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Bach to bach
Two Alsatian producers at the top of their games

The majestic, often fierce whites of Alsace are better than ever. Thanks to a run of spectacular vintages (with 1999 the only mildly weak entry in the last half-decade), the region’s winemakers are producing some of the best wines ever seen from the northeastern corner of France. With solid winemaking and ever-improving viticultural techniques, Alsace is hitting home run after home run.

Of course, behind every baseball metaphor there is a catch (as any Red Sox fan should know). Prices are rising, and bottles still provide little to no indication of whether the wine inside is sweet or dry. Nevertheless, a little advance knowledge goes a long way, so here are two producers well worth knowing: Trimbach and Weinbach. These two houses, which are pursuing excellence along different paths, represent two sides of the modern Alsatian wine scene. Both will be in the Boston area in March (Weinbach at Truc the third week of March, and Trimbach at the Boston Harbor Hotel at the end of the month; call the restaurants for details).

The house of Trimbach, a family firm with hundreds of years of history, has a clear and precise philosophy. It totally eschews all but the most elderly of oak barrels (many are nearly as old as the estate), uses classic winemaking techniques, and produces the prototypical dry whites that most people expect from Alsace but have an increasingly difficult time finding. Starting with the inexpensive 1998 Pinot Blanc, a crisp and fruity apéritif wine best served well-chilled, the entire Trimbach line-up features one exemplary bottle after another.

The legislation that produced the grand crus of Alsace —theoretically, a classification of the region’s best vineyards — excludes single-owner vineyards. Ironic, then, that it should codify the exclusion of the best riesling vineyard in Alsace (and, according to a few critics, the world), the Clos Ste-Hune, which is wholly owned by the Trimbach family. Situated on an otherwise nondescript hillside near the lovely village of Hunawihr, in the middle of the Rosacker grand cru vineyard, it’s almost impossible to locate without a guide. Thankfully, that isn’t true of the wine. The 1995 Riesling Clos Ste-Hune, the current release, is as rigid and austere as its ancestors were in their youth: a huge aroma of liquefied stones is followed by initially soft, but soon explosive, lime, white pepper, and elegant mineral waves crashing across the palate. This pricey wine ($70 to $100, depending on the source) deserves 10 to 15 years in the cellar, at which point it will tower over its contemporaries.

A cheaper, and only slightly less terrific, effort is the “middle” riesling produced by Trimbach, the Cuvée Frédéric Émile. A blend from two grand cru vineyards on the hillside above the Trimbach estate in Ribeauvillé, this wine is no less mineral-laden, but almost always more approachable in its youth. The 1996 Riesling “Cuvée Frédéric Émile,” from a more intense vintage than ’95, is almost blisteringly powerful, with dense apricot, orange, lemon-lime, and wet-iron flavors. About 10 years’ aging is right for this $35 wine.

Trimbach’s basic riesling delivers a taste of greatness at a bargain price. The 1998 Riesling, at $16, now shows delicious wet steel, grapefruit, and long yet balanced lime acidity, but will age to something wonderfully and elegantly mineral a few years down the road.

Trimbach’s rieslings are so fantastic that it’s easy to overlook its other wines. Easy, but a mistake. Trimbach has several different expressions of pinot gris on the market, including the ubiquitous 1998 Pinot Gris “Réserve” (persimmon, tarragon, and spiced pear), the more complete 1996 Pinot Gris “Réserve Personelle” (with the impression of sweetness on the apricot and pear nose, but full and dry on the palate, with flavors of buttered apple and the sweetest fall corn buttressed by strong acidity), and the epic one-time bottling, 1996 Pinot Gris “Hommage à Georgette Trimbach” (apricot and smoked bacon, coriander, clove, and a mind-blowing mixture of sweet pear nectar and drying acidity). These wines are around $14, $35, and $70, respectively.

And don’t forget Trimbach’s gewurztraminers. Start with the 1998 Gewurztraminer, a balanced and dry confection of cashews, light lychee syrup, peach, and lemongrass shot though with vivid spice. Then move up to the 1996 Gewurztraminer “Cuvée des Seigneurs de Ribeaupierre,” which delivers everything the previous wine does but adds a grace note of wet minerals and an extremely long finish, promising good aging potential. Get a bit sweeter with the 1997 Gewurztraminer “Vendange Tardive” and its lychee/orange/peach fruit salad dripping with honeysuckle and pear syrup, and finish decadently with the 1994 Gewurztraminer “Sélection des Grains Nobles,” a piercing example of sinfully sweet honeyed peach, pear, and apple, with a nearly endless finish reminiscent of thyme. Prices are approximately $15, $34, $37 (375 ml), and $65 (375 ml), though deals are frequent.

In two weeks, we’ll look at the wines of Domaine Weinbach. Stay tuned.

Thor Iverson can be reached at wine[a]

Issue Date: March 15-22, 2001

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