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July 25, 2021

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Chinese summer salad fun with some great wines from Alsace

WHEN we think of salads, we think of Western cuisine and bounties of green lettuce and other vegetables. Thousands of years ago ancient Persians, Greeks and Romans were fond of mixing greens with various dressings. But what if I told you that long before the advent of the Western salad, peoples in China were making their own style of cold vegetable preparations referred to as liangcai.

The ancient Chinese would commonly lightly poach the vegetables then serve cold as healthy and refreshing side dishes or appetizers. These invigorating small creations would help offset the heaviness and richness of other dishes while also facilitating digestion.

Featured liangcai ingredients have traditionally included cucumber, radishes, bean sprouts, green beans and other seasonal vegetables. Passed on and refined through the millenniums, liangcai preparations have become essential components of many regional Chinese cuisines and are especially popular in the sweltering heat of summer. It just so happens that one of my favorite heat-beating white wines pairs beautifully with a wide range of liangcai. The wine also boasts a long and noble heritage.

The proud patriarch of the Pinot family is the French red variety Pinot Noir, while Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc are genetic mutation descendants. Genetically they are so closely related that only a single gene mutation of the outer skin differentiates them.

The ancestral home of the Pinot family is believed to be Burgundy where the earliest records of Pinot Noir being cultivated date back to AD 100. My focus grape this week, Pinot Gris first appeared in Burgundy as a distinct member of the Pinot family during the 13th century. By the 14th century Pinot Gris was also well established in nearby French, Swiss, German and Italian regions.

Pinot Gris thrived in Burgundy, Champagne and neighboring regions as a favored single variety and for blending. It is interesting to note that during the 18th century the variety comprised approximately 20 percent of Domaine Romanee Conti red wines providing freshness and aromatics.

The virulent Phylloxera outbreak in the late 18th century doomed Pinot Gris in Burgundy and Champagne as the variety did not take well to hybrid grafting to the pest-resistant American rootstock. Because of this and the general finicky nature of Pinot Gris, Burgundy and other important regions gradually phased out the variety and replanted with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

However, all was not lost as Pinot Gris found a more accommodating home in the cooler climates of Alsace and the Alpine regions of northern Italy. These two hot spots for Pinot Gris make wines of decidedly different personalities. The Pinot Gris of Alsace makes rich, structured and age-worthy wines while its alter ego Pinot Grigio from Italy manifests itself in exceedingly friendly and approachable wines. Both are fine companions to liangcai, but this week I wish to focus on the more serious side of Pinot Gris.


What’s the world’s least known and appreciated great wine region? Jerez-Xeres-Sherry DO with its immutable fortified wines certainly comes to mind, but so does Alsace. This far northeastern expansive enclave of France borders Germany. In fact, it has alternated between France and Germany over the decades.

Since the region gained AOC status in 1962, the quality of wines has improved markedly. Today, whites account for 90 percent of production. Alsace’s wines are produced under three major appellations: Alsace and Alsace Grand Cru for still, sweet and dry whites; and Cremant d’Alsace for sparkling.

Alsace Grand Cru wines are less than 5 percent of production with only grapes from the 50-plus top-rated vineyards that run the length of the region. A limited amount of Pinot Noir reds are also produced. Except for wines labeled Gentil or Edelzwicker that are blends, most still Alsatian wines are single variety. In my humble opinion, Alsace unquestionably makes the world’s greatest Pinot Gris. It’s the fourth most planted variety after Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Blanc and is used to make both dry and sweet wines. Pinot Blanc has become more popular primarily because it’s a major component of the Cremant d’Alsace. Chasselas and Auxerrois grapes are produced to a lesser extent and mostly used in blended wines. Sweet Pinot Gris Selection de Grains Nobles can be sublime, but the dry versions are eminently more suitable for liangcai.

The cool climate and mostly alluvial soils in Alsace result in intense, powerful, aromatic and concentrated wines with intriguing spicy notes and a weighty, oily texture. These qualities help the wine tastefully co-exist with the different oils, vinegars and seasonings often used in liangcai. In essence, when a dry Alsatian Pinot Gris meets liangcai, a delectable balance and harmony is achieved.

Refined dry Alsatian Pinot Gris wines are made by producers Domaines Zind Humbrecht, Weinbach, Schlumber, Trimbach, Hugel and Martin Schaetzel. On average, the Pinot Gris of Alsace are usually less expensive than their Riesling and Gewurztraminer counterparts, making them among the best value French premium wines. Especially when served with cold dishes, Alsatian Pinot Gris wines should be nicely chilled or about 8-10 degrees Celsius.

Where to buy in Shanghai


Pinot Gris is the fourth most planted grape in Alsace, preceeded by Riesling, Pinot Blanc and Gewurztraminer.

Key term:

Vendanges Tardives literaly means late harvest, this is a style of sweet wine.

Star wine:

Zind Humbrecht Pinot Gris Turckhelm AOC


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