Wine isn’t all noir and blanc
I know what you’re thinking. I bet you think this piece is about Pinot Gris, dont’y ya, don’t ya?
Well you are wrong, I might mention Pinot Gris in passing – see I just did – but actually this piece is going to be about a couple of others grapes with Gris in their name.
Pinot Gris is not a grape that I gravitate towards, I think it is usually just too low in acidity for me, but there are some honourable exceptions – what’s more, I am so broadminded I have even been known to enjoy the odd Pinot Grigio.
Until 10 years or so ago I was under the impression that Pinot Gris was the only grape called Gris. I knew there were others that are ‘gris’ or pink skinned, just as grapes called ‘noir’ are red or purple skinned and those called ‘blanc’ have green skins – I think they named them from engravings before colour photography was invented. Gewürztraminer of course has pink skins when fully ripe, so does Koshu and Moschofilero which makes Mantinia in the Peloponnese region of Greece, but none of those have ‘gris’ in their name.
Well, one day in 2003 I was with a group of fellow wine educators in Chile and we were served a bottle of white wine with our fish that I – and most of our party – assumed was Sauvignon Blanc. Only it didn’t taste quite like Sauvignon Blanc, we even wondered if it was a dodgy bottle for a while until one bright eyed individual noticed that the label didn’t claim it to be a Sauvignon Blanc at all, but a Sauvignon Gris. It was made by a famous old producer from the Maipo Valley called Cousiño-Macul and it was pretty good, but most of all it was interesting. I have tried more recent vintages of this wine and it seems to me that like almost everything else they have improved greatly over that time.
I later learnt that the vine was imported into Chile in the nineteenth century in mistake for Sauvignon Blanc – mind you they did the same thing with Sauvignon Vert too, which is also known as Sauvignonasse and (Tocai) Friulano.
A few days later I was able to try another example of Sauvignon Gris, this time it was made from very old vines in Colchagua Valley by a winery called Casa Silva and I loved it.
Sauvignon Gris is thought be either an ancestor of or a mutant clone of Sauvignon Blanc – for some reason it is not clear which came first, which reminds me of a joke – and is fatter and less aromatic than its sibling. In France they are historically blended together to give more texture and richness than Sauvignon Blanc would have on its own. Personally I think Sauvignon Gris is potentially a very interesting grape, indeed so excited was I by the Casa Silva wine that I actually became the first person ever to ship a few cases to the UK.
A few others followed my lead and now you can find some Sauvignon Gris wines if you shop around. Mark and Spencer lead the pack as they offers two, one from Argentina that I have not tasted and another from Chile that I like very much indeed. I have mentioned Viña Leyda before, they are a great producer in Chile’s Leyda Valley and they also make the excellent Secano Estate wines whose Sauvignon Gris is a delight.
It can be found in France too, where there appears to be renewed interest with this ancient grape in Graves and parts of the Loire, where Sauvignon Gris can sometimes be found blended into the finer examples of Sauvignon de Touraine and is something of a speciality grape of the tiny Touraine-Mesland sub-region. The grape has a long history in Touraine and it is often referred to there by its ancient local names of Fié or Fié Gris or even Sauvignon Rose.
Recently I was able to taste this terrific example from the flamboyantly named Xavier Frissant of Touraine-Amboise at the Absolutely Cracking Wines From France event:
2010 Les Roses du Clos
Cépage Fié Gris
Xavier Frissant, A.C. Touraine
Touraine is usually associated with Sauvignon Blanc, so this is an interesting variation on the theme. The grapes are harvested by hand and the wine is fermented and aged on the lees in 400 litre oak barrels, but the oak does not show at all – unless it adds to the texture.
The nose was bright, vibrant and fresh with an underlying stoney / mineral quality and a deeper, denser apricot-like note too.
The palate offers high, but rich, not citric, apricot acidity and textured apricot fruit, while some grapefruit characters freshen it up and keep it balanced by giving it some real tang, in fact it is more tangy than zingy. It is clean and fresh, but has a lovely juicy weight to to as well which balances the high acidity and makes the wine very attractive and pleasurable to drink. It is dry with a long finish and I can imagine it goes with a wide array of foods – 89/100 points.
£14.75 a bottle in the UK from H2Vin.
The other gris that has been exciting me recently is Grenache Gris. Grenache is originally a Spanish grape, so perfectly suits the Mediterranean climate and should really be called Garnacha. It spread throughout the Mediterranean world during the time of Aragon and Catalan strength in the middle ages and because Roussillon was a part of Catalonia until 1659 – and who knows it might be again soon – Grenache remains a dominant grape in the region.
