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Alsatian appreciation
Franceís (almost) forgotten fairy-tale wine region
BY DAVID MARGLIN

Just a wee bit south of Franceís northernmost wine region, Champagne, and 300 miles east of Paris lies Alsace. Protected on its west by the picturesque Vosges Mountains, which shield its vineyards from rain, Alsace is pure white-wine country.

Oh, some pinot noir is made there, but as my father might say, Alas, it isnít all that good, Iím afraid (and Dad knows ó heís been married most of his life to an exceptional Alsatian). Pinot noir is the only red varietal grown in the region. Itís used in the Crémant díAlsace sparkling wines, which are made with the méthode champenoise technique perfected in nearby Champagne.

No, whites are what Alsace is all about. Gewürztraminer, riesling, pinots gris and blanc, plus some muscat, are the main characters. By law, chardonnay is allowed in the Crémants only; some writers suggest this rule gets violated, but in any event, itís far from the focus. The emphasis on these few whites probably has as much to do with the regionís soil, limited rainfall, and very northern-ness as it does with its proximity to Germany, even though Alsace has been intermittently owned or at least occupied by Germany for the past few centuries. The Rhine separates the two countries, and its dramatically wide valley not only affects the grapes; visually, itís just stunning. Like Germanyís quite-white-centric vineyards, Alsaceís are real fairy tales.

Strasbourg is Alsaceís capital, renowned as a most international and cosmopolitan city. In this culinary heaven, as is so often the case in Europe, youíll find that the regionís cuisine marries perfectly with its wines. Cooks use lots of eggs, butter, and cheese. Escargots are a delicacy, drenched in garlic, parsley, and oil/butter, while a staple is the flammekueche, a cheese-onion tart. And Strasbourg may well be the worldís asparagus capital.

While most Alsatian whites are not sweet per se, there are some sweet ones, late-harvest efforts that give you a giddy rush when you drink them with a tarte Tatin for dessert. Many of the dry wines have residual sugars ó these are fairly fruity varietals. Riesling is apples, green plums, firm peaches; gewürztraminers are litchi nuts, vanilla, minerals, spices, and honeysuckle. I like gewürztraminers for breakfast, or after a long night of partying while greeting the dawn, and they work incredibly well with spicy foods or dishes with sour notes not created by citrus.

Gewürztraminers, for my money, are not made better anywhere in the world than in Alsace (in my next column, using Alsace as a benchmark, weíll follow gewürztraminers around the world). The rieslings can also be epic, and then there are the exquisite pinot gris and crisp pinot blancs. Most will work exceptionally well with fish, especially spicy sushi (they like the soy sauce). Again, arguments could be made that with the likely exception of riesling (a doffing of the cap in respect to the monumental rieslings produced by its eastern neighbor and erstwhile occupier), the other three varietals reach their apogee in Alsace. Worth observing is the fact that, by and large, Alsatian wines arenít blended (although some fine noble blends ó blends of a number of the white-wine grapes of Alsace ó are made: try Hugelís); rather, they are expressions of one and only one grape.

A lot of the wines will age well, and the í90s were very good to Alsace, producing a spate of good and great vintages. But, being whites, most drink best on their younger side. Iíd be remiss if I didnít mention Trimbach, and the Domaines Zind Humbrecht, Schlumberger, and Weinbach, four of the most deservedly legendary white-wine producers in the world. Almost anything they make, at a wide variety of price points, is worth trying, especially in a good or great year. The blend of minerals from the soil with the elegant fruits ó and the spicy notes resulting from the pervasive use of indigenous wild yeasts ó make these wines a delight.

So if you want alternatives to chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, and the Rhône varietals, Alsace is a pretty safe bet: great, versatile wines (made by top winemakers whoíve had centuries to hone their craft) that tend to feature an incredible quality/price ratio, all topped off by rich history. If you go there and drink the wines, married so exquisitely with the local food, youíll understand and appreciate how awesome and unforgettable Alsace can be.

1999 Kritt Gewürztraminer Les Charmes Marc Kreydenweiss Alsace. Stunning! Litchi, apple, apricot, vanilla, minerals. No need for food. Drink up.

David Marglin can be reached at dave@taste.com

Issue Date: June 6-13, 2002
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