Wine: Alsatian wine goes off the leash

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FED up with sauvignon blanc and chardonnay? Head to Alsace in eastern France, my favourite region, for sensational whites made from pinot gris.

Sandwiched between the Vosges mountains and the Rhine, Alsace is one of France’s warmest and driest microclimates with many soil types and a host of small wineries following organic and biodynamic philosophies. It is also an easy region for beginners as the wines are all labelled with the name of the grape.

Pinot gris is one of Alsace’s most unusual wines, considered by Alsace domaines to be “the” classic variety. Of course pinot gris is grown elsewhere – in northeast Italy for example it is called pinot grigio – but it tastes nothing like Alsace versions.

So what does Alsace pinot gris taste like? This is where the problem lies. There are quite a lot of different styles. It can be crisply dry or sensationally rich and almost sweet – with no indication on the label of how dry or sweet it actually is. So this is the stumbling block. A word to the Alsace authorities – find a way to rectify this as I think it puts people off the wines. One tip is to follow the producer. Some Alsace producers such as Trimbach, Hugel, Weinbach or Leon Beyer make dry styles. Others such as Zind Humbrecht, Frederic Mallo, Zimmermann, Marcel Deiss, Ostertag and Rolly Gassmann make sweeter styles, preferring later picking.

What you will find in all Alsace pinot gris is the grape’s key characteristics. It is light in aroma, but rich in body. It can smell spicy, musky, sometimes of pineapple, sometimes of smoked bacon or brazil nuts, other times it reminds me of warm sweaty armpits. It has full flavours, weighty alcohol, but always enough natural acidity to avoid it tasting flabby or blowsy. This is the key to pinot gris. In Alsace, it can be thrilling with enough fruit, spice and acidity, but in hotter climates of the New World they struggle to retain this essential acidity.

With its body and spicy opulence, Alsace pinot gris can be an excellent alternative to white burgundy on the table.

Dry

TRADITION PINOT GRIS 2010 Hugel

(£12.95, The Wine Society, www.thewinesociety.com)

A crowd-pleasingly fruity style with beautifully balanced acidity. Delicious as an aperitif. STAR VALUE BUY

PINOT GRIS 2011 Caves de Turckheim

(£7.95, The Wine Society; £7.99/£8.99, Majestic Wine)

Modestly priced, dryish, good introduction to the grape from well run co-operative. Good with chicken.

Off-dry

PINOT GRIS 2011 Zind-Humbrecht

(£11.99, Majestic Wine)

Rich and intense with definite sweetness: a blend of top vineyards including Heimbourg and Clos Jebsal. Excellent value for this special release.

PINOT GRIS CLOS ZWINGEL 2010 Leon Boesch

(£13.99 each for 2 or £15.50, www.lebonvin.co.uk)

A big, juicy, off-dry pinot gris. Enjoy with a seafood starter.

PINOT GRIS GRAND CRU FROEHN 2010 Jean Becker

(£16.25, www.davy.co.uk)

Winemaker Philippe Becker’s wines are now available in the UK: intense beautifully made wines. This comes from an excellent Grand Cru Froehn.

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