Purity in flavor
France's Alsace aims for clean, dry flavor that pairs well at table
The vineyards of Alsace run in a long, thin strip, north to south, along the eastern slopes of the Vosges Mountains, which protect Alsace from western prevailing weather and make the vineyards the driest in France. (Illustration by Rick Tuma)
In addition, Alsace has always aimed for what even more winemakers are beginning to see as the goal of any wine: They're meant less to be drunk than to be eaten. Cleanness of flavor, bracing acidity and near total dryness are hallmarks of Alsace wines and the main reason they so well accompany food.
To achieve both of these, their signal characters, Alsace winemakers by and large neither use new oak barrels (for either fermentation or aging) nor introduce non-indigenous yeasts nor blend grape varieties. Alsace is all about purity of flavor.
Except for a small amount of pinot noir, Alsace wines are white. And, as a twist on standard French wine nomenclature, the labels on Alsace wines read first of the grape variety, then the appellation controlee (which is always, simply, "Alsace"). This makes Alsace wines very easy to understand for non-French wine drinkers who, by and large, also name their own wines after grape varieties.
These are the major white grapes of Alsace: (1) Gewurztraminer: Buckets of aroma and flavor (lichee fruit, rosewater, orange blossom, citrus peel, gingerbread and, sometimes, smoke). (2) Muscat: Almost always dry, not off-dry as are most of the world's muscats, with powerful aromas and tastes of orange, citrus, rose and, sometimes, peaches. (3) Pinot blanc: Deliciously simple wine, with a creamlike roundness to its main flavor of cooked apple; the perfect aperitif. (4) Pinot gris: Mix equal parts of scents and flavors of honey, musk, mango and spice — all writ large — and you have Alsace's most unique wine. (5) Riesling: The most prestigious of Alsace grapes, with terrifically tangy acidity and tastes of lime, green apples, minerals and, perhaps, white peach.
The vineyards of Alsace run in a long, thin strip, north to south, along the eastern slopes of the Vosges Mountains, which protect Alsace from western prevailing weather and make these vineyards (surprisingly) the driest in France. Although very far north for grape growing and, consequently, a cold growing region, the area is sunny, and the season is long.
Alsace soil types are quite varied, ranging from chalk, clay, limestone, granite, volcanic and more. This quilt of soil types gives rise not only to various "terroirs" for the panoply of grapes but also to more choice vineyard sites than other winemaking regions. More than 50 of these special sites have been collected as "grand cru" vineyards; in short, grand cru vineyards produce wines that are more intense and structured than normal Alsace wines.
Alsatians love to eat and sport more Michelin stars per capita than any other region of France. Salivate over this mere list of Alsatian foods: Munster cheese, foie gras (in myriad forms), kugelhopf (the turban-shaped bread made, seemingly, of merely eggs, butter and air), April's asparagus, trout poached in riesling, quiche Lorraine, choucroute garnie and any number of dishes of meats and sausages. They say "the most important vegetable in Alsace is pork."
Its wines are engineered precisely with such cuisine in mind. Their exquisite dryness, fruitiness and verve have but one aim: to play deliciously at table. And because Alsace cooking is so diverse, Alsace wines marry well with many of the world's other cuisines.
Recommended Alsace wines
NV Dopff Cremant d'Alsace Cuvee Julien: Little bests cremant d'Alsace as an aperitif wine, for both flavor and price; made in the costly Champagne method, this mostly pinot blanc is dry, with a fine mousse and good cleansing acidity. $18
2010 Roland Schmitt Pinot Blanc: All about green and yellow apples, pears and flecks of citrus; electric combination of pillowy texture and superdry, tangy finish. $19
2010 Paul Blanck Pinot Gris: Should be used in auto interiors for "fresh air" scent; on the subtle side of pinot gris but creamy, mushroom-y in the end for a lingering seductiveness. $25
2010 Domaine Weinbach Riesling Cuvee Theo: As taut as a piano's high-note wires; fantastic acidity for freshness and nerve; suggestions of green apples and lime, with a shovel of minerals at the end. $34
2009 Emile Beyer Riesling Cuvee L'Hostellerie: This exemplifies riesling's greatness in Alsace, that electric interplay between the concentrated, plush texture of the fruit and the piercing, nervous acidity that enlivens it; beautiful on all counts, especially the price. $20-$22
2009 Zind-Humbrecht Riesling Thann: Like an air bag on impact: round and plush for texture, but so intense in flavor and structure that it punches; great length and much minerality. $40
2009 Schoffit Gewurztraminer Lieu-Dit Harth, Cuvee Caroline: Mix in scents of rose- and orange-water over juicy, sapid peach and apricot flavors, with minerals and earth for a close. $29
If your wine store does not carry these wines, ask for one similar in style and price.
Bill St. John has been writing and teaching about wine for more than 30 years.