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Trimbach Pinot Gris Sélection de Grains Nobles 1986

With the recent focus on the 2008 Bordeaux vintage, discussion around which has generated some lengthy threads on popular internet fora, it is perhaps easy to forget that there are other wine regions out there that have an equal capability to produce wines of freshness, quality and longevity. When it comes to white wines Alsace certainly fits the bill, and although the region more than matches Bordeaux in providing a range of white wines in both dry and sweet styles, here we have the added frisson of variety. The noble Riesling no doubt leads the way, but the addition of Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer and Muscat into the mix provides an unparalleled matrix of complexity.

Trimbach Pinot Gris Sélection de Grains Nobles 1986This week's wine illustrates all of these aspects of Alsace; we have an interesting variety which although widely grown and enjoyed (often as Pinot Grigio) it is only here in Alsace that it reaches its apogee of quality. We have longevity too, as this bottle from the 1986 vintage anticipates the arrival of its 23rd birthday later this year. And we also have great dedication to sweet winemaking, as this wine, a Sélection de Grains Nobles, represents the harvest of many shrivelled, botrytised grapes, picked by hand on a berry-by-berry basis. Anyone who alleges this wine doesn't have at least an equal pedigree to a top Sauternes must have forgotten to take their Bordeaux blinkers off.

I have already written something of Pinot Gris in last year's write-up of a wine with many parallels to this one, from Hugel. In particular I focused on a few of the variety's many synonyms, including Malvoisie (in the Loire and Switzerland), Rülander (its moniker in Germany), Szürkebarát (in Hungary) and even an ancient Burgundian name, Pinot Beurot. Such a wide distribution across Europe, with so many different names, suggests to me an ancient origin, and indeed this appears to be the case. The earliest references to Pinot Gris, or rather its Burgundian synonyms Beurot and Fromenteau, date to the 14th century, and at this time the variety appears to already be well established in vineyards around Burgundy and Paris. The variety was valued for its lightly-coloured (gris, meaning grey) juice and yet full-bodied style, although having said that the Noirien, surely (although it is not certain) the same as today's Pinot Noir, was gaining in popularity thanks to the darker, richer juice it yielded. The two varieties are naturally related, both part of the Pinot group which also includes Pinot Blanc and Pinot Meunier.

Trimbach Pinot Gris Sélection de Grains Nobles 1986Pinot Noir has long been known as a variety prone to mutation, hence the huge diversity of clones that vineyard managers must consider when choosing new plants. That some mutations should be sufficiently different to be labelled as different varieties is only natural; two visually identical clones with only slight differences in the berries they produce can easily be thought of as the same variety, but when the vine yields white berries rather than red, the difference seems that much more fundamental. This mutation can even happen on the vine, so that one branch of an otherwise red vine can, to the surprise of all, yield white fruit. A well-recorded example of this happening in modern times was  in 1936, in the Nuits-St-Georges vineyards of Henri Gouges. Henri noted that some of the old Pinot Noir vines in Clos de Porrets were producing white grapes; taking cuttings and establishing them on suitable rootstocks, he planted the white vines in the nearby Les Perrières, and the vines are still yielding fruit to this very day. The vines are referred to by various names, including white Pinot Noir, Pinot Gouges or even Pinot Musigny. This sort of mutation event is perhaps similar to the way a single branch of an ornamental variegated plant can suddenly revert to type, producing plain green rather than patterned leaves. If the vine is doing the same thing this perhaps suggests that it is the red that is the mutation of the white (the vine reverting to its 'true' form) but it seems widely accepted that the reverse is the truth; the white varieties, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc (and Pinot Musigny of course), are the mutants, whereas Pinot Noir is the mutation-prone original.

And now onto the wine that provoked this Pinot-based discourse, the 1986 Pinot Gris Sélection de Grains Nobles from Trimbach, poured from a half bottle. There's a not unexpected amount of tartrate sediments, just visible in the image above. In the glass the wine displays a great, rich and golden colour. The nose is just delightful, a melange of orange-flavoured biscuits, with elements of crunchy caramel, baked citrus fruits and deeply flavoured, spicy and aromatic ginger cake. There are certainly plenty of fabulous botrytis-related aromas here, reflecting the grains nobles element of this wine. On the palate it still displays a good sweetness despite its two decades, with a fleshy and rounded character, cut off by a bitter orange finish. The flavours rotate around a core of botrytis, with fresh crystalline fruit, sprinkled with minerals and quince. Supple, gently sweet, broad and yet elegant in its composition, this is a gorgeous wine for savouring now. Such pleasure is enhanced by a lovely, lingering finish, which goes on and on. Excellent. 18.5/20 (11/5/09)

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