- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 5, 2006

Why so few Americans drink wines from Alsace is a mystery. These riveting French whites are identified on their labels by grape variety rather than by a complex system of difficult-to-pronounce appellations. As a result, they are easy to understand and even easier to buy.

Prices for fine Alsatian wines begin at a very reasonable level of $10 to $20. Though some rarefied offerings sell for more than $50, many excellent wines cost much less. When compared to white Burgundies or even top California chardonnays, they’re bargains.

You would think the combination of good value and easy-to-comprehend labels would have consumers flocking to the Alsace aisle in wine shops. Yet for most American wine drinkers, these wines remain relative rarities.

Maybe that’s because people confuse them with German wines. After all, Alsace lies just across the Rhine River from the Black Forest, and it belonged to Germany at various times in the past. Perhaps it’s the profile of the bottles — tall and thin, rather than a more familiar rounded shape. Possibly, too, it’s because people fear the wines will be sweet.

Alsatian vintners do make delicious dessert wines, but most of their wines are dry or at most off-dry — just what American wine drinkers (who often talk dry but actually drink off-dry) tend to like. That’s why, though these wines are not appreciated widely in the United States, my experience indicates that the people who know them tend to like them a lot.

I long have been a fan of Alsatian white wines, and a recent trip to the region, one of the most beautiful in Europe, reconfirmed for me how exciting they can be. Then a vacation with American friends reinforced my suspicion that people simply need to try them.

When I opened a couple of wines I had brought back from France, these friends, regular wine consumers all, were amazed by both their character and quality. “These are from Alsace?” they asked. “Who knew?” (I resisted the impulse to shout, “You should have,” and just poured another round.)

The first thing to know about Alsatian white wine is that regardless of the grape variety, good examples invariably exhibit pure, uninhibited flavor. New oak is almost never used, and the wines rarely go through malolactic fermentation — the process used to soften some other white wines (most chardonnays, for example) by converting tart malic acid into creamier lactic acid.

Pure does not mean monolithic or one-dimensional, however. First-class Alsatian whites are wonderfully nuanced, with complex secondary aromas and flavors resembling minerals, stones, metals, earth and more. Alsace is the second northernmost wine region (after Champagne) in all of France, but the climate is not all that cold. Nor is it very rainy.

With the Vosges Mountains to the west, this narrow strip of land gets plenty of sunshine. As a result, the grapes can ripen fully, and the wines can taste rich and full.

At the same time, though, they retain plenty of racy, sometimes bracing acidity. The effect is paradoxical. These wines are bold and dramatic, full of juicy, unleashed fruit flavor. At the same time, they’re zesty and lively, extremely invigorating to drink. That’s what makes them some of the best food partners in today’s wide world of wine.

The next important thing to know is that Alsatian wines come in three general categories: standard bottlings, special offerings and sweet late-harvest specialties.

The last category falls outside the scope of this column, but readers partial to dessert wines should note that Alsatian bottles labeled “vendage tardive” or “selection de grains nobles” often rank among the very best anywhere.

Standard Alsatian wines are those simply designated by the producer’s name and the grape variety. They sometimes include words like “reserve” or “tradition” on their labels, but such designations essentially are meaningless.

A good vintner’s standard wines can be deliciously complex while offering excellent value. They constitute the best introduction to the region. Special bottlings usually are those coming from special vineyards. Most of these are wines that the Alsatian authorities have designated as such, the region’s “grand cru” sites. These wines will have the name of the vineyard on the label, along with the words “grand cru.”

Some special offerings, however, come from other vineyards or are made by vintners who for various reasons don’t choose to participate in the grand-cru system.

Wines like this might still carry the name of the vineyard — a specific “clos,” for example. Or they might have a proprietary name, being designated as a particular “cuvee.” No matter, the label will present all that information, thus distinguishing the wine from the same producer’s standard bottling.

The primary flavor in any Alsatian wine comes from the grape being used, so the final important thing to know concerns the grape varieties grown there.

Though a few others are cultivated (including muscat, sadly now falling out of favor as a dry wine), the four important ones are: Gewurztraminer, pinot blanc, pinot gris and Riesling. Each has an inherently different flavor profile.

Gewurztraminer, redolent of rose petals, spice and exotic litchi, yields flamboyant wines. Because the grape is naturally low in acidity, these wines sometimes can seem richer and sweeter than they actually are. However, because the vineyards in Alsace lie so far north, good examples taste gripping as well as generous. In fact, Gewurztraminer in Alsace exhibits an unparalleled range of flavor and complexity.

If Gewurztraminer is Alsace’s exotic star, pinot blanc is its workhorse. The wines can be tasty, but they rarely prove compelling — if only because they almost never display multiple secondary flavors.

Still, their primary fruit character, which usually echoes apples (often baked apples), can prove very appealing.

Pinot gris in Alsace is the same grape variety as pinot grigio in Italy, but the wines could not be more different. In Italy, this grape yields light, tart, usually simple wines. In Alsace (where it’s sometimes called “tokay pinot gris”), it produces rich, succulent, multilayered wines.

They usually are full-bodied, with peach and pear fruit flavors and secondary notes resembling smoked nuts, vanilla, ginger and other oriental spices.

Riesling is the undisputed king in Alsace, the noblest grape making the most prestigious wines. These are not soft, sappy Rieslings of the sort (too often) made in California. Nor are they gentle, gentile wines of the sort usually made in Germany. Instead, they are broad, intense wines, full of peach, green apple and citrus (especially lime) fruit flavors, augmented by steely, mineral-tinged undertones that gain intensity in what often is an amazingly long finish.

I have tasted scores of wonderful Alsatian wines this summer in France and at home.

Here is a list of the best that I know are available in the Washington area, organized by grape and type — the prices are approximate. Get to know some of them; I’m sure you’ll like — maybe even love — them.

GEWURZTRAMINER

Standard bottlings: Domaine Albert Mann 2004 ($22); Vignoble A. Scherer 2004 ($17); Domaine Zind-Humbrecht 2004 ($24)

Special offerings: Trimbach Seigneurs de Ribeauville 1999 ($35); Domaine Schlumberger Grand Cru Kitterle 2001 ($54); Domaine Weinbach Cuvee Laurence 2004 ($55)

PINOT BLANC

Standard bottlings: Domaine JB Adam Reserve ($18); Domaine Hugel et Fils 2004 ($14); Domaine Kuentz-Bas 2004 ($15); Domaine Albert Mann 2004 ($16); Domaine Sipp Mack 2004 ($13); Domaine Zind-Humbrecht 2004 ($21)

PINOT GRIS

Standard bottlings: Domaine Albert Boxler Reserve 2004 ($26); Domaine Rene Mure 2004 ($18); Vignoble A. Scherer 2004 ($15)

Special offerings: Domaine J B Adam Letzenberg Cuvee 2001 ($30); Domaine Albert Boxler Grand Cru Brand 2002 ($58); Domaine Rene Mure Clos Saint Landelin 2003 ($53)

RIESLING

Standard bottlings: Domaine Jean-Luc Mader 2003 ($14); Domaine Sipp-Mack “Tradition” 2004 ($15); Trimbach 2002 ($18)

Special offerings: Albert Boxler Grand Cru Sommerberg 2000 ($53); Domaine Dirler Grand Cru Spiegel 2002 ($40); Albert Mann Grand Cru Schlossberg 2004 ($31); Trimbach Cuvee Frederic Emile 2000 ($50); Domaine Weinbach Cuvee St. Catherine ($46); Domaine Weinbach Grand Cru Schlossberg Cuvee St. Catherine ($64)

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