The best-kept secrets of France

THERE IS AT LEAST one great bar-ain in French white wine available in )allas today, and I’m not talking about omething that someone has on sale or bout a particularly impressive bottle of nexpensive vin de table that I’ve found omewhere. I’m talking about an entire lass of wines-wines that are varied, de->endable in quality, relatively easy to ob-ain and usually priced between $5 and $10 though they’re often better than a lot of other wines, French and otherwise, that sell for twice as much). I’m talking about Alsatian wines, wines of the Alsace region of northeastern France.

With its neighbor, Lorraine, Alsace borders Germany -and has actually been part of Germany off and on over the centuries. (You might recall the catch phrase “Alsace-Lorraine” from your high school history books; it was one of the main things France and Germany kept fighting about.) Today, Alsace is firmly French and is, in fact, one of the most stunningly beautiful parts of France. The region’s rolling hills, its thick carpets of grapevines, forests laced with ground-hugging mist and its lovely rivers (not just the Rhine, which forms most of the Alsatian-German border, but also the Ill, Broune, Fecht and Thur) are nothing less than captivating. Its charming towns with their cupolas and tall-pointed roofs, stone or half-timbered houses and flower boxes that seem to be appended to every structure, are real storybook stuff. Some of them, such as the exquisite wine town of Riquewihr, look as if they haven’t changed for centuries and probably haven’t. (Almost 90 percent of Riquewihr’s buildings are said to be pre-16th century.) Alsace looks the way Europe is supposed to look but usually doesn’t.

There is evidence that grapes were cultivated in Alsace as early as 58 B.C. – more than 2,000 years ago. Whether or not this justifies the claim sometimes made by the region’s propagandists that every bottle of Alsatian wine thus has 2,000 years of history and tradition attached to it, I’m not sure. But it does betoken one of the most important things about the area’s wine makers: They and their ancestors have been doing what they do for a very long time.

Wine has certainly been part of Alsatian life for almost as long as history has been recorded there. British wine authority Pamela Vandyke Price quotes an anonymous 10th-century (non-Alsatian) poet as noting that, if the Rhine didn’t carry a large part of its production to the Germans, Alsace would drown in wine. In fact, Price adds, records of the vintage of 1431 show that the harvest was so immense that vintners ran out of casks and barrels to keep it in and had to use wine to mix mortar for construction. Alsace, then, might literally be said to have been built on wine.

Alsace suffered through the Thirty Years War of the 17th century and the French Revolution of the 18th, but by the mid-19th century the region was thriving, and its wines had become internationally famous for their quality. (The wines were then, as they are now, almost exclusively white -simply because white-wine grapes do much better than red in the Alsatian climate.) But when Alsace was annexed to Germany in 1871, German authorities downgraded the local wine, forbidding production of anything but cheap Tafel-wein; after all, they had their own good wines to protect. The Alsatian wine industry plodded along, supplying the thirsty German table-wine market, and fine wine making became, for the most part, just a memory in the region.

After World War I, Alsace was returned to France. At first, this was bad news for Alsatian vintners, since the French didn’t need their table wine the way the Germans did. It turned out to be good news in the long-run, though, because local producers made a conscious decision to re-establish their earlier identity as quality wine makers-and the modern Alsatian wine industry was born.

That industry has evolved with two nice features that make it particularly easy to get a handle on. First, there aren’t very many producers’ names you have to remember. No more than 20 or 25 of them are large enough to export to the United States in any quantity (or to be sold widely even in Europe), and, for all practical purposes, only about 10 or 12 of them are commonly encountered in this country. Second, the wines use varietal names, the names of the grapes they’re made from (with a very few exceptions) – as do California premium wines. If you were drinking German wine, for instance, you might have to choose between, say, a Wachen-heimer Fuchsmantel and an Oppenheimer Krotenbrunnen; with Alsatians, the choice would be between Riesling and Sylvaner.

Two other things about Alsatian wines are even more appealing: They’re nearly always good, and sometimes extremely so; in comparison to wines of similar quality, they simply don’t cost what they should. The wines are good partly because there’s rarely a truly bad vintage in Alsace, and partly because the region’s wine makers are experienced and tend to remain faithful to time-tested methods. Also, most of the local wine firms are family-owned and seem to take their good names very seriously. (Though Alsace was the last major French wine region to be granted an Appellation Control坢e-it didn’t happen until 1962 – it has had its own very strict wine quality regulations since 1945.) Buying an unfamiliar bottle of Burgundy or unclassified Bordeaux today is a crap shoot; buying an unfamiliar bottle of Alsatian wine is pretty safe.

