Discovering Alsace wines

Plentiful sunshine, long growing season help perfect grape ripeness of this French region

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To the east, the Rhine River. To the west, the Vosges Mountains. Alsace is at once a curious hybrid of French and German influences — having belonged to both at various times in history — and a culture very much its own. Nonetheless, its geographical location has affected not only its political and cultural history, but its language, its cuisine and its wine.

Alsace is currently French, most recently as of 1945, when it was returned from German control after World War II. But it has “belonged” to Germany at various times over the past several hundred years, as is evident in the incidence of sauerkraut, sausages and dumplings in the region’s traditional cuisine. One will also recognize many grape varieties in common between Germany and Alsace. Sylvaner, riesling and gewürztraminer are some such varieties. And while the clear majority of German and Alsatian wines are white, what red wine you do find is often made from pinot noir.

Although the food and the grapes have a distinctly German character, the winemaking, however, is all French. German examples of these wines often have a noticeable amount of residual sugar in the finished product (though drier styles are on the rise). Alsatian wines are almost always fermented dry, apart from Selection de Grain Nobles wines, which are somewhat akin to France’s Sauternes — highly prized, highly priced and very sweet.

The climate of Alsace is also quite different from that of Germany. German grapes can struggle to ripen in the cool, short growing seasons. Winemakers have combated this by building terraces along the steep banks of the Moselle River, the best sites facing south to maximize exposure to the sun’s warmth. In Alsace, however, ripening is rarely an issue. The Vosges Mountains create a rain shadow on their eastern flank, making Alsace the driest winemaking region in France. Prodigious amounts of sunshine and a long, warm growing season help grapes achieve perfect ripeness. The resulting wines are at once elegant and full-flavored, long-lived and ideal partners for the region’s hearty cuisine.

In Alsace, four grapes, known as the “noble” varieties, are prized above the others — riesling, gewürztraminer, pinot gris and muscat. While wine can be made from a variety of other grapes, these are the most highly regarded, and only these four are allowed in wines labeled “Grand Cru.”

By far the most planted grape variety is riesling. The grape is grown nowhere else in France and is considered in Alsace the noblest of the varieties. It is noted for its ability to produce young, floral wines that age gracefully over many years into minerally, yet honeyed wines with opulent stone fruit aromas. 2012 Trimbach Riesling Alsace ($26 per 750-milliliter bottle) is in a beautiful phase of that transition, with plenty of ripe peach on the nose, tempered by white pepper and a whiff of pencil eraser. On the palate, the honeyed notes of an aging riesling are emerging, with bright tones of lemon and apricot and a discernible minerality. The acidity of the wine is racy and will enable the wine to improve for several more years.

Another noble variety, muscat, is far less common than riesling. It also does not age quite as stylishly, due to its inherently low levels of acidity. Still, 2012 Zind-Humbrecht Muscat Alsace ($19) remains redolent of juicy apricot, fresh rose and honeysuckle and spicy nutmeg. On the palate, a note of beeswax is emerging, but crisp stone fruits remain, along with something I can only call “mountain breeze.” You’ll know it when you smell it.

While pinot noir is not considered a noble variety and is produced in very small quantities – less than 10 percent of the region’s vineyard land is planted to pinot noir – I have a soft spot for Alsatian pinot noir. It started a few years ago, when I was in a small convenience store on the Île-St.-Louis. This being Paris, even a small convenience store had a selection of fine wines, and as a budding wine enthusiast, I grabbed something quite at random, hoping for a nice surprise. I got one. The inexpensive bottle turned out to be my first Alsatian pinot noir, and I sipped the barnyardy, red cherry-rich wine out of a plastic cup, sitting on an embankment by the Seine.

I have no idea who produced that wine, though I’m sure it wasn’t Rolly Gassmann. 2012 Rolly Gassmann Pinot Noir Alsace ($34) is far more refined than my Paris bottle and far more expensive. The nose is reminiscent of cedar and a touch of barnyard, with tart cranberry and raspberry adding depth. There is appreciable alcohol prickle on the palate, which surprised me until I saw that the wine contains 16 percent alcohol by volume. This is astronomically high for pinot noir, especially French pinot noir, but I suppose the abundant Alsatian sunshine worked some magic on these grapes. Happily, the alcohol is nicely balanced by rich, buttery red cherry and warm baking spice.

Alsace may be somewhat off the beaten path of French tourism, but the few people I know who have visited there reminisce not only about the wines, but the food, the beautiful scenery and the inviting people. May we all be so lucky as to experience Alsace for ourselves.

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