WINE Values from Alsace

These French wines with German names give good American value.

Despite the wine boom that has consumers constantly searching for best buys, some of France’s finest white wines still go begging. While agreeing on the high quality and value of Alsatian wines, wine merchants and writers admit that these wines are more discussed than drunk. The bargain hunter frequently turns to some mass-produced Soave or Verdicchio, the diner orders a Graves or Pouilly-Fuissé, and the dinnerparty host pours a Meursault, Montrachet, or California chardonnay for his discerning guests. Despite continually favorable notices in the press and the fact that every general wine book published in the last 20 years has made no secret of its author’s affection for these splendid white wines, the Alsatians are largely ignored in the local marketplace.

Few wines have maintained as constant a price level as the Alsatians and few in the $5-and-under price range approach their overall high quality and value. The neophyte wine buyer needs no understanding of classifications or vineyard names and locations in order to select top-quality Alsatian wines. Buying Alsatian wine is as easy as choosing a good Scotch, bourbon, or gin: Learn the characteristics of the three major grape varieties (Sylvaner, Riesling, and Gewurz-traminer), pick a brand whose style suits your preference, and it’s done.

In other regions of France, wine is sold on the basis of the individual vineyard’s quality. However, among Alsatian wines, the grape variety and the shipper’s name are what guide a buyer’s choice. According to French law, in order for a wine to bear the appellation “Vin d’Alsace” (Alsatian wine) it must be vinified from 100 percent of the grape variety named on the label. Blends of two or more grapes are not representative of Alsatian quality and style and are usually sold under proprietary names such as Willm’s “Cordon d’Alsace.” Such blended wines are insipidly pleasant but outclassed by the Alsatian standard bearers: Sylvaner, Riesling, and Gewurztraminer.

The Sylvaner is the lowest grape in the wine hierarchy of Alsace. The variety is a prolific bearer and too often overlooked in favor of wines made from the Riesling. Properly made, a Sylvaner is a light-bodied, slightly tart wine that makes a pleasant aperitif, a refreshing picnic wine, or a good accompaniment to grilled or fried fish. Its modest price and agreeable taste make it a good alternative to Graves, Muscadets, and Macon Blancs.

Germany’s noblest grape, the Riesling, is also the pride of Alsace. German Rieslings, because of their lighter body, lower alcoholic content, and characteristic fruitiness, are far less suited for accompanying food than are their Alsatian counterparts. The Alsatian Riesling has a fruity bouquet that belies the usual dryness of the wine. In their youth, the best are a trifle acidic, but a period of two or three years after their vintage date sees them change into beautifully balanced wines that complement richly sauced fish, sausage, pates, and braised or roast pork. Although the Alsatians prefer to drink beer with their traditional choucrouie garnie, Riesling can be enjoyed with it too, though for my taste it doesn’t suit the dish quite as well as that most quirkily individual of Alsatian wines, Gewurztraminer.

Among wine drinkers, there is no middle ground when it comes to Gewurztraminer – the first sniff and its attendant sip will either cross the wine off your list forever or start an enduring affair. Its florid aroma is an intense mixture of exotic, unnameable spices; its rich and fruity flavor verges on the overblown; its aftertaste is teasingly and deceptively dry. When weather conditions during the harvest are favorable, the Alsatian wine maker cannot resist leaving small quantities of grapes on his Gewurz-’traminer vines to overripen and produce a richly sweet wine somewhat akin to late-harvested counterparts in Ger-many. The production of late-harvested Alsatian Gewurztraminers is extremely limited and these sweet wines, labeled Gewurztraminer Auslese or Beerenaus-lese, are hard to find even at the best wine shops.

Because of its assertive bouquet and flavor, Gewurztraminer enjoys a vogue as the wine to serve with spicy dishes. Those who insist on drinking wine with Indian and Chinese cuisine frequently choose Gewurztraminer. The wine is ill served by this combination, because the spices in these cuisines dull the palate and reduce even as powerful a wine as Gewurztraminer to a cool, vaguely flavored liquid. To enjoy the wine at its best, pair it with pates, smoked salmon, seafood with complex sauces, quail or squab in a cream sauce garnished with muscat grapes, roast or braised pork, or choucroute garnie.

Although the Sylvaner, Riesling, and Gewurztraminer grapes are more closely identified with Germany than with France, the style of wine they produce in Alsace is purely French. Unlike most of their counterparts on the other side of the Rhine, Alsatian wines are ideal companions for a wide variety of foods and are probably the last of the widely available French wines made in the “old style”; the Alsatian wine maker lets nature take its course with as little interference as possible. In terms of freshness, balance, quality, and ultimate value, the results speak for themselves.



The demand for Alsatian wines is not great in Dallas. Only one liquor store, Centennial, stocks any Sylvaners – a Jux Sylvaner 1974, $2.49. The number of Rieslings and Gewurztraminers is greater – and so are the prices.



Rieslings

Dopff Riesling 1975 – $4.39 at Marty’s, $4.19 at Red Coleman’s.

Dopff Riesling 1971 – $4.49 at A&A Chateau.

Hugel Riesling 1975 – $3.75 at Sigel’s.

Hugel Riesling Exceptionnelle 1975 – $5.49 at Sigel’s.

Jux Riesling 1974 – $2.99 at Centennial.



Gewurztraminers

Dopff Gewurztraminer 1975 – $4.39 at Marty’s, $4.99 at A&A Chateau and at Red Coleman’s.

Hugel Gewurztraminer 1973 – $3.47 at Sigel’s.

Hugel Gewurztraminer Exceptionnelle 1973 – $4.27 at Sigel’s.

Jux Gewurztraminer 1974 – $3.24 at Centennial.

Quien Gewurztraminer 1976 – $4.49 at Red Coleman’s.

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