Every once in a while, I stumble across something that shakes up my preconceived notions about the taste, style and potential of a wine. That, after all, is what fuels a wine lover — the possibility of discovering new twists and new heights in a wine.
This time the grape was Pinot Blanc, a white cousin of Pinot Noir that has been described as the “everyday” and “inoffensive” wine of France’s Alsace region (as opposed to the more important Riesling). And yet, a taste of Marc Tempé’s 2001 Zellenberg Pinot Blanc will quickly demonstrate how substantial and beautiful Pinot Blanc can be when crafted by the right hands.
It is a remarkable wine for $16, the price charged by Chambers Street Wines in New York, which I have found to be a consistently good source for small-production, artisanal wines. Tempé and his wife Anne Marie, for example, tend just 18 and a half acres in the town of Zellenberg, using organic and biodynamic farming methods and hand harvesting.
At a dinner the other night, I thought the Pinot Blanc might work well with a first course of sliced tuna marinated in sesame oil, lime, a little soy sauce and lots of coarsely ground black pepper, then quickly seared in a red-hot cast iron skillet until just medium-rare. One of our friends brought a delicious salad of chopped heirloom tomatoes tossed with some chives and a light vinaigrette, which became the unanticipated but perfect accompaniment to the tuna.
Pinot Blanc can, in fact, be light and rather non-descript. The Tempé, however, is full of flavor and complexity. Fermentation takes place for up to a year in old oak “foudres,” which are large barrels. The fruit is mainly apricot, honey and a hint of lime. There’s a touch of vanilla in the mix and an unusual and appealing smokiness. It was just right for the range of flavors in the tuna and the tomato salad.
For most Americans, I suspect, Alsace is still relatively obscure. Just across the Rhine River from Germany, its vineyards are to the west, 15 miles or so inland, in the foothills of the Vosges mountains. Alsace is the only appellation in France in which the wines are identified on the labels by the name of the grapes — Pinot Blanc, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris and Muscat the main whites, Pinot Noir, in small amounts, the principle red.
Alsace shares these aromatic grapes with Germany, but the interpretations are quite different — in general, more delicate, fruity, lower-alcohol wines in Germany, more robust food wines in Alsace. Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson describe the difference well in “The World Atlas of Wine,” Fifth Edition.
“German wine at its finest is not necessarily for the table but for the drawing-room or garden,” they write. “Alsace wine is the great adjunct to one of France’s richest cuisines. Alsace gives the flowery scented grapes of Germany the body and authority of such table wines as white Burgundy — proper accompaniment to strong and savoury food.”
Marc Tempé’s distinctive Zellenberg Pinot Blanc makes the point well. The label on the back of the bottle says Tempé makes “boldly flavored and intensely rich yet dry wines,” a description that captures the essence of the Pinot Blanc. The wine is imported by Vintage ‘59 Imports of Washington, DC (202-966-9218).
Edward Deitch's wine column appears Thursdays. Write to him at .