Bill’s Best Bets – June

Glory be to gris, but sometimes you just gotta wait
By Bill Zacharkiw

Bill Zacharkiw

Bill Zacharkiw

On a recent trip to Alsace, I made sure one of my stops was with Pierre Gassmann. While he is one of the most interesting and knowledgeable winemakers I have ever met, and tasting with Pierre is the wine equivalent of an Ironman race – this time we tasted 48 wines – I was there to pick up a specific bottle. I wanted, no, I needed, another bottle of his 1996 Vendanges Tardives Pinot Gris Rotleibel de Rorschwihr.

I bought a bottle the last time I was there in 2011. When I drank it a few months later, it was a game changer. The wine smelled like fresh white truffle laced with mandarin rind. The texture was satin. The finish was spicy, rich but not heavy, and just went on and on. Each sip was better than the previous. Perfect wine? As close as I’ve had. I knew when I tasted it that first time that I wanted to pair it with a grilled veal cutlet with fresh truffle. I did that and it was deadly.

The wine apparently had over 50 grams of residual sugar but remarkably, it “tasted” dry. I have experienced this phenomena on a number occasions whereby wines seemingly ingest what sugar is left after fermentation, resulting in richly textured wines that have very little sweetness on the palate. Gassmann couldn’t explain the process aside from saying that the wine had achieved its “balance” after years in a bottle. He was happy because he said “now I can start selling them.”


Pierre Gassmann preparing for our tasting

Pierre Gassmann preparing for our tasting

You see Gassmann’s family has been making wine in the village of Rorschwihr since 1611 and have a history of holding wines back until they are “ready to drink.” He presently has over a million bottles in his warehouse. While that sort of practice makes winery accountants coil up spasmodically in a corner, Gassmann isn’t alone in doing this. In Rioja, Barolo, Brunello, holding back wines are part of the appellation rules.

I just wish more wineries around the world would do this with pinot gris.

You see pinot gris is a tough grape, and doesn’t always want to ferment completely dry. Sure you can yield very high, pick it unripe and make pinot grigio. It’s the same grape, just a different style. But to be honest, making grigio out of one of the world’s great white grapes is the equivalent of buying a Ferrari and driving it at maximum 40km/hr. Many other grapes do what pinot grigio does, and arguably better.

Pinot gris is not the easiest grape to grow, and herein lies the difficulty. As it approaches optimal ripeness and at its maximum aromatic expression, it has to be picked. A delay of a day or two, and it’s acidity can go through the floor as the sugars go through the roof.

But even if picked at the exact right moment, there’s usually a relatively high amount of sugar and unless you want a wine with 16% alcohol, the winemaker needs to leave some residual sugar. It’s not always the case, certain terrors and in certain vintages, pinot gris can show great aromatics with under 4gr of residual sugar. But there’s usually  a touch more than that.

And this scares the shit out of most winemakers. So quite often what happens is that they pick just a touch early, sacrificing flavour, to assure that they can make their wine dry and at a reasonable alcohol level. It’s the oenological equivalent of “pulling out” before orgasm.

To bring this full circle, if more wineries did what Gassmann does with his pinot gris, then wine lovers who have the fear of a touch of residual sugar would be more willing to try them. What was slightly sweet would gain texture. It would gain complexity and more people would understand why this is one of the world’s great grapes. I’m not talking about keeping the bottle for 20 years like Gassmann, rather a simple delay of 2-3 years is enough for most gris’ to achieve that balance.

If you have a cellar, and don’t have any pinot gris, put a few bottles away. You won’t be sorry. But even if you don’t, and haven’t dabbled in the world of pinot gris, then it’s time you should. The wines pair well with a wide range of meals, including white meats, richer seafood, spicy foods, risotto and even bbq ribs. Here are a few excellent pinot gris that while great right now, will gain even more if you show a touch of patience.

Domaine Albert Mann Pinot Gris Grand Cru Hengst 2010Domaine Barmes Buecher Pinot Gris Rosenberg 2010Elk Cove Pinot Gris 2012Cloudline Pinot Gris 2012Amisfield Pinot Gris 2011Nyakas Budajenoi Pinot Gris 2012

Let’s start in Alsace and two of my favourite pinot gris. Both are biodynamically grown. The first is the Grand Cru Hengst from Albert Mann. I have numerous vintages in my cellar and the 2010 is a fruit and spice bomb.

The other is the 2010 Rosenberg from Barmes-Beucher. Big, powerful white with peaches and orange rinds, and a driving mineral note. Lots of energy here.

Oregon has been doing some excellent work with the grape. Elk Cove’s 2012 is richly textured and has some fantastic spice on the finish.

If you want a dry pinot gris that works, try the Cloudline 2012. Reminds me of a chenin blanc in many ways, but with a touch more spice.

Another one of my favourite pinot gris is from New Zealand’s Central Otago. Amisfields’ 2011 is one of the more elegant pinot gris on the market that screams for spicy cuisine.

Finally for you bargain hunters, the Hungarian winery Nyakas makes a dry styled gris that walks that line between gris and grigio. And at under $15, hardly a risky investment if you want to try gris for the first time.

Until next time.


“There’s enjoyment to be had of a glass of wine without making it a fetish.” – Frank Prial

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The Grand Cru Hengst

The Grand Cru Hengst