Do you like the pear-fruited notes of Pinot Grigio, but long for something more substantial, generous and even weighty? Switch languages and head north to France’s Alsace wine region, where Italian grigio changes into French gris, and the light and easygoing wine you know becomes rich and full-bodied.
While Pinot Grigio and Pinot Gris are indeed the same grape, different growing conditions have a significant impact on the resulting wines. In northeastern France, the climate is dry and sunny. During extended autumns, the variety attains rich flavors due to full aromatic development, achieved particularly well in south- and southeast-facing vineyards that run along the eastern slopes of the Vosges. Botrytis, or noble rot, is also a distinct possibility.
A mutation within the Pinot family, Pinot Gris is a sibling of Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc. Its grapes are neither white nor black, but exhibit more of a pinkish-gray skin color (hence the gris and grigio, which both translate to “gray”).
The variety has been present in Alsace since at least the 16th century, and it’s been made in dry, off-dry and sweet styles, which run the whole gamut of flavors: floral and fruit-scented, flinty and smoky, spicy and honeyed. This is still the case, and winemakers revel in the possibilities. Here’s a stylistic primer to the wonderfully gray world of Gris.
Fresh, concentrated and dry
One of the aspects that gives Alsace Pinot Gris such substance and character, even if the style is dry and fruit-driven, is restricted yields. Many winemakers focus on a clean-cut, dry style that’s suited to contemporary cuisine, but this requires hawk-like attention to harvest date and selection.
“In the past, Grand Cru Alsace Pinot Gris was usually made in an off-dry or sweet style, but today, it is possible to make it in a dry style,” says Samuel Tottoli, winemaker at Domaine Martin Schaetzel by Kirrenbourg in Kientzheim. “For me, it is necessary to make a dry style.” Low yields from stony vineyards ensure the wine is concentrated, he says, while prime sites with well-drained soils further promote ripening before too much sugar develops in the grapes.
“Many people are convinced that Pinot Gris has to be picked late, that it has to have botrytis, but I am convinced of the opposite.” —André Ostertag
“What is important for me, for this style of Pinot Gris, is precision in when you go to harvest,” says Thierry Kientzler, the fifth-generation owner of Domaine Kientzler in Ribeauvillé. He says that Pinot Gris can gain one degree of alcohol within a day and lose acidity quickly. Since balance is paramount, giving full attention to the fruit and employing responsive logistics are key. Kientzler is stringent about berry selection, and he will only use healthy, non-botrytized fruit.
“Alsace Pinot Gris is very earthy,” says Céline Meyer, CEO of Domaine Josmeyer in Wintzenheim, where she represents the fifth generation of her family to run the estate. She too points to the crucial decision of when to harvest to balance the grape’s inherent roundness and ability to make powerful wines.
“Preserving its freshness, keeping its energy, is very important,” she says.
Meyer notes that this creates great pairing versatility for dry Pinot Gris. Kientzler keeps it general with a suggestion of white meats or grilled fish. Tottoli, however, is very specific. He suggests bouchées à la reine, little puff-pastry shells filled with a meat ragout (often chicken, veal and ham), mushrooms and sweetbreads in a creamy sauce.
Trimbach 2016 Réserve Pinot Gris (Alsace); $20, 93 points. A touch of ripe Mirabelle plum joins the pear fruit on the nose. The resolutely dry palate holds them tight on a very concentrated, fresh but also earthy body. This is taut and clean, and needs a little more time in bottle. The finish is whistle-clean. Drink through 2035. Esprit du Vin.
Emile Beyer 2016 Tradition Pinot Gris (Alsace); $22, 92 points. A touch of reduction still plays on the nose but the palate shows ample, ripe pear notes on a dry but concentrated body. The bold fruit holds its own against lemon brightness. This rich but taut wine strikes a lovely balance and has both drive and impact. The finish is long and dry. Michael Corso Selections.
Josmeyer 2015 Fromenteau Pinot Gris (Alsace); $31, 91 points. Fresh peel of Russet pear appears on the nose with its implication of pleasant bitterness and juicy fruit. The palate is slender and bone dry, showing the purity of the fruit even more. While this is powerful and concentrated, the finish echoes with gentle delicate pears and lemony freshness. Domaine Select Wine & Spirits.
Full-bodied, complex, maybe oak-aged
“In Alsace, we have few red wines,” says André Ostertag, winemaker and owner of Domaine Ostertag in Epfig. He makes dry, oak-matured Pinot Gris and considers the variety a viable alternative to red wine.
While climate change now allows Pinot Noir to be successfully grown in Alsace, the red variety was never previously planted in the region’s best sites. Instead, Pinot Gris was cultivated in those spots and was seen as a more substantial wine to go alongside meat.
“In the history of Alsace gastronomy, Pinot Gris had often been paired with venison,” says Ostertag. “Pinot Gris, for me, in Alsace, has extra structure, sometimes even something close to tannin. This makes a full-bodied wine. In a way, Pinot Gris is the white grape that is closest to red wine.”
Ostertag draws upon architecture to compare the grape to Riesling, another prominent variety of the region. The latter can be considered Gothic, with soaring aromas and high acidity, while Pinot Gris is more Romanesque, more solid, rounded and earthbound.
“Pinot Gris is one of the grapes that allows you to play.” —Séverine Schlumberger
“There is no other grape like Pinot Gris, where the style of the grower has such impact,” he says. Ostertag is also convinced that Pinot Gris in Alsace is often misunderstood, including in vineyards and wineries.
