The Boston Phoenix
April 9 - 16, 1998


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Great whites

Alsace rises above the sea of chardonnay

Uncorked by Thor Iverson

I admit it: I'm sick of chardonnay. Whether it's ultra-expensive white Burgundy, a massive over-oaked fruit bomb from Australia or California that deadens the palate after a few sips, or one of the flailing attempts from Italy, Spain, and elsewhere to emulate one of those styles, there's a pervasive abuse of this potentially great grape that I just can't stomach anymore. And even when it is good, chardonnay often turns surly when asked to share the spotlight with food.

Thankfully, there are alternatives -- wines that have the character and strength to match heavy-hitting chardonnay blow for blow, the subtlety to seduce food into blissful union, and an ability to develop and age as long as the greatest of the great Burgundies, or longer. Where? Look north from the hills of Burgundy to the dramatic slopes and valleys of Alsace.

And while you're at it, give thanks that at least one French region is consumer-friendly. Unlike the appellation-based wines of Bordeaux, Burgundy, and the Rhône and Loire Valleys, Alsatian wines are identified by their grape variety (Alsace does make nonvarietal, blended wines, but these are rarely seen in the US). Best of all, Alsatian wines are frequently outstanding bargains, and they match perfectly with almost any dish that demands a white wine.

Fans of German wines will find much that is familiar in Alsace, including the rather Germanic-looking labels and the tall, thin flutes that are the region's signature bottles. But there's an important difference: Alsatian wines are bone-dry. (The only exceptions are special, and usually high-priced, wines labeled "Vendange Tardive" -- late harvest -- which can be sweet but are usually not; and "Sélection des Grains Nobles," which are botrytis-infected dessert wines of almost unbelievable sweetness and richness.)

The premier grape of Alsace is riesling. Young, simple Alsatian rieslings are flinty and bear an unmistakable "petrol" character, with high acidity and a delicious mix of lemon, lime, and apple flavors. Better rieslings are almost impenetrably steely when young, but age to a delicious richness not totally unlike that of many Burgundies.

Pinot gris (a/k/a tokay-pinot gris) is a much friendlier wine, with grapefruit and pear notes and, occasionally, the suggestion of mild sweetness (usually an illusion, but not always). It also possesses great aging potential, and will make you forget every bland Italian pinot grigio (it's the same grape) you've ever had. Pinot blanc (pinot bianco in Italy) is Alsace's "light" wine, perfect as an apéritif, with a mild lemon-apple taste. Muscat is the floral courtesan it is elsewhere in France (where it produces sugary dessert concoctions), but Alsatian versions are uniquely dry, and are just incredible with light fish dishes. Pinot blanc and muscat should generally be consumed young. And then there's gewurztraminer, which produces highly individualistic wines with hedonistic layers of exotic fruit and unidentifiable spices, frequently low enough in acidity that it seems sweet. Gewurztraminer sharply divides opinions; many people can't stand its overwhelming spiciness and intense, "oily" flavor. Those who love it appreciate its unique character as an alternative to, well, just about anything. With age, it becomes spicier, more strongly flavored, and even less appealing to nondevotees.

The generally strong acidity of Alsatian wines (gewurztraminer and some pinot gris excepted) makes them the most versatile white food wines on the planet; they stand alone in their ability to pair with moderately spicy foods from China, Thailand, and India. (For highly spiced foods, try a slightly sweet German white or stick to beer.) Gewurztraminer even crosses the color barrier, matching well with a fairly wide range of smoked and spicy red meats.

Alsace also produces a delicious (and inexpensive) sparkling wine called Crémant d'Alsace, and a thin, tart red wine (made from pinot noir) for which I've never developed a taste.

When buying Alsatian wine, keep in mind that any mention of a specific vineyard on the label is generally a positive sign. Look also for special cuvées (usually followed by a name, as with Domaine Weinbach Riesling Cuvée Theo), the word clos (which indicates a solely owned vineyard of very high quality, like Domaine Zind-Humbrecht Pinot Gris Clos Windsbuhl Hunawihr), and the word réserve, which is far less abused in Alsace than it is in the rest of the world.

One last piece of good news: very little bad, or even mediocre, Alsatian wine makes it to the US, so feel free to sample your retailer's racks with abandon. That said, don't expect a basic wine (like the yellow-label Trimbach Riesling, about $16) to deliver the same knockout punch as a more elite bottling (like the Trimbach Riesling Cuvée Frédéric Émile, at about $28, or the otherworldly Trimbach Riesling Clos Ste-Hune, Alsace's greatest dry wine, which runs from $60 to $85 if you can find it).

