I am currently rekindling my love affair with Alsace wines. Alsace is a fascinating place, it is very beautiful, has wonderful cuisine and produces wines that are never less than interesting – even if you don’t like them – oh and it makes some of the best lager in the world too!
When I joined the wine trade, well over twenty years ago, Alsace was the first classic region whose wines seduced me. This was possibly because I could afford them and partly because they are atypical of the great French regions – in that on the whole they are gutsy and full of character. In my early days an Alsace Gewurztraminer was a wine that I could easily appreciate.
Although it is in north eastern France, Alsace enjoys a very sunny climate that typically produces ripe, rich and very approachable wines while the varietal labeling makes them relatively straightforward to understand. It’s just that right now these are not the varietals that most consumers think they want to drink.
As an amateur student of history the whole concept of Alsace appeals to me too; a region of France that is culturally Germanic and has spent good chunks of the last two centuries belonging first to one country and then the other – yet all the time clinging to its own identity.
I recommend that all Eurosceptics should visit Alsace, the place is littered with battlefields, it is home to the Maginot Line and even a Nazi concentration camp – yet now thanks to the EU we can drift across the border at will spending the same currency. You see, some things are better than they used to be!
For many years now most Alsace wines have been getting sweeter – something of a problem in my opinion with the low acid Gewurztraminer or Pinot Gris. Lots of sugar in these wines can make them seem really unbalanced, in my opinion they need freshness or acidity to show at their best. It seems that this sweetness comes from increased ripeness as a consequence of lower yields, as well as improved ripeness in the vineyards – an example of ‘improvements’ backfiring I think.
It also doesn’t help that the consumer is not made aware of the fact that these wines are virtually never dry anymore and vary between medium-dry and medium-sweet. I think there really ought to be some indication of the sweetness on the label.
Personally, therefore I have long restricted myself to the exquisite dry Rieslings that can be amongst the most thrilling dry white wines in the world: The great house of Trimbach, in Ribeauvillé, produces 2 sublime and mineral-laden examples:
Clos Ste Hune (from grapes grown in the the Grand Cru Rosacker vineyard in Hunawihr )
The Riesling Marnes et Calcaires from Cave de Turckheim is another mineral and crisp wine that I greatly enjoy, as is their Riesling Grand Cru Brand (Brand is a vineyard site in Turckheim, not the word brand as in brand name).
I also have a soft spot for the wines from the Ribeauvillé co-operative as well as those from the distinguished house of Gustave Lorentz in Bergheim – certainly the magnum of their Gewurztraminer Grand Cru Altenberg 1989 that I unearthed from my cellar recently, was sublime, rich and dry.
Recently I attended a fascinating tasting of biodynamic Alsace wines from the great Domaine Josmeyer in Wintzenheim.
All the wines were terrific and pretty exciting and my renewed interest in Alsace might well stem from this tasting, but it was the Rieslings that were the most thrilling.
Josmeyer Riesling Kottabe 2008
Very stylish wine with good weight and good acidity in equal balance.
The finish was long, fresh and rich – 89 points.
This is a single vineyard plot from the Grand Cru Brand, from where legend has it a dragon set off to fight the sun – he lost. The vines are 60 year old, giving great depth. The heat of this site really shows with cooked lemon, lemon curd notes and a rich citrus twist to the mineral finish – 90 points.
Josmeyer Riesling Les Pierrets 2004
From selected, stony vineyard sites (pierrets/stones) that suit the minerality of Riesling.
The nose was especially expressive with honey, apples and minerality. The palate was full-flavoured with racy acidity supported by a surprising amount of fruit – almost tropical pineapple on the long, rich, oily finish – 92 points.
Stockist information for Josmeyer is available from www.polroger.co.uk.
More recently still I have branched out again and tried a Rolly-Gassmann wine, their Gewurztraminer 2007. Based in Rorschwihr, Rolly-Gassman has a reputation as a producer who makes big wines with lots of residual sugar, and it’s true this wine is not dry, but it is very well balanced – and really that is all that matters. For a rich Gewurztraminer the acid management is exceptional, leaving the wine clean and fresh at the end despite the rich, weighty and exotic palate. I could see myself enjoying it with a rich casserole or a roast duck or goose – 89 points.
Over the years Riesling has been my favoured Alsace grape variety, but I always recommend that my students try a Pinot Blanc from Alsace – these can be very attractive and satisfying wines that go with a wide range of foods. Keep a watch out, I’ll try and find some to review for you.
It seems to me that I might have been wrong for the last few years, perhaps I should have been experiencing more wines from Alsace. I am certainly determined to make up for the lost time.