“Many people are convinced that Pinot Gris has to be picked late, that it has to have botrytis, but I am convinced of the opposite,” he says. “We pick early, then we use oak, not in order to get oak flavors, but to get oxygenation.
“In my winery, Pinot Gris absolutely needs oak, needs an élévage [bringing up or raising] that is a little more complex, where you bring some air to the wine to develop the hidden part of the wine.” Ostertag’s methods strive to bring the grape’s bold structure and richness to the fore.
Pinot Gris is best with some bottle age, which allows the wine’s opulence to coalesce with its finer nuances. For oak-aged, dry versions, Ostertag recommends pairing with heartier foods that reflect the variety’s earthy richness, such as anything with mushrooms and root vegetables.
Domaine Zind-Humbrecht 2016 Clos Windsbuhl Pinot Gris (Alsace); $80, 95 points. Honey and smoke are signaled gently on the nose. On the concentrated body they are joined by a pleasant edge of honeyed bitterness pervaded by lemon zest, creating a flavor bomb with numerous focal points. It is all happening on this dry, bundled palate with endless drive. This needs time. Drink 2025–2035. Kobrand. Cellar Selection.
Domaine Ostertag 2016 Fronholz Pinot Gris (Alsace); $57, 94 points. A restrained notion of pear skin appears tentatively on the closed nose. The absolutely dry palate shows a lively streak of lemon for freshness, but is more about texture, earth and fruit. This wine has ample pear at its core, framed by freshness and a firm mouthfeel. It needs time to reveal its true elegance. Drink 2022–2035. Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant. Cellar Selection.
Marc Kreydenweiss 2015 Moenchberg Grand Cru Pinot Gris (Alsace); $33, 94 points. Fresh juicy pear has a touch of bergamot zest on the nose that lends a heady enticing note. That same aromatic zesty touch pervades the entire palate, perfuming the rich ripe pear fruit and providing a wonderfully bright firm structure. There is a warm energetic core to this wine and quite some warmth, but this is beautifully countered by the citrus freshness. Right now all the notions are primary and delicious but this will evolve and develop. The concentration certainly is there. Drink 2017–2035. AP Wine Imports.
Off-dry and sweet
“Pinot Gris in Alsace behaves a little like a peach: At first, it is hard and firm, but with time, it gets softer and sweeter,” says Séverine Schlumberger, the seventh generation of her family to run Domaines Schlumberger in Guebwiller.
Like many winemakers in the region, she marvels at the breadth of styles the grape can produce here. “If you pick early, the wine will be dry, but we pick three weeks later, so the grapes have more fruitiness,” she says. “Pinot Gris is one of the grapes that allows you to play.”
Schlumberger produces a traditional, rich and off-dry style of Pinot Gris. It counteracts some residual sweetness from the grapes with concentration, extraction and finely balanced freshness. This is a stylistic tightrope that Alsace has perfected, especially for classic Grand Cru Pinot Gris.
“We are the only region in the world to offer this style of Pinot Gris,” she says.
While there’s some residual sweetness, this style is not sweet enough for dessert. “It’s a fall wine I drink September to March,” says Schlumberger. “I think of pumpkin, pork with honey sauce, cheese dishes. In fact, Pinot Gris is a fabulous Thanksgiving wine with a bit of sweetness, but still dry enough to please everyone.”
Alexandre Schoffit, winemaker at Domaine Schoffit in Colmar, teases out even more sweetness with his Vendanges Tardives Pinot Gris, relying on botrytis for good reason.
“It not only concentrates sweetness, but all the other elements and the acidity,” he says. “For the late-harvest wines, this is the main aspect.”
Vendange tardive, or late-harvest wines, are sweet dessert wines that need time to develop. Schoffit recommends at least eight years of aging and to pair them with desserts that have a sweet but fresh element. He suggests a chocolate-pear tart, or other combinations of chocolate and citrus.
Domaine Schoffit 2015 Clos Saint-Théobald Rangen Grand Cru Vendanges Tardives Pinot Gris (Alsace); $60, 96 points. Right now this is still shy on the nose. There is a glint of pear peel and Mirabelle, plus a suggestion of smoke. The palate is equally shy as the principal sensation is that of wonderfully tangy texture, fresh concentrated acidity and balanced sweetness right now. This needs time to develop its undoubtedly rich flavors. The balance is impeccable. Immense power and lasting strength lie at the core of this monumental wine. This is made to last and should be given time in the cellar. Drink 2025–2050. Weygandt-Metzler.
Domaines Schlumberger 2014 Kessler Grand Cru Pinot Gris (Alsace); $30, 94 points. There is something pleasantly bitter on the nose: Burnt sugar or bitter almond. The palate answers this with fluid, rippling sweetness expressed in ripe, juicy, refreshing pear fruit. The bitter notes remain and create an appetizing, tangy edge to this concentrated wine that is streamlined by balancing freshness despite the residual sugar. A lovely balancing act with a bracingly clean, medium dry finish and echoes of citrus zest. Drink 2017–2035.. Drink through 2035. Maisons Marques & Domaines USA.
Kuentz-Bas 2015 Eichberg Grand Cru Trois Châteaux Pinot Gris (Alsace); $45, 94 points. There is almost a touch of burnt sugar on the nose before the more customary aromas of juicy honeyed pear kick in. There are fresher glints, too, of zesty lime and green pear. The palate boosts the juicy pear notes which fill mouth and nose and which are edged with pleasantly bitter pithiness. A touch of residual sweetness amplifies the fruit on the generous palate, but this is balanced with lemony freshness before an off-dry finish. Lovely now but sure to develop. Drink 2017–2030. Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant.