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Pierre Sparr Carte d Or Pinot Gris 1999
With its fairytale aesthetic, Germanic influence, and strong emphasis on white wines, Alsace is one of France’s most unique viticultural regions. This hotly contested stretch of land on France’s northeastern border has spent much of its existence as German territory, and this is easy to see both in Alsace’s architecture and wine styles. A long, narrow strip running north to south, Alsace is nestled in the rain shadow of the Vosges mountains, making it perhaps the driest region of France. The growing season is long and cool, and autumn humidity facilitates the development of noble rot for the production of late-picked sweet wines Vendange Tardive and Sélection de Grains Nobles. Alsace is divided into two halves—the Haut-Rhin and the Bas-Rhin—the former, at higher elevations, is associated with higher quality and makes up the lower portion of the region.
The best wines of Alsace can be described as aromatic and honeyed, even when completely dry. The region’s “noble” varieties are Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Muscat, and Pinot Gris. Other varieties grown here include Pinot Blanc, Auxerrois, Chasselas, Sylvaner, and Pinot Noir—the only red grape permitted here, responsible for about 10% of production and often used for sparkling rosé known as Crémant d’Alsace. Riesling is Alsace’s main specialty, and historically has always been bone dry to differentiate it from its German counterparts. In its youth, Alsatian Riesling is fresh and floral, developing complex mineral and gunflint character with age. Gewurztraminer is known for its signature spice and lychee aromatics, and is often utilized for late harvest wines. Pinot Gris is prized for its combination of crisp acidity and savory spice as well as ripe stone fruit flavors. Muscat is vinified dry, and tastes of ripe green grapes and fresh rose petal. There are 51 Grand Cru vineyards in Alsace, and only these four noble varieties are permitted within. While most Alsatian wines are bottled varietally, blends of several (often lesser) varieties are commonly labeled as ‘Edelzwicker.’
One grape variety with two very distinct personas, Pinot Gris in France is rich, round, and aromatic, while Pinot Grigio in Italy is simple, crisp, and refreshing. In Italy, Pinot Grigio is grown in the mountainous regions of Trentino, Friuli, and Alto Adige in the northeast. In France it reaches its apex in Alsace. Pinots both “Gris” and “Grigio” are produced successfully in Oregon's Willamette Valley as well as parts of California, and are widely planted throughout central and eastern Europe.
In the Glass
Pinot Gris is naturally low in acidity, so full ripeness is necessary to achieve and showcase its signature flavors and aromas of stone fruit, citrus, honeysuckle, pear, and almond skin. Alsatian styles are aromatic, richly textured and often relatively high in alcohol. As Pinot Grigio in Italy, the style is much more subdued, light, simple, and easy to drink.
Alsace is renowned for its potent food–pork, foie gras, and charcuterie. With its viscous nature, Pinot Gris fits in harmoniously with these heavy hitters. Pinot Grigio, on the other hand, with its lean, crisp, citrusy freshness, works better with simple salads, a wide range of seafood, and subtle chicken dishes.
Outside of France and Italy, the decision by the producer whether to label as “Gris” or “Grigio” serves as a strong indicator as to the style of wine in the bottle—the former will typically be a richer, more serious rendition while the latter will be bright, fresh, and fun.