A blind tasting of some Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer from around the World

My intention in the tasting was to look at two distinctive grapes from Alsace: Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer; and compare examples of each. These will be three very different locations and the idea is to see how the grapes are treated in those places. In particular I’m interested in the acidity, residual sugar and alcohol balances that different growers decide on in those differing climates and wine cultures.

To do this I am going to show three Pinot Gris wines blind, one each from Alsace, USA and New Zealand, and have the group score and comment on them before revealing their origin. I then will repeat the process (though not necessarily in the same order) with three Gewürztraminer.

Let’s start by looking at Pinot Gris. First of all there’s the tricky subject of Pinot Grigio. Pinot Grigio, grown mostly in the North East of Italy, has become the Aussie Chardonnay de nos jours: the white wine for people that don’t really like wine. It is a recognisable name that indicates a neutral (some might say characterless), inoffensive, cheap-ish wine.

About 20% of the world’s PG is Grigio – over 50m bottles (that really is a sobering thought)! Of course there are a few growers that make an interesting and characterful Pinot Grigio (Lageder, for example), but I’m going to exclude them from this article and the subsequent tasting.

“Proper” Pinot Gris is planted in many countries but is still quite a niche grape – making something like ¾ % of world wine – less than ¼ of something like Sauvignon Blanc. Over 30% is in the USA, about 2/3 of that in California and 20% in Washington State. There is a lot in Germany (where it is called Grauburgunder) – about 17%, and only 10% in France – nearly all in Alsace. There is actually marginally more in Australia than France, and about 6% of the World’s planting are in NZ – though that is increasing quickly. There are sizable plantings too in Moldova and Hungary.

If Pinot Grigio is crisp but bland, what is “proper” Pinot Gris like? Certainly it is richer, with a weight range more akin to Chardonnay than Sauvignon Blanc. The wine shows strong aromatics – floral elements and peach or apricot, and a smoky hint. The wine struggles for acidity, and warmer climate examples can be over-blown with the subtler floral and smoke notes absent. In addition, growers from any place of origin sometimes leave in residual sugar. This is fine if there is a good acidity (think German Riesling) but can all be a bit too over-extracted, too sweet and too much!

A correct floral / acid / fruit / sugar balance can produce a great wine – perfect for the Alsace speciality: Tarte flambée.

Gewürztraminer is even more of a niche grape than PG. There is around half as much of the former compared to the latter (more or less, depending whether you exclude or include Grigio in the PG figures). Over 20% is in France – pretty well all in Alsace. There is nearly as much (18.5%) in both Moldova and the USA. In the States about 2/3 is in California and 28% in Washington State. Ukraine, Germany, the Hungary and Australia have sizable plantings and it’s a relatively small, but growing, part of the New Zealand vineyard – producing about 2m bottles.

Gewürztraminer is one of the most identifiable grapes in the world, easily recognisable by wine tasting beginners. Wines often show strong flavours of Rose water (Turkish Delight!), lychees, other exotic fruit and spices – often ginger. The issue with Gewürztraminer is that of acidity! Good acidity can produce a dry wine with great balance and a liquid sweet-and-sour expression that goes wonderfully with Oriental cuisine. Lack of acidity means the wine is too heavy and can develop a bitter nutty note or just has too sweet and oily a balance.

As with Pinot Gris the level of sugar – in itself – isn’t always the main issue; great wines can have balance even with residual sugar if there is enough refreshing acidity to give them backbone, to “hold them up”. Then the wines are refreshing and food friendly and with no impression (which one sometimes gets) of chewing a cosmetics counter…

So in this tasting we hope to see how the group prefers the sugar/ acidity/ richness/ alcohol balance resolved for each grape. Then it might be that resolution is more likely in one of the places of origin than the others. As all the wines are approximately the same price, the issue of Value is entirely settled by that of Quality.

Three Pinot Gris...

Three Pinot Gris…

Artisan “The Far Paddock” Pinot Gris  2009 (Marlborough – NZ,  14.5%  –  Laithwaite’s £15)

This had quite a quiet nose, but pretty typical PG all the same, floral notes and a hint of citrus, lime maybe, later. The palate had sweet fruit, reminding me of dried apricots and line of sharp grapefruit acidity and a slightly warm – in both the alcohol and spice senses – finish. Good although a bit “big”.
Ratings: Mine: 15/20    Group Ave.: 15.00

Chateau St. Michelle Pinot Gris 2009 (Columbia Valley, Washington State – USA,  13.5%  –  Winedirect £13)

This wine had a heavier nose and a nutty- or seed-oil quality. Later, when it warms up there is a floral note. The palate is heavier too (despite, as it turns out, less alcohol), oily with a similar level of sweetness to the first wine. However this has less acidity and there is a pithy, slightly bitter finish.
Ratings: Mine: 13/20    Group Ave.: 12.31

Trimbach Pinot Gris Réserve 2007 (Alsace, France, 13%  –  Wine Society £13)

Quite closed at first but open up to give hints of warm , sharp fruit – orange? The palate is the driest and has a long line of acidity giving a lighter and a food friendly balance. Warm and hints of several vaguely bakery flavours. My favourite of the night!
Ratings: Mine: 17/20    Group Ave.: 14.64

... and three Gewürztraminer!

… and three Gewürztraminer!

Hunter’s Gewürztraminer 2011 (Marlborough – NZ, 14.5% – Laithwaite’s £15)

Rather a recessed nose at first, though tropical fruit developing – maybe lychees but seemed to grow towards pineapple to my palate. Rather warm palate (I though more alcohol than spice on this occasion), and a bitter finish. I felt the palate a bit of a let-down on the nose and the finish a bit flabby and bitter.
Ratings: Mine: 14/20    Group Ave.: 14.50

Schaetzel Gewürztraminer Kaefferkopf 2008 (Alsace, France, 13.8% – Grower 17€)

One of the bottles of this wine was oxidised so the comments and score reflect the “better” bottle although even this also showed more age than one would expect from the vintage (as it turned out). I found the nose had non-fruit “slatey”, notes and hints of over-ripe, honeyed, fruit. Later hints of rose water and other floral notes emerge. Sweet fruit on the palate at first, peaches more than lychees, then mineral and grapefruit underneath. Passion fruit and Mirabelle later too. When I found this was Schaetzel I was disappointed with its softeness, but even so…
Ratings: Mine: 15/20    Group Ave.: 13.07
Those who marked the oxidised wine (not everyone did), presumably doing so on the palate rather than the nose, gave it 0.40 less.

Chateau St. Michelle Gewürztraminer 2009 (Columbia Valley, Washington State – USA, 12% – Winedirect £13 )

Hints of Rose and other flowers. Lovely supple acidity, light and refreshing – very charming at first (I had it a point higher on the first taste). However with time there is no development and the wine is rather short on the palate. A very service-able wine to glug without too much attention over a Thai curry?
Ratings: Mine: 14.5/20 Group Ave.: 13.39

Overall this tasting proved quite a conundrum, with the first wine scoring highest although only a handful of people choosing it as their favourite wine! The group was split – more or less equally – between the Trimbach PG and the NZ Gewürz as favourite.

This led to a discussion on moderating the scores for the Gewürz in relation to the the PGs. Just over half thought the Gewürz should be moderated by -1.00 in comparison to the PGs just under half thought they should not. Those – including myself – that felt the PGs were better quality overall were also (in the main) those that felt the best wine was the Trimbach. As the vote was 11-9 I have moderated the average group scores for Gewürz by -0.50. Those are the scores shown above. Even then the first wine comes out a little high, and given subsequent discussion some might want to drop that score by 1/2 a point too? There is no doubt about it that the NZ wines did well, and the Alsace polarised opinion much more. ..

Feel free to argue, re-interpret or comment as you think fit.