If the wines are so good, why are they so cheap? It undoubtedly has something to do with the fact that Alsatian producers are almost all well-established and run their companies well. But it probably has more to do with the vaguely mystifying fact that Alsatian wines just aren’t very popular outside France – and especially in the United States. Maybe that’s because people confuse them with German wines (most of the producers’ names do have a Teutonic ring to them), and about the only German wines most Americans buy these days are Liebfraumilchs and such. Or maybe it’s because people think they’re sweet – not an unreasonable assumption, considering that most German Rhine wines are sweet, to a greater or lesser degree, and that almost all the California varietals made from Riesling, Sylvaner, Gewurztraminer and the other grapes Alsace uses have at least 2 or 3 percent residual sugar in them, muddying them up. Whatever the reason, Alsatian wines are a good buy- and very few of them are sweet in the slightest. The next time you’re looking at a decent restaurant wine list, see what they have from the region. Most res-taurants carry one or two Alsatian wines. They’re usually near the back of the list, and they’re almost always among the least-expensive imported offerings.

Alsatian wines vary according to grape variety, of course, and individual producers have slightly different styles of wine making. In general, though, Alsatian wines are bone-dry, crisp and clean, rather acidic (which doesn’t mean they’ll make your mouth pucker -only that their focus is sharp), sometimes almost imperceptibly sparkling (with just a little tingle -which Alsatians call pointe de fraicheur, touch of freshness) and probably very fruity.

Here are the main kinds of Alsatian wine:

Riesling. By common agreement, the most noble grape of the region (and, for that matter, of Germany). Lots of fruit and a kind of understated complexity that can only be called elegance.

Gewurztraminer. The other top grape of the region. I personally prefer it to Riesling, but not everyone will. In fact, if someone has never tasted a wine made from this grape, I’m hesitant to recommend it. Gewurztraminer is a strange one. It’s really a type of the grape called Traminer, “gewurz” being the German word for spicy. You used to see wines from Alsace, California and elsewhere labeled simply Traminer, but these have almost disappeared. Whether all unspicy Traminer grapes have suddenly miraculously spiced up or whether producers simply found that the longer version of the grape name sold better, I don’t know – but most Gewurztraminers today, especially those from Alsace, are indeed spicy. They have the most unusual aroma and flavor of any grape you’re likely to run into – perfumy, flowery, sharp, lightly skunky, vaguely musky, vaguely metallic. It’s the damnedest thing. Gewurztraminer undeniably lacks the elegance of Riesling, but it’s also a lot more interesting. Approach this wine with caution.

Pinot Gris (also known as Tokay d’Alsace). This is usually considered the next ranking grape of Alsace, although it’s not seen very often in this country. It’s very full-bodied and is sometimes drunk as an accompaniment to red meat in Alsace. It has nothing whatever to do with other Tokays, by the way – either the Hungarian variety, the Italian Tocai or the stuff used in California to make the kind of wine people usually drink out of brown paper bags.

Muscat d’Alsace. This is another favorite of mine. The vast majority of the world’s muscats are sweet; the variety makes excellent dessert wines, in fact. This one, though, is crisply, astringently dry – the driest Alsatian of all, in overall impression if not by scientific measurement. Muscat d’Alsace has a unique aroma that suggests to me very fresh, slightly sour green grapes. It has an attractive fruity aftertaste and tends to leave your mouth tingling a bit. It’s perhaps the most refreshing Alsatian wine and is a great aperitif.

Sylvaner. This wine could be Riesling’s little brother, not dissimilar in character but not nearly as complicated. It’s probably the biggest-selling Alsatian variety, and you see a lot of it around. It’s also usually the cheapest Alsatian variety sold in the United States and is well worth trying as such – as long as you’re not expecting something great.

Pinot Blanc. This one tastes a lot like Sylvaner, and, next to Muscat d’Alsace, is perhaps the sharpest on the palate (although Pinot Gris, too, can vie for that honor). In other words, don’t expect the Chardonnay-like lushness that California Pinot Blancs sometimes offer. To me, this and Sylvaner are the least impressive of Alsatian whites.

Ros坢 d’Alsace. This middling ros坢 is made from Pinot Noir-the only respectable red wine grape planted in any quantity in Alsace. It can be pleasant enough, but it’s not as good as either Alsatian whites or ros坢s from Provence or the Rhone.

When the Pinot Noir grapes come in with more color than usual, they are sometimes made into a wine called Roluge d’ Alsace- which may be somewhat darker than the ros坢 but still hardly looks like real red wine. There also used to be a kind of ros坢 manufactured by blending red and white wines, called Vin Gris or “gray wine”; its name describes it more than adequately. I’ve seen Alsatian red wine, very rarely, in California and New York, but I’ve never seen Vin Gris in this country- and I doubt whether either has ever found its way to Texas. Other Alsatians you’re likely to encounter only in France or its neighbors are Cr坢mant d’Alsace, a sparkling wine of the region, made from a variety of grape types; Zwicker, a carafe-wine blend of minor local grape varieties; and Edelzwicker, a “noble” mixture of two or more of the important grapes of Alsace (i.e., those mentioned individually above).

Besides knowing what the wine types are, you need to know only two other things in order to buy a good bottle of Alsatian wine: names of producers and vintage years. They’re both easy, especially the first one.

To put it bluntly, in my experience there is just no such thing as a bad or substandard Alsatian producer (a claim that can hardly be made for Burgundy, Bordeaux or even California wines). The names you’re most likely to see in this country are, in no particular order, Dopff & Irion, Dopff au Moulin, Hugel, Pierre Seltz, Gaschy, Bott Fr?res, Willm, Trim-bach (the one you’ll probaby see most commonly), Leon Beyer, Kuentz-Bas, Preiss-Zimmer, Jerome Lorentz, Gustave Lorentz, Aimes Guthmann and Joseph Meyer (the last three of which I find myself liking particularly often). You won’t find all of these in Dallas, but the names are worth remembering, since you’re likely to see them in other parts of the country, and certainly in Europe. Not one of them has ever let me down.

With vintage years, the first thing you have to remember is that if you see a 1976 (and have reason to believe it’s been well taken care of), grab it, no matter what variety it is. Alsatian producers consider this to have been one of the best years of the century, and most of the ’76s I’ve tasted have been memorable – big, full, richly flavored wines. Other good years of the past – and Alsatian wines can live surprisingly long if they’re well cared for – include 1959 (although these will almost certainly be too old unless they’re truly extraordinary bottles), 1971 and 1973. Try these only if they’ve been resting in a good cellar for most of their lives, though, and even then don’t expect them to taste particularly fresh or lively – though they can sometimes have great intensity of flavor, which is wonderful in itself. Of the more recent vintages it’s hard to go wrong: 1977 wasn’t particularly good, but it was more than acceptable-and you’re not likely to see it around anymore. The ’78, ’79 and ’80 vintages were all just fine-but, if you have a choice, take them in chronological order. The ’81s will be at least as good as the ’79s, according to early projections from Alsace. I tasted a barrel sample of an ’81 Riesling in Paris in December and found it a very appealing, substantial wine with plenty of acid and good fruit.

The best bottles of Alsatian wine, incidentally, often carry a vineyard name or some other special designation in addition to the usual information. Examples of this are Trimbach’s Cuv坢e des Seigneurs de Ribeaupierre Gewurztraminer, Aime Guthmann’s Cuv坢e Reserve Kanzlerberg Gewurztraminer, and Dopff & Irion’s Les Murailles Riesling, Les Sorci?res Gewurztraminer and Les Amandiers Muscat d’Al-sace.

The lighter Alsatian wines make gooc aperitifs and go well with seafood. The bigger ones can stand up to all sorts of things-foie gras, strongly seasoned pates, choucroute (the Alsatian version of sauerkraut, which is nearly always eater with Riesling or Gewurztraminer), curries and other Indian food, goose or duck (or various game birds), pork -even cheese (Gewurztraminer and Alsatian Muenster is a traditional combination). As dessert wines, the bottles marked “Vendanges Tardives,” or late harvest, are best; these, alone among Alsatian wines, have a luscious sweetness to them. (Hugel, for instance, sometimes makes Vendanges Tardives Gewurztraminer designated “Selection de Grains Nobles,” made from individually selected grapes. Hugel has used this designation only nine times since 1865-most recently for its 1981 vintage. I haven’t tasted that one, but the 1976 edition of the wine is as wonderfully rich and complex as most German Trockenbeeren-ausleses, and costs much less -