in the vineyard. Whereas most Italian Pinot Grigio is grown on the fertile valley floors, which leads to vigorous growth, high yields and hence less concentrated grapes, in Alsace vineyards are planted on south-facing hillsides and yields are kept low, no more than 40 hl/ha. In Italy the grapes are harvested early resulting in high acid, simple citrus flavors of a mass-market Pinot Grigio. In Alsace, the distinctive feature is that the region sits in the rain shadow of the Vosges mountains, resulting in dry, sunny autumns. Without the ominous threat of rain the grapes enjoy a long ripening season. When Mother Nature cooperates late harvest (Vendage Tardive) and botrytised dessert wines are possible. As Humbrecht told me, “it entirely depends on the late climate (alternance of cold nights and sunny days) and the initial acidity balance (low acid vintages do not make the best sweet wines). It all comes to finding out how the vineyard expresses itself the best.”
In the winery Humbrecht maintains a minimalist approach. “Once the grapes are harvested, I personally do not decide whether the wine should be dry or sweet. Wild yeast will decide for me, and their decision is mostly based on the balance of the wine. The higher the acidity, the more chance there is to see the fermentation stopping before the end, and vice versa.” He allows his fermentations to proceed slowly and lets his wines spend at least six months on the gross lees. He bottles the wines 1 to 2 years after harvest and filters only once at the end of winter while the yeasts are still dormant and only when all the yeast has settled at the bottom of the cask.
One of the conundrum’s for wine buyers when facing all those tall slim bottles in the Alsace section of a wine store is how to know whether a wine is dry, off dry, or dessert-level sweet. It’s a problem even for the winemaker’s family members themselves. In 2002 Humbrecht’s wife found a bottle of Riesling Turckheim 1990 in the cellar, but since they hadn’t tasted it in a while she couldn’t remember the level of sweetness. “I thought to myself that if she doesn’t remember, how could our customers, who probably had less chance to taste the wine than us?” Humbrecht devised a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being the driest and 5 the sweetest that has appeared on all his labels since the 2001 vintage.
This Pinot Gris qualifies as a level 2 on the sweetness scale, which means that while there is a hint of residual sugar, it mostly gives the wine a rounder mouthfeel. The perception is of a dry wine, albeit rich and full of apricot, lemon zest, honey, orange blossom and a distinctive minerality. It comes from a parcel of old vines, planted 60 or 70 years ago producing a wine of marked concentration. And finally, what to pair with it?