Rather than tasting notes, I'll leave you with a short list of producers worth looking for: Adam, Albrecht, Becker, Beyer, Blanck, Bott-Geyl, Burn, Deiss, Dopff & Irion, Dopff Au Moulin, Hugel (their "Gentil" blend is a particularly good value, but other basic cuvées can sometimes be lacking), Koehly, Kuentz-Bas, Lorentz, Mann, Meyer, Mittnacht-Klack, Muré, Ostertag, Schleret, Schlumberger, Schoffit, Sipp, Sparr, Trimbach, Weinbach, Willm, and Zind-Humbrecht.

Basic bottlings from these producers will cost between $8 and $20; better examples range from $15 to $45; and outstanding wines meant for long aging can be had for as little as $25 and as much as $200, for a few Sélection des Grains Nobles wines from Zind-Humbrecht. Contrast that with white Burgundy, where you can count the number of truly great $25 wines on one hand.

As a bonus for our online readers, here's a collection of all my Alsatian tasting notes from the last few years. I can't promise exciting reading, but I can promise some fantastic wines. Enjoy.

1995 Dopff & Irion Sylvaner ($8.99). Exceedingly light and grassy, but nothing particularly notable or interesting.

1995 Dopff & Irion Pinot Blanc ($10.99). A very light gold, which is a good indication of this wine's lightness. Gentle, smooth grapefruit, sweet lemon, and orange flavors caress the palate, but it turns a bit sour and tart on the finish. With the right food (something with lemons or lemon juice, or lighter vinegar reductions) this will taste just fine.

1996 Josmeyer L'Isabelle ($10.99). An exceedingly light blended wine (the gewurztraminer is obvious, but the lack of character suggests the rest might be sylvaner or chasselas), almost tastes watered-down. I'd avoid it.

1993 Jean Becker Riesling ($12.99). White-gold color, with a stony lemon and grapefruit nose. A bit slight on the palate, with the strong acidity overwhelming somewhat sedate lemon-lime and mineral flavors.

1995 Dopff & Irion Riesling ($12.99). Already fading a bit, but still some interesting herbal, slate, steel, and light citrus flavors with high acidity.

1994 Trimbach Pinot Gris Réserve ($13.99) Tingly pear and grapefruit aromas and flavors, with a steely core.

1995 Dopff & Irion Gewurztraminer ($13.99). A more user-friendly, less overblown style of gewurztraminer, with the typical floral and lychee nut bouquet mixed with orange, tangerine, and hazelnut flavors.

1993 Gustave Lorentz Tokay-Pinot Gris Cuvée Particulière ($14.99). Pear, limestone, and apples on the nose of this pale gold quaff. A very rich and complex combination of pear, peach, underripe orange, sweet lemon, sand, chalk, and cashews with a lengthy, earthy finish. High acidity matches the huge fruit, so this one will age wonderfully, but a slight alcoholic heat means this should be served with food.

1996 Josmeyer Tokay Pinot Gris ($15.99). The standard pear and grapefruit are here, but all in all very short, light, and uninteresting.

1994 Charles Schleret Muscat d'Alsace Vieilles Vignes ($15.99). Explodes with floral and citrus overtones that tingle and entice from nose to throat, combining the expensive bouquet of Condrieu with the flavors of an orchard breeze.

1994 Charles Schleret Gewurztraminer Herrenweg ($17.99). An oily, spicy, roasted-nut and rose-petal taste and a nearly endless finish. The flavors will show best with sausage, spicy pork and poultry dishes, and foie gras.

1994 Trimbach Riesling Réserve ($17.99). This restrained and austere white from Alsace has mild peach and citrus flavors, underpinned by a distinct stony character and some acidity. Try it with poultry or pasta in any sort of creamy sauce.

1995 Charles Schleret Muscat d'Alsace Vieilles Vignes ($17.99). Typically enticing muscat nose of flowers, orange peel, and pear with intriguing scents of earth, apple cider, and macadamia thrown in. Picks up unmistakable Alsatian petrol notes on the palate, followed by a wonderful wave of roses, pear, banana, mixed citrus, papaya, and mango flavors. The finish is a bit short in its tropical fruit salad way, but this wine has excellent balance and may actually improve for a few years. Don't let it get too warm, though -- if not well-chilled, the alcohol asserts itself in a fairly unpleasant way.

1994 Burn Riesling Goldert Clos St-Imer ($21.99). Greenish-gold, with a slightly reticent and deliciously austere orange, apricot, lemon, celery salt, and stone nose. That unique salty flavor carries on through the attack, followed by tart orange-lime, spritzy green apple, mandarin orange, and ferric qualities that bind this wine with ropes of steel. The finish is almost seltzeresque, with some green apple and lime notes creeping in. At the moment, the acid completely overwhelms the fruit; give it a decade or so, and this will begin to shed its chains of iron and emerge as the powerhouse it's designed to be.

1990 Paul Blanck Riesling Schlossberg ($28.99). Crystalline gold with a greenish edge. Nose of green apple, wet grass, kerosene, peach, pear, black pepper. Presents a viscous sweet-sour apple, pear, lime, orange peel character, finishes tart but still complex, with gravelly notes creeping into the lengthy fadeaway. Still highly acidic, but very rich, and probably a long way from maturity.

1993 Dopff & Irion Gewurztraminer Les Sorcières ($20.99). Classic, yet somewhat restrained, gewurztraminer. The less flamboyant style eliminates the usual "is-it-sweet-or-dry?" question in the taster's mind, but there's still plenty of candied citrus, roasted nut, and floral stuff going on here. Excellent structure supports it all, and I believe this one will age and mature gracefully.

1993 Trimbach Pinot Gris Réserve Personelle ($28.00). The acidity is immediately obvious in the tart, pear and lemon nose. And it doesn't exactly fade during the tingly pear and grapefruit attack, as orange peel insinuates itself into the mix. On the finish one finds the trademark Alsatian slate characteristics, with a little bit of almost Burgundian earthy soil flavor. The acidity is high, but so is the level of fruit, and this one feels (and tastes) like a long ager. In keeping with Trimbach family tradition, even though this wine is entitled to Grand Cru Osterberg status, the vineyard is not mentioned on the label.

1992 Trimbach Riesling Cuvée Frédéric Émile ($28.99). An almost overwhelming slate character, crushing the faint apple notes on the nose. The palate is all soil, slate, and lemon-lime, but finishes with an almost off-dry apple flavor. Another long ager, this is a very tight wine (the typical Trimbach style) that will evolve and develop richness as the years pass. If you want a hint of the things to come, air it out for a few hours before serving.

1990 Trimbach Gewurztraminer Cuvée des Seigneurs de Ribeaupierre ($34.99). Very strong lychee, roasted apple, and mixed nut aromas (this was an excellent year), a wine with great depth yet tingly acidity. Some earthy notes turn into a persistent yet highly unexpected Muenster flavor that lingers on and on in the nearly endless finish. Oily, rich, coats the mouth and stays there. Only to be served with the strongest of cheeses, this fantastic wine has another 20 years ahead of it.

1985 Trimbach Gewurztraminer Cuvée des Seigneurs de Ribeaupierre ($35.99). A rich medium gold with some fading at the edges. One of the most enticing noses I've ever experienced in a white wine: dried apricot, bread crust, lemon peel, sand, walnut shell, honey, and with some air even smoked meats. The wine doesn't quite live up to its smelly potential; though the nutmeg, flowers, lychee, olive oil, citrus, and oily pear flavors are deliciously delivered by a sharply acidic structure, the wine is starting to climb back down its peak of maturity. The finish is tingly citrus and maple, lingering like the last bite of a sundae on a hot summer day. This should be consumed soon for the most enjoyment, though it will certainly hold on for many years to come.

1994 Trimbach Gewurztraminer Vendanges Tardives ($75). This is a moderately-sweet style of V.T., and although the nose is restrained (for gewurztraminer, that is; there's still plenty of lychee, cashew, and almond rising from the glass), the incredibly smooth honey and rose nectar literally explodes in the mouth, directly followed and challenged by a wave of bracing acidity. An immeasurably long finish crowns this towering wine achievement. Brilliant.

1991 Trimbach Riesling Clos Ste-Hune ($85.00). You know how places have smells? An atmospheric background scent that no native would notice, but a visitor picks out right away? Well, I've smelled Alsace. I've smelled it standing on the soil, and now I've smelled it in a glass. Rising from a glass of this incredible Riesling was the aroma, the atmosphere, the character of the land from which it came. I picked up various apple, mineral, and grapefruit nuances here and there, but upon first whiff I reared back from the glass and exclaimed, "This smells like Alsace!" Jean Trimbach, our host for the evening's wine dinner, looked bemused. The strong mineral component carries the wine -- I had the fleeting notion that I was licking a stone when I tasted this. But the other flavors pass over and around and past the tongue in an ever-evolving succession of hazelnut, tart citrus, apple, and salt. The finish lingers on and on and on...and it's still not enough. The classic Clos Ste-Hune structure is there, but this wine definitely seems more forward than its three most direct ancestors (the 88, 89, and 90 -- all three among the best ever), so I suspect it doesn't have quite as much aging potential. Nevertheless, a beautiful wine.

Thor Iverson can be reached by e-mail at

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