Grey Pinot Noir

19 September 2014

Chateau Grand Traverse Pinot Noir Vin GrisWith the exception of sparkling Blanc de Noirs, I’ve always thought of Pinot Noir varietal wines as, very simply put, red. One does not tend to go to the white wine aisle in search of a Pinot Noir. But white Pinot Noir does indeed exist, as I discovered on a recent visit to my favorite neighborhood wine shop, In Fine Spirits.

There stood a bottle on the shelf, white as could be, but clearly labeled “Pinot Noir Vin Gris.” What was this stuff? Vin gris, which translates literally as “grey wine,” is wine made from dark-skinned grapes but without any skin contact after pressing. The pulp of most red grapes tends to be much lighter in color than the skins, which means if little or no skin contact is allowed during fermentation, the resulting wine will be white, pinkish or orange — not red. According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, vin gris is a specialty of the Côtes de Toul in Lorraine, some wineries in the Loire and a number of producers in the Midi near the salt flats of the Camargue.

The Oxford Companion does not mention vin gris as a specialty of Michigan, however. Indeed, one could be forgiven for wondering if any good wine of any kind comes out of the northern Midwest. But the lakes surrounding this state mitigate the climate enough to allow for the growing of wine grapes, and The World Atlas of Wine calls the vinifera vineyards of Michigan “promising.” That distinction, though, is important — many of Michigan’s vineyards are planted with American grape varieties or hybrids.

Chateau Grand Traverse, the producer of my bottle of Pinot Noir vin gris, has never planted anything other than vinifera grapes in its vineyards on the Old Mission Peninsula, the finger of land extending north from Traverse City. In fact, as The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia relates, the owner of Chateau Grand Traverse was the first to attempt growing vinifera varieties in the area starting in 1974:

Ed O’Keefe of Chateau Grand Traverse… is the only person in the entire Michigan wine industry who has been 100 percent committed to vinifera from the very start. His constant arguing of his case did not make him many friends among his fellow winegrowers, particularly those of the old school who were clinging on to their hybrids, but he was right, and in the end he did everyone in the Michigan wine industry a big favor.

I’ve had other Chateau Grand Traverse wines before, and I found its dry wines to be quite tasty. But why attempt to market a vin gris of Pinot Noir? Surely that can’t be the easiest wine to sell. On the chateau’s website, the winemaker explains: “Vin Gris is the outcome of a pet project of exploring a white(ish) wine from Pinot Noir grapes. Since 2001, I’ve been looking at the differences between reds and whites, in a quest to merge the two.”

I felt very interested to find out the results of this quest, and recently opened my bottle of 2013 Chateau Grand Traverse Pinot Noir Vin Gris to pair with some risotto I’d made. A beautiful rose-gold color, the wine had a fresh, green aroma marked by some dried herbs. There was some pétillance (spritz) to the mouthfeel, and when it first came out of the fridge, the wine felt very bright and tight, with tart, appley fruit, prickly acids and a dry finish. As the wine warmed slightly, it developed a riper, rounder mouthfeel, and lovely undertones of berries. The acids of the wine cut right through the richness of the risotto, making for a fine pairing.

If you can’t make it over to In Fine Spirits, the Chateau Grand Traverse website sells the Pinot Noir Vin Gris for $14 a bottle. For such an unusual and food-friendly wine, that seems like a bargain to me.

Go For Emerald Green

30 August 2014
Grüner Veltliner Smaragd at Vienna's Palmenhaus

Grüner Veltliner Smaragd at Vienna’s Palmenhaus

These last lazy days of summer call for a full-bodied but zesty white, lively enough to feel refreshing on a warm night and serious enough to merit a little quiet contemplation. On a trip to Vienna, I discovered just the thing: Grüner Veltliner Smaragd.

Grüner Veltliner, you might justifiably argue, is not exactly a discovery. In the last decade or so, the Austrian variety has become quite popular with sommeliers for its food-friendly acidity and peppery spice, and it’s not at all uncommon nowadays to find examples on wine lists. In fact, I had more or less stopped drinking Grüner in favor of more obscure varieties. It took a little green lizard to get me back.

Austria’s most famous wine region is the Wachau, a surprisingly small region along the Danube west of Vienna. In addition to classifying wines using terms familiar to German Riesling drinkers (Kabinett, Auslese, Spätlese, etc.), the Wachau complicates matters by often substituting its own unique system, as The World Atlas of Wine explains:

Steinfeder is a light wine up to 11.5% alcohol for early drinking. Federspiel is made from slightly riper grapes, 11.5-12.5% alcohol, good in its first five years. Wines labeled Smaragd (after a local green lizard) can be seriously full-bodied, with alcohol levels above — often far above — 12.5%; they repay six or more years’ aging.

Most Grüner Veltliners I see don’t carry any of the above designations, which isn’t a comment on their quality. But if you see a Grüner labeled Smaragd, which literally translates as “emerald,” snap it up. They are harder to find, but they repay the effort. As The Oxford Companion to Wine notes, the Smaragd designation indicates “the most valuable category of white wines made from the ripest grapes on the best sites of the Wachau.”

At vegetarian Tian in Vienna, we ordered a 2012 Tegernseerhof “Bergdistel” Grüner Veltliner Smaragd, which blends grapes from Tegernseerhof’s various vineyards. I knew I would like it as soon as I smelled its enticingly creamy green aroma. It had deliciously creamy fruit on the palate as well, with restrained spice and beautiful balance. It felt very classy, this Grüner, and as many Grüners do, it paired wonderfully with a range of vegetables.

I also found an example at Palmenhaus, a regal café and restaurant occupying what was once the imperial palm house, which has an excellent selection of Austrian wines by the glass. The barrel-vaulted glass roof makes for a gorgeous interior, but the weather was simply too fine to sit indoors. I found a table outside overlooking the leafy Burggarten and settled in with a glass of 2012 Graben Gritsch “Schön” Grüner Veltliner Smaragd. “Schön,” which means pretty, is not an adjective in this case but the name of a vineyard on the far western edge of the Wachau near the town of Spitz.

I loved this wine, which clocks in at a hefty 14.5% alcohol. It had a complex aroma of dried herbs, green fruit and even a hint of smoke. But when I tasted the wine, it burst with rich fruit, leavened by cedar and some focused gingery spice. It felt very decadent and exotic — perfect for sipping outside the palm house of the palace of the Habsburgs.

Tasty Grüner Veltliners are produced in many of Austria’s wine regions — the grape occupies no less than a third of the country’s vineyards. But Grüner Veltliner Smaragd wines are special. Seek them out. They are a worthy pairing with summer’s last few precious days.

Ice Bucket Challenge (With Sparkling Wine, Of Course)

26 August 2014

It was bound to happen sooner or later. Last weekend two people challenged me to this ice bucket ordeal, in which one either donates to the ALS Association (or another charity) or dumps a bucket full of ice water over one’s head.

I elected to donate to the Wounded Warrior Project, which assists veterans injured on the battlefield once they return home. It’s one of the worthiest causes I know.

You can see my video here, in which I put an ice bucket to proper, civilized use.

Postcard From Mexico – Fine Wine (??)

15 August 2014
Poolside Sauvignon Blanc at the gorgeous Hacienda Ucazanaztacua on Lake Patzcuaro in Michoacan, Mexico

Poolside Sauvignon Blanc at the gorgeous Hacienda Ucazanaztacua on Lake Patzcuaro in Michoacan, Mexico

It came as a surprise to me as much as anyone that Mexico is capable of making perfectly lovely wines, both red and white. But after being here for a couple of weeks, roving the central highlands where evenings can be positively chilly, even in August, it started to seem more reasonable that wine grapes could grow and even thrive here.

While on this trip I tasted an array of wines, ranging from cheerful Chenin Blanc/Colombard blends to hearty, meaty Shirazes, and rarely was I disappointed. The Mexican wines I tasted tended to be well-balanced, with lush fruit and focused acids and spice. I never had one that felt overblown or overheated — there was a coolness and restraint to most wines which I found quite appealing.

Mexican wines only occasionally appear on U.S. store shelves, but if you travel here, you’ll have no trouble finding at least one or two local options on most wine lists. And you should travel to Mexico. The people are exceedingly friendly, the colonial cities are exceedingly beautiful, and the State Department’s travel warnings seem to me to be exceedingly overblown. Surely there are trouble spots — just as there are in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles — but I never once felt to be in any sort of danger, even in the deepest Michoacán countryside (see photo above).

Watch for Casa Madero, Chateau Domecq and Monte Xanic labels in particular. Wines from these producers tend to be easy to find and quite delicious. Salud!

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