Wine from Alsace looks German, but tastes French

VINTAGE POINT

March 27, 1994|By Michael Dresser

Pity the poor fellow whose job it is to sell Alsace wines to Americans.

It's a tough racket. Maybe not as difficult as selling dirt bikes in a retirement colony, but close.

Maybe it's the elongated bottles that look so German while the wine inside tastes so French. Maybe it's that American palates go into shock upon tasting a white wine that hasn't absorbed a wallop of oak. Maybe it's just that they don't grow chardonnay there.

Whatever it is, American consumers have shown remarkable restraint whenever given the opportunity to buy the wines of this picturesque region on the French side of the Rhine.

It's not that Alsace has had bad press. Its magnificent white wines have had the enthusiastic support of wine writers far more influential than me. Some have done everything short of sending a blimp to cruise over the Super Bowl, flashing the message "Buy Alsace!"

What is it that prompts this devotion?

Mostly it's the purity of the flavors. In Alsace, the grape itself is paramount. What you taste is what the vine produced.

It's also the way Alsace wines interact with food. The good ones make a bold statement at the table, but never seem to overwhelm the food. True to the multicultural history of their much fought-over homeland, they adapt well to diverse cuisines.

Alsace is one of the northernmost winegrowing regions of France, but it's also one of the driest. The Vosges Mountains that form its western border create a sort of heat trap on the east-facing slopes.

The result is wines that generally achieve significantly higher ripeness levels than their counterparts across the Rhine in Germany. And unlike German wines, most of which retain noticeable sugar to balance out their natural acidity, Alsace wines are generally dry, except for some super-ripe late-harvest wines made in the best vintages.

In Alsace, unlike most of the great wine regions of France, the wine is generally identified by the type of grape used to make it. Most wines are entirely made from one varietal.

There is little consensus among Alsace devotees about which is the region's greatest grape varietal. Some would say riesling. Others, no less learned, would say gewurztraminer. And a decent case could be made for pinot gris as well.

There is virtually no disagreement as to which varietal (or varietals) produces the best values in Alsace. That is the pinot blanc, a name that has been stretched to cover the similar grape known as auxerrois.

Each varietal has its own special virtues.

Alsace riesling is a wine etched in stone. The characteristic flavors are of minerals. There is a smack of the earth about these wines that is puzzling to novices, but ultimately seductive to those who take the time to study it.

Perhaps the most intellectually appealing of white wines, Alsace riesling ages magnificently. The best are still sprightly at after a decade of cellaring. Curiously, it matches equally well with delicate fish dishes or with hearty game such as venison.

Gewurztraminer is grown all over the world, from Germany to Australia, but there is no denying that Alsace is the reference point for this spicy, plump white varietal. Everywhere else, growers seem to find it necessary to leave some residual sugar to balance out its tendency toward bitterness. Only in Alsace do winemakers routinely make bone-dry gewurztraminer that avoids bitter flavors.

Alsace gewurztraminer is renowned for its versatility with spicy foods, both the garlic and herb-stuffed sausages of its native land and the fiery cuisines of Asia. Some of the characteristic flavors of gewurztraminer include melons, apricots, baked apple, cinnamon, nutmeg and other tropical spices.

Pinot gris, often called Tokay pinot gris, is a hit-or-miss varietal that can be quite insipid when it's not just right. When it does hit the mark though, it is a worthy rival to the best white Burgundies -- full-bodied, complex and silky, with great length. The big difference is the absence of oak. Characteristic flavors include pear, peach, marzipan and lychee nuts.

The best pinot gris wines are among the best-aging whites in the world, developing added complexity over the course of decades.

Pinot blanc shares many of the same flavor characteristics as pinot gris and gewurztraminer, though it lacks the aging potential. Well-made versions from growers who keep their yields small can be some of the best wines for under $15.

The best recent vintages in Alsace were 1989 and 1990, both of which produced wines of monumental stature, including many late-harvest dessert wines.

Alsace fanatics won't forget those twin triumphs for a long time, but the 1991s and 1992s that currently dominate the shelves are by no means failures. The quality is more spotty than 1989 and 1990, but the top producers still managed to fashion exceptional wines.

In choosing Alsace wines, you can disregard the region's system for designating grand cru vineyards. It is widely regarded as a joke, and some of the best producers refuse to participate.

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