French Pinot Grigio

The transformation of Tokay d'Alsace


Pinot Gris has historically been an important grape in Alsace, generally the third most widely planted after Riesling and Gewurtztraminer. Through most of that long history though, the wines produced from these grapes were referred to as Tokay d’Alsace. While no one can be certain as to the origin of this nomenclature, the story seems have the wines being sold as a sort of alternative to Hungary’s Tokaji. Story has it that the grape was brought to Alsace from Turkey following General Lazarus von Schwendi’s 16th century campaign against the Ottomans. All that sounds good and fine, though why a mutation of Burgundy’s Pinot Noir grape had to travel to Turkey in order to find its way to neighboring Alsace is beyond me!

In today’s market, the Tokay of old is now known simple as Alsace Pinot Gris, though there was a brief period when the wine was bottled as Tokay Pinot Gris. This was a name used to ease into the European Union-mandated Pinot Gris moniker.

Photo courtesy omefrans via Flickr/CC
While flattered that the name of their most famous wine had been co-opted by the French all so long ago, the Hungarians were sure to protect their iconic dessert wine Tokaji and the European courts agreed, forcing both Alsace and Friuli to drop their brands of Tokay and use simple varietal names in their place. In Friuli’s case that meant bottling their wines as Friulano, not nearly as glamorous, but the Alsatians just fell into place, adopting the same labeling conventions as they have used for most of the rest of the wines for decades if not longer.

What to expect: In Alsace, and virtually nowhere else on earth, Pinot Gris produces a rich, opulent style of wine filled with spice notes and floral accents that are sometimes so spicy they often lead people to mistake Pinot Gris for Gewurtztraminer. The fruit of these wines tends very much toward the sweet end of the orchard fruit spectrum, oozing notes of apricot and peach. Pinot Gris is often made as a Vendange Tardive (VT) or late harvest style of wine. Because Pinot Gris has a rather high natural acidity, it is able to balance out some sweetness in the wine. That, coupled with the grape’s naturally sweet flavors, makes for compelling VT wines indeed.

Pairing with food: Alsatian Pinot Gris tends to be rich, spicy, frequently highish in alcohol and possibly a touch on the sweet side. All of that can make for an intense experience, so pairing the wine with something equally intense makes sense. Again cheese works well, though strong, washed rind cheeses really come into their own here. Fatty birds like a nice stuffed goose are great matches, as are rich pork dishes.

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