High quality just pours out of France's Alsace region

VINTAGE POINT

Wines: Samplings reveal great-tasting whites that are refreshingly free from oak influence.

October 03, 2001|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN WINE CRITIC

Those cheap scoundrels who make wine in the French region of Alsace save a bundle of money by refusing to invest in expensive new oak barrels. And what do we consumers get from their stinginess?

Great white wine. Wine in which you can taste the pure fruit of the vine and the character of the soil. Everything from great values for under $10 to world-class white wines at moderately expensive prices.

Some of the world's best white wine benefits from oak influence, of course. If you're working with chardonnay you almost have to. But oak can be heavy and overbearing. It adds costs to the winemaking process and can accentuate the "hot" feel of alcohol.

Most Alsace wines are refreshingly free from oak influence. Winemakers there generally agree that oak barrels would obscure the delicate nuances of their grapes. Their fans, myself included, enthusiastically agree.

Alsace wines can be confusing because they combine a French style with Teutonic-sounding names -- the legacy of centuries of being traded back and forth between France and Germany, depending on who won the latest war.

Alsace has enjoyed nearly a decade of good to excellent harvests, making it easy for consumers to buy with confidence. The 1999s seem especially concentrated and balanced, although wines from 1996-1998 were showing beautifully.

A sampling of the Alsace wines on the market found a high overall level of quality.

Value class

1999 Pierre Sparr Pinot Blanc d'Alsace Reserve ($9). This is simply an incredible value. It's been years since I've encountered such complexity in a white wine at this price. It offers concentrated flavors of peach and spice, with subtle nuances of nuts, banana, coconut, pear and melon. Its creamy texture is enchanting, but it finishes with fine length and acidity. Buy it by the case and drink it over the next two years.

1999 Willm Pinot Blanc ($8). Willm is not one of the leading lights of Alsace, but I was pleasantly surprised with this charming, easy-to-drink pinot blanc. It's a more breezy wine than the Sparr, with less concentration and intensity, but the mix of flavors is similar.

1999 Hugel Pinot Blanc "Cuvee Les Amours" ($12). This light, lemony wine is pleasant enough but lacks concentration, suggesting too large a crop.

1999 Willm Gewurztraminer ($8). This plump wine has no acidity or finish to speak of. It simply squats on the palate, which rapidly tires of it.

Mid-range wines

1999 Trimbach Pinot Gris Reserve ($15). An exceptional value, this complex and full-bodied pinot gris is packed with pear, herb, spice and lemon flavor. This wine, and the next, would be excellent with salmon.

1999 Lucien Albrecht Tokay Pinot Gris ($17). Another bargain, this pinot gris displays concentrated flavors of peach, pear, coconuts, banana and other tropical fruit. The texture is soft and creamy, with a lingering finish.

1999 Trimbach Riesling ($15). This is classic Alsace riesling -- bone-dry, brilliantly structured, capable of aging and revealing more depth. Mineral flavors dominate, with some zingy hints of apple. It finishes with fine acidity -- a hallmark of the Trimbach style.

1999 Trimbach Gewurztraminer ($15). Very dry, spicy, long and ripe, with hints of melon, peach and cherry. It's only mildly flowery and not nearly as heavy as many other Alsace gewurztraminers. Serve with spicy Oriental cuisine.

Premium-price wines

1998 Zind-Humbrecht Riesling, Clos Hauserer, Wintzenheim ($36). Zind-Humbrecht may be the world's greatest producer of white wines. This brilliant single-vineyard riesling, one of the more moderately priced in the Zind-Humbrecht line, illustrates why. The concentration is otherworldly. Where most Alsace rieslings are austere, this one bursts with exotic flavors of pear, peach, spices and topical fruit. Somehow it is at once both sweet and dry. Forget food. Just sip this in sheer amazement.

1999 Domaine Weinbach Gewurztraminer Furstentum, Cuvee Laurence ($44). This wine is not for everyone. It's a flowery, fruity, spicy, youthful, brash bombshell -- exceptionally concentrated, long and exotic. Despite the lush honey, tropical fruit and cherry flavors, it finishes as a dry wine. It's a great wine, but it would be best to cellar it a few years.

1996 Trimbach Gewurztraminer, Cuvee des Seigneurs de Ribeaupierre ($28.50). This is an interesting contrast with the Weinbach, showing the wisdom of Trimbach in holding back its premium gewurztraminer for three extra years. The wine is a little less concentrated and flowery, but much more stylish. The flavors are similar to the Weinbach, but more integrated and layered. Serve with pate, fresh fruit, Oriental cuisine or sip by itself.

1997 Trimbach Pinot Gris, Reserve Personnelle ($28.50). Here's a superb wine to serve with the Thanksgiving turkey. It's a full-bodied white with gorgeous, creamy texture and intense flavors -- banana, nuts, almond paste, hazelnuts, pears and tropical fruit. A wonderful paradox -- sweet flavors in a dry wine.

1997 Trimbach Riesling, Cuvee Frederic Emile ($28.50). As superb as this wine is now, it will be even greater in five years or so. It's a classically structured, crystalline white wine with great tensile strength. What stands out is the deep mineral flavor, with hints of lime and sweet pea. Oh, what a wine this would be to serve with ham or choucroute!

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