Pinot Gris in Alsace is not like the average Pinot Grigio from Italy. Pinot Gris doesn't lend itself to mass production, but that doesn't stop many Italian producers from making an ocean of Pinot Grigio, which is often tasty, but ultimately simple wine. Certainly you can find high-minded producers in Italy making Pinot Grigio that has great majesty, and this is more akin to the grand, sweeping, resplendent Pinot Gris found at good estates in Alsace.
What's in a Name?
Once known locally as Tokay or Tokay d'Alsace, EC considerations forced the combo-moniker of Tokay-Pinot Gris. Subsequent EU law forced Alsatians to drop their regionalism altogether so that no one would confuse it with Hungarian Tokaji. Not that anyone would, but this is what happens when you bring European countries together politically. So now it is known, on bottles at least, simply as Pinot Gris.
However it is known, this pink-berried mutation of Pinot Noir is responsible for some richly textured and aromatic (though not aromatic, as you'd find with Muscat or Gewürztraminer) wines when vine yields are limited. It excels, in a different way than does Riesling, across the sweetness spectrum, but it is most often found as a dry, deeply colored wine with significant corpulence. Pinot Gris runs far behind Riesling and Gewürztraminer in vine population, but many of the new generation of producers believe that it is the way of the future, and plantings of it continue to increase. If its success in Oregon and New Zealand is any indication, then these producers are right.
Pinot Gris in Late Harvest Form
Of the varieties in Alsace that excel as late-harvest wines (i.e., Riesling, Gewürztraminer, and Pinot Gris), Pinot Gris is perhaps the most consistent. This is curious, considering that it is just as mercurial as Pinot Noir in the vineyard. The number of vineyards dedicated solely to Pinot Gris, and expressly late harvest, continues to grow. Pinot Gris is possessed of a naturally strong acidity, which makes it a regular candidate for late harvest wines in both Vendange Tardive and Sélection de Grains Nobles. Vendanges Tardives of Pinot Gris are found in both dry and sweet styles (though sweeter wines are certainly more common), and they are incredibly rich and velvety, more tropical and exotic than regularly classified forms, and with some maturity they take on a buttered mirabelle quality. The levels of grandness increase exponentially with the Sélection de Grains Nobles, as the thin-skinned Pinot Gris is the "noble" variety most susceptible to botrytis. Pinot Gris usually retains excellent acid levels in this form, and this combined with the sugar and the noble rot leads to a dazzling wine that is very commonly full of peach, butter toffee, cream, and spice flavors.
Pinot Gris with Food
Pinot Gris has two great qualities that make it such a successful food wine: attractive perfume that isn't overpowering and excellent body and acidity. It is with rich, savory foods that it shines most brightly, and is a worthy replacement for many hearty red wines, should you seek to have a white alternative. It works so well in this regard that you could serve it with Pot Roast (or as the Alsatians do, with Baeckeoffe) and it would go perfectly well.
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