Grenache comes in all colours and I understand that Grenache Gris is a natural mutation of Grenche Noir, the one that makes the red wines. Like all the other gris grapes, you can make a pale rosé from them – like Pinot Grigio Ramato (coppered) – but it seems more normal to use them to make rich-ish white wines that often have a deep colour.
I have tasted a couple of examples recently that stand out and show that Grenache Gris really should be a more widely appreciated grape:
2011 Domaine Jones Blanc
Katie Jones, I.G.P. (Vin de Pays) Côtes Catalanes
Katie is from Ashby-de-la Zouch in Leicestershire and perhaps the French name got to her because she finally ended up in Paziols near Tautavel in Roussillon. Joining the local cooperative and eventually becoming their Export Sales and Marketing Director Katie worked with the local wine and loved it so much that eventually she bought her own parcel of vines near Maury and settled down to craft some stunning wines in this beautiful, rugged landscape.
This wine betrays a slightly coppery hue, just the merest tinge mind, while the nose is gloriously scented and lifted with grapefruit, softer mandarin notes and exotic wild herbs and even a touch of honey. The palate has richness with a slightly creamy and oily texture making it fat and mouth filling. The citrus fruit and richer stone fruit – nectarine – balance this beautifully and there is an enticing gently smoky character that together with touches of herb makes the wine nice and savoury. It finishes long and is balanced, fresh, flavoursome, mouth-filling and juicy – 91/100 points.
£14.95 a bottle in the UK from The Wine Society and direct from Domaine Jones.
Reading about Katie Jones I kept getting this feeling that I had met her or heard of her before. Then I realised, her story has much in common with Charlotte Allen‘s. They are equally determined, dedicated and passionate about their wines, they ended up in different parts of Europe – but similarly rugged and beautiful ones and they use many similar grapes. It is so wonderful that there are people like Katie out there as the wine world needs them and their wines.
This example was one of the first Grenache Gris wines that captured my imagination and it is made quite close to Domaine Jones:
2009 Domaine Préceptorie de Centernach Coume Marie
Domaine La Préceptorie
A.C. Cotes du Roussillon Blanc
Mainly Grenache Gris, this also has some Grenache Blanc, Macabeu (Viura) and Carignan Banc and is fermented in 400 litre oak vats and aged in them for some 8 months.
This exciting wine is elegant, richly textured and quite delicious, but sadly the Wine Society no longer stock it, so I do not know how to get hold of any right now.
Grenache Gris is so versatile and gets so ripe that it can, like Grenache Noir, be used to make some stunning fortified wines and one of the great bargains of the moment is this amazing Vin Doux Naturel from Rivesaltes in Roussillon, which makes it just the thing for Christmas:
1985 Rivesaltes Ambré Hors d’Age Arnaud de Villeneuve
A.C. Rivesaltes Ambré
Grenache Gris with some Macabeu and Grenache Blanc – whatever Waitrose say on their website!
An Ambré must be aged for 30 months before release, which changes the colour to that oxidised caramel hue and Hors d’Age Rivesaltes wines have to be aged for a minimum of 6 years in barrel.
The nose was slightly caramelised with coffee notes and hints of orange.
The palate offered figs and prunes and honeysuckle and more coffee and the sort of caramel on the top of a creme brulée – but it was not overtly sweet at all. The richness was balanced by a seam of clean acidity too.
A stunning wine full of complexity, richness and finesse, the grapes are different, but it is not so very far removed from a great Oloroso sherry – 93/100 points.
£13.99 per 50cl bottle in the UK from Waitrose – and it is not made from Muscat, whatever they say!
Thoughts on varietal labels
Thinking about how lovely these wines are convinces me all the more that selling wines by grape variety, choosing wines by grape variety and labelling wines by grape variety is all very well, but it actually restricts consumer choice and makes everyone drink the same small number of wine types. We have been told to think grape variety for 20-30 years and country’s like France are criticised by many drinkers nowadays for not putting the grape variety on the label, but surely that only helps if the wine is made from the six or so grapes people seem to know about and are prepared to buy. It seems to me that if anything other than one of those is on a label, people resist buying it because they haven’t heard of it. I increasingly believe that although varietal labelling has simplified wine enough to get people to drink it, having the grape variety on the label has then stopped them becoming truly adventurous and curious about the subject. I wrote a piece about it here.