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Hugel Pinot Gris Vendange Tardive 1986

Hugel Pinot Gris Vendange Tardive 1986A few weeks ago I featured an ageing late harvest wine from one of Alsace's most ancient domaines, Hugel, a firm that has at the time of writing seen control pass through thirteen generations of the same family. During a recent cellar rearrangement, in which I replaced a wall of single bottle racking with double depth bins, I uncovered a couple of boxes of half bottles includiing some more from from Hugel, but also from the likes of Trimbach, Bürklin-Wolf, Loosen, Markus Molitor, Poniatowski, Baumard and others. Thanks to their shape none of them stack very well in my new bins, and so the obvious solution is to drink some of them. Life is hard! This bottle, a late harvest Pinot Gris, is first up.

When I think of Pinot Gris my mind always turns immediately to Alsace, as is the case for Gewurztraminer. Having said that, the grape does not have a unique association with the region, and today surely has more fame in its Italian incarnation, Pinot Grigio, which can be found planted throughout Friuli, Lombardy and Alto Adige, northern Italian regions which border Switzerland and Austria, and even some regions of central Italy. But the variety has in fact spread further than this, to the Loire (and also Switzerland) where it is known as Malvoisie, to Germany where it is Rülander, and Hungary where it is Szürkebarát. And as is the case with Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris can be found scattered throughout the vineyards of Burgundy, and indeed many Burgundian appellations allow for the inclusion of these two varieties. It is perhaps not surprising to find these two vines here, as Pinot Gris is widely accepted to be a mutation of the Pinot Noir vine, and the two are said to be virtually indistinguishable save for the grey-pink hue of the berries of the former. Pinot Blanc, itself a further mutation of Pinot Gris first documented at the end of the 19th Century, holds a similar position in the INAO regulations. Whereas we would tend to regard both Gris and Blanc as white varieties, however, it is fascinating to note that although the INAO permits Pinot Blanc for white Burgundy, Pinot Gris (often under its Burgundian pseudonym, Pinot Beurot) is included only in the list of permissible varieties for red wines.

Hugel Pinot Gris Vendange Tardive 1986But back to Alsace, where although the variety is less prevalent than in Germany or Italy, I think perhaps it flourishes best of all. Once known here as Tokay-Pinot Gris (or Tokay d'Alsace), this name will disappear forever to reduce the risk of the already improbable confusion between these wines and those of Tokay, in Hungary. The synonym Tokay-Pinot Gris was permitted for continued use, solely for wines from Alsace, during a transitory period prior to phasing out the name altogether, a period which ended in March 2007. So from the 2007 vintage, wines should be labelled purely and simply as Pinot Gris, if this is the variety in question. This week's wine, however, need not worry itself, as being of the 1986 vintage it has escaped this ruling by about two decades! This is Hugel's Pinot Gris Vendange Tardive, a wine with a very rich and very deep golden hue in the glass, with just a few very tiny tartrate crystals. The nose still shows the same depth and complexity as on any of my previous tastings of this wine, which I have been drinking for a few years now. There are aromas of sweet pastry, drizzled with honey, although the aroma does not suggest great sweetness per se. This characteristic is accompanied by the scents of dried tropical fruits and crisply fried bacon, a combination which has to suggest mature Pinot Gris above all other varieties I think, together notes of highly polished wood, nuts and spice. There is also a little caramel and toffee richness. Beautifully held together on the palate, showing a lot of fleshy texture from the fading sweetness, with a little grip apparent through the midpalate, and plenty of pepper and spice on the finish. Really quite broad and flavoursome, sitting right across the palate with an elegant poise, and this continues to show through a very long finish.

I seem to enjoy these little bottles more and more, every time I broach one. Fortunately, in my small pile of newly uncovered bottles I have several more yet. Long should such good fortune continue! 17.5/20 (14/4/08)

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