It may be the smallest region in France, but what Alsace lacks in size, it more than makes up for with its breathtaking views, mouthwatering cuisine and exceptionally well-made wines. This 70-mile-long, two-mile wide picturesque region sits on the France–Germany border, tucked between the Vosges Mountains and the Rhine River. Because of its unique location, control of Alsace has changed hands several times between France and Germany, but since World War I, it has remained under French domain.
This territorial schizophrenia has helped to define Alsace, as it shares cultural influences from both countries, which is quite evident in the wines. Stylistically speaking, Alsace wines are closer to French (dry and austere) than to German wines, which generally lean to the off-dry side. However, packaging is more reminiscent of German wines, as Alsace wines are bottled in the tall, slender flutelike bottles like those from Germany. Also like its German counterpart, Alsace identifies each wine by the grape type, which is clearly stated on the label, while France labels its wines according to region.
In Alsace, white wine reigns supreme (90% of the production is white) as Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Muscat and Pinot Gris, the noble grapes of Alsace, are the most widely planted varieties, with Pinot Blanc and Sylvaner rounding out the area’s top white grapes. While Pinot Noir plantings have been increasing over the past few years, it’s still whites that have put Alsace on the winemaking map. The majority of white wines made in Alsace are crisp and dry, with a steely or mineral quality, medium to full body, with lively acidity and tangy fruit flavors. They also produce Cremant d’Alsace, a nice sparkling wine made primarily from Pinot Blanc, and rich, lush dessert wines.
MAJOR WHITE GRAPES OF ALSACE
Riesling Recognized as one of the world’s finest white varieties, Riesling is the most planted grape in the region. Dry, refined and delicately fruity, it has a lovely bouquet with common aromas and flavors that include green apple, honey, citrus fruit, mineral or floral notes, and exceptional aging potential. Riesling is commonly the grape of choice to make fully luscious dessert wines. Pair Riesling with baked ham, Asian food, turkey, sushi, fish and even desserts.
Pinot Blanc Well-rounded and clean, crisp yet supple, Pinot Blanc represents the middle ground of Alsace wines. While it is less aromatic than many other Alsatian grapes, it offers a delightful freshness, a distinct smoky character with melon, pear and apricot notes and well-balanced acidity. Lively and refreshing, Pinot Blanc is an ideal partner for seafood, mild cheeses, roasted pork and chicken.
Gewürztraminer Powerful, exotic and seductive, Gewürztraminer is one of the most uniquely distinct grapes grown. Emitting an undeniable bouquet, this “love it” or “hate it” grape is packed with aromas and flavors of lychee nut, rose petals, exotic spice, smoke and citrus peel and can range from medium-bodied and restrained to a full throttle, highly textural wine. It’s the ideal companion for barbecue, Asian foods and Cajun-Creole cuisine.
Sylvaner Naturally sweet but with noticeable acidity, Sylvaner can produce a remarkably fresh, elegant wine with a delicate flavor. Due to its soft, understated nature, Sylvaner is ideal to enjoy as an aperitif or with light fare such as fish and shellfish, fresh salads, pork and roasted chicken. This less common variety is best when consumed young.
Muscat d’Alsace One of the oldest domesticated grape varieties, this intriguing grape is intensely fragrant, floral and fruity with a distinctive aroma. Bold, exotic scents and flavors of lemon peel, rose petal, orange zest, candied fruit and spice are commonly found in Muscat wines. While many equate this variety to sweet dessert wines, those made in Alsace tend to be dry, medium-bodied, fruit-driven, round wines with a highly fragrant bouquet.
Tokay Pinot Gris Opulent and robust, this demonstrative grape has a rich, spicy quality, reminiscent of Gewürztraminer but with crisper acidity. Medium- to full-bodied with a creamy mouthfeel, melon, smoke, spice, minerals, flowers and apricots can often be found in Alsace Pinot Gris. Its supple nature paired with lively acid make it a great food wine with dishes such as scallops, salmon, mussels, pâté, quiche and pork.
2006 Pierre Sparr Gewürztraminer, $15
Lovely aromas of honeysuckle, rose petals and spice leap from the glass of this delightful wine. A terrific value, the wine is floral, yet well balanced with pleasant acidity. A great choice to enjoy with Asian cuisine.
2006 Chateau d’Orschwihr Riesling Bollenberg, $18
Crisp and lively, with nice citrus and apple fruit flavors that are dominated by earthy, mineral notes. Its elegant, fresh nature makes it a terrific aperitif or companion with light fare such as shellfish, salads, sushi or antipasto.
2005 Domaine Schlumberger Pinot Blanc les Princes Abbes, $13
Fresh, aromatic and delicately fruity with a floral and minerally bouquet. This charming white is well structured, crisp and dry and is the ideal match for salads, grilled vegetables and terrines.
Albert Mann Cremant d’Alsace Brut NV, $25
Delicate, fresh and vivacious with alluring aromas of fresh apples and citrus fruits, this crisp, beautiful bubbly embodies good structure, fine fruit flavors and lively acidity. Impeccably balanced and elegant, this is the ideal aperitif.