Rieslings, Pinot Noirs, and Chardonnays, Oh My
There is probably no other wine region that suffers as much consumer neglect as Alsace. Located on the banks of the Rhine River in northeastern France, the region was occupied by the Germans on four different occasions. It is no wonder that not only does its unique architecture of stucco stucco and timber reflect Germanic influences, but the names of its wine producers – Zind-Humbrecht, Trimbach, Weinbach, Ostertag – are more German than France.
Not even the French from Burgundy, Bordeaux, and Provence understand Alsatians. Their Alemannian dialect is still spoken in Germany, but nowhere else in France. When the Roman empire fell, the region became part of Germany and wasn't conquered by the French until 1639. The tug-of-war over this region has left Alsace struggling for honor like a litter's runt. Yet, to a visitor, Alsace is one of France's most beautiful and humble regions.
One would think that its residents would suffer an inferiority complex with such history, but that's hardly the case. They are very proud of their heritage, their endurance, and their wines.
Alsace is split into three AOC designations: Alsace, grand cru, and cremant de Alsace. About 78 percent is classified "Alsace." Ninety percent of the wine is white – the red is represented by pinot noir for reasons we will forever struggle to understand. Only 25 percent of the wine is exported.
Alsace produces some of the best dry rieslings in the world. Its gewurztraminer, despite being a tongue-twister, is so aromatic you could sell it as perfume. Its muscat, although not for everyone, will shock palates conditioned by oaky chardonnays.
Much of Alsace’s struggle can be attributed to its fickle approach to residual sugar. For years, its most popular wines, including those from Zind-Humbrecht, were laden with sugar because such wines fared better among American critics. However, this trend has changed in recent years and Alsace wines, in general, are more balanced with good acidity and less residual sugar. Zind-Humbrecht even provides a residual sugar count on its labels.
There are those producers who insist on letting nature takes its course with intervention, so if the sugar doesn’t entirely ferment one year, they don’t add any more yeast to make it happen.
We lament that most stores don't carry many Alsace wines because there is so little demand for them. But you should seek them out. Look for producers Zind-Humbrecht, Trimbach, Hugel, Osterag, Boxler, and Weinbach.
A good starter wine is pinot blanc, a great aperitif with deceiving simplicity and fresh acidity. Rieslings are often delicate, but characterized by finesse and finish. They complement fish with simple preparations. Gewurztraminer is hardly delicate and should be paired with heavy sauces; it's even a common foil to spicy foods and sushi.
Here are some recently tasted Alsace wines:
Trimbach Riesling 2014 ($20). Very fresh pear and lemon flavors with tangy acidity, a hint of ginger, rich mouthfeel, and a long, intense finish. A good value.
Famile Hugel Classic Riesling 2014 ($22). A broad palate of peach and green apple flavors, a dash of minerals, and a touch of herbs, this is a dry, delightful representation of Alsace riesling.
Kuentz-Bas Alsace Blanc 2014 ($18). I loved this wine for its refreshing quality. A blend of sylvaner, auxerrois, and muscat grapes, it has deceiving depth, bright acidity, floral aromatics, peach flavors, and a dash of minerals.
Domaine Albert Boxler Pinot Blanc 2013 ($31). Orange, apricot, and petrol notes dominate this high-acidity wine.
Domaine Osterag Fronholz Muscat 2009 ($44). This special treat falls heavy on the palate, but the weight is offset by tantalizing honey and stone fruit flavors.
Domaine Zind-Humbrecht Riesling Grand Cru Rangen de Thann "Clos St. Urbain" 2005 ($82). Wow, what a moutful. This small production Riesling is from one of the most reputable grand cru vineyards in Alsace. Bold and dense in structure, it oozes peach and melon flavors, an extraordinary, long finish, and a powerful balance of acidity and plumpness.
Catalina Sounds Pinot Noir Marlborough 2015 ($27). This delicious pinot noir stakes a claim for Marlborough New Zeland pinot noir. Medium boded with expressive wild cherry flavors and a spicy nose, the overall style is somewhat between a more expensive, cool-climate California pinot noir and a more reticent Oregon pinot noir. A very nice drink for pinot noir lovers.
Le Serre Nuove dell' Ornellaia 2014 ($75). The second wine of the legendary Italian wine Ornellaia, this power-packed blend includes merlot (50 percent), carbernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and petit verdot. Those who think Bordeaux blends should be left to the French should taste this wine -- hardly a "second." Softer than the pricey Ornellaia, the Le Serre Nuove has good depth and color, with a broad palate of fresh red berry fruit and spices.
Falseco Tellus Chardonnay Umbria IGT 2015 ($16). Unoaked chardonnay seekers, this one is for you. Moderate alcohol and stainless-steel aging give this chardonnay lovely, pure citrus, pear, and apple flavors and nose. Pair with fresh seafood or chicken, or sip by itself.
Rock Wall Wine Company Le Mur de Roche Petite Sirah 2012 ($60). Kent Rosenblum sold his winery in 2008, but then bankrolled Rock Wall for his wine-making daughter, Shauna. This single-vineyard, petite Sirah has a low of power and density. You could cut this wine with a knife and lay it on toast in the morning. Inky, it has a lush blackberry liqueur flavor with a dose of tea, vanilla, and citrus. Delicious now, but begging for age.