Pinot Gris in the limelight

January’s Fine Wine Supper featured the wines of top Alsace producer, Josmeyer.  It is always worthwhile to taste the wines of the most well-known domaines, to see if they continue to live up to their reputations.  Here they emphatically did.  All six wines were very good, some – in fact the cheapest as well as some of the Grand Cru – were excellent.  But the real star of the evening for me was the Pinot Gris. 

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Now that is a sentence you  do not often read.  The reputation of Pinot Gris/Grigio has suffered badly due to the glut of cheap examples which are neutral at best and sometimes just seriously bland – inexpensive wines, inexplicably popular in bars and the supermarket.  Their secret is that they don’t taste of anything … which is a profoundly depressing thought.  And even on this evening of quality wines, the Riesling and the Gewurztraminer were more assertive, more flamboyant, more showy.  But for quality, balance and a subtle complexity, the Pinot Gris outshone their flashier neighbours. 

The evening was based on half a dozen wines put together by the Wine Society to showcase Josmeyer.  Rather neatly, there were two examples each of Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer.  Each pair showed a good contrast – in quality level, age or between single vineyards. 

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After a pleasant glass of sparkling wine, Crémant d’Alsace from Dopff, we began with the Riesling.  If there was a prize for the best wine of the night for quality against price, it would easily be won by The Society’s Exhibition Riesling 2009, made for the Wine Society by Josmeyer at a creditable £11.50.  Beautiful green apple and honey notes, floral, moderate acidity (perhaps lower than expected due to the warm year), effortless balance, superb.  There was, however, a marked step up in quality and complexity to the Riesling Les Pierrets 2004, and so there should be at more than double the price.  The youthful, bright apple notes have transmuted into something profound, a full palate of fruit (apple, quince) and mineral complexity.  The standard ‘petrol, but in a good way’ note won’t quite do: mineral, mildly mushroom and herbal. Magnificent and long lasting.

IMG_1206Then on to the Pinot Gris. It was a risk tasting these between the two aromatic varieties but it paid off.  Pinot Gris Fromenteau 2008 is not a cru, being made from a number of high quality sites, but a quality white pinot which sports the old Alsace name for the grape variety. It is seriously difficult to describe – obviously more neutral on the nose but then a wonderful richness on the palate, some stone fruit, obvious ripeness off-set by perfectly balanced sharpness.   Pinot Gris Grand Cru Brand 2008 was the revelation of the evening.  The Grand Cru system in Alsace is controversial with some growers not accepting those vineyards that were selected. But what ever you call it, this showed it credentials – richer and riper fruit (melon and ripe red apples), lovely spiciness, rich and concentrated (Oz Clark calls it ‘the richness of brazil nut flesh’), outstanding length and overall quality.  Subtle and powerful simultaneously.  Forget every cheap glass of PG you have drunk and taste this instead.

IMG_1211The final pair of wines were suitably luxurious – two grand cru wines made from Gewurztraminer, with a decade or so of bottle age.  Brand (being the vineyard name) 2001 had a superbly fragrant bouquet with the classic rose water and lychee/exotic fruit combination, great viscosity and mouth feel, and very good length. Its partner, Hengst 2002 for me had brighter fruit, the same rich concentration but offset with better acidity.  The group had a long debate about this pair of wines, some struggling with the exotic fragrance (‘air freshener’), while others debated the merits of the two vintages and vineyards. Great wines are wines that promote conversation and opinion. 

That the best producers in Alsace make great wines is hardly a revelation. But as consumers, we can benefit here in that wines of similar quality in, say, the more fashionable Burgundy, would command astronomic prices.  There is great quality and value to be had here.  And the wines, even the simpler ones, age well. Our final bottle, a bonus, from Josmeyer was its Auxerrois (a local grape variety with the same parentage as Chardonnay) 2001 which had nice creamy ageing notes, if modest fruit.  All in all, these wines showed the very distinctive character of the three grape varieties, their food friendliness and their capacity to improve with age. And the star of the show in all these ways was – for me – the Pinot Gris.

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