France's Aromatic Wines 101

'Aromatic' wines are undergoing a resurgence in New Zealand. The famous wines of the French Alsace region are particularly suited to the NZ climate.

Okay. Aromatics.

Officially, they are the three classic white wines from the French and, or German region of Alsace: Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer.

Riesling is the wine that some people love to hate.  The bad press goes way back to some pretty awful sugary sweet style Rieslings from the 1970s and early 1980s: wines like Blue Nun Liebfraumilch and Black Tower.  These were cheap, mass-produced wines in quirky bottles which caught the imagination of newbie wine drinkers and for many years thereafter branded Riesling as a god-awful sweet wine to be avoided at all costs.

Here in New Zealand, as in Australia we now tend toward the dry end of the spectrum, producing wines that are crisp, fruity and dry or just slightly sweet (off-dry).

And that’s not to say that Riesling can’t shine as a sweet style when the grapes are left on the vine till they are extremely ripe and full of

natural fructose sugar. Taken to extreme, these wines are called Late Harvest (very ripe and shrivelled) or Noble Riesling (affected by a fungus called Botrytis, which sucks out the water content and leaves very sweet concentrated juice with a honeyed taste).

In fact, I’m a big fan of the new wave of medium to sweet Rieslings – where the true nature of the grape is revealed as a luscious, fruity wine with honey, lime and apricot flavours, plus good cellaring potential.  Food matches – think seafood (scallops, prawns, white fish).

The predominant character of Gewürztraminer (Ga-vertz-trah-meaner) is its spiciness. Often with hints of Turkish Delight, rose petals, apricot, ginger in syrup, and cinnamon.  This is why Gewürzt is so often recommended as a good match for spicy food.  But when you think spicy – think mild spice with not too much chilli.  Some hot spicy dishes contain so much chilli that you can’t taste anything.  The style of wine produced from the notoriously unreliable pink grapes, can be anywhere from dry and flinty through to musky, oily and sweet.  New Zealand shares some of the Northern European cool climatic conditions, and has Gewürztraminer plantings in regions as diverse as Central Otago, Marlborough, Gisborne and Hawkes Bay.

In the early Eighties Gewürzt was a bulk produced, sweet easy-drinking lightweight style, which suited the unsophisticated palates of young wine drinkers. Today, it represents a tiny amount compared to the most popular wine varieties.  Just the same, they are worth hunting out for their subtlety of flavour and spicy nuances.

Pinot Gris seems to have come out of nowhere, to be the fashionable white wine both here in NZ, and also overseas.  The grape is a mutation of the Pinot Noir family and like other Pinots, is described by its colour.  In French, Gris (grey) - or in Italian, Grigio.

Again, as with the other two aromatics – you never know quite what you’re getting.  Pinot Gris can be anything from dry, flinty and delicate – to sweet, full bodied, and complex.  Basically, it pays to read the back label if you want an idea of how it’s going to taste.

In Europe – Germany, Alsace, and Italy the best Pinot Gris are oily, sweetish, full-bodied luscious wines.  And some of our best NZ examples are coming from Martinborough, Marlborough and Central Otago.

Here’s a line-up of aromatics for your edification.  Do remember that aromatics can be either sweet, off-dry or bone dry.  It is a gamble unless you look carefully at the label, read my blog obsessively - or do research.

Okay – in the North corner, representing Alsace …

Gisselbrecht  Riesling 2010 $27.50
Pale green gold colour.  Mineral and citrus on the nose. Almost bone dry crisp and restrained, but opens up with elegant prince melon, ripe apple and pineapple flavours.  A good one to cellar for 2-3 years.

Pierre Brecht Gewürztraminer 2010  $32.00
Straw gold.  Medium to off-dry style.  Subtle aromas of rosewater.  Then the lush oily palate opens up with peach, mandarin and spice.  Intriguingly it has a mineral to dry finish.

Louis Sipp Pinot Gris 2008 $39.00
Gold appearance. Aromas of honey and beeswax, with an unctuous mouth feel and medium to sweet flavours of honey, citrus and peach.

And now, in the southern corner representing New Zealand …

Pegasus Bay Aria Late Picked Riesling 2009 $37.00

Has subtle aromas of citrus blossom.  Sweet palate of ripe grapefruit, honey, lime and lemonade, nicely balanced with mouth-watering crisp acidity.

Eskdale Gewürztraminer 2009 $24.00
Unusual for an NZ wine, this bottle has a traditional cork closure.  Slightly funky aromas, but oily and full palate of spice, grapefruit, straw and pineapple.  This is a Gewürz for Chardonnay drinkers – big bold and complex with a dry finish.

Spy Valley Pinot Gris 2011  $25.00
Full bodied, fruity and lush with stone fruit characters and a hint of minerality. Pear and apple flavours with a crisp finish.

Phil runs wine tours in Auckland when he's not washing car windows at the traffic lights for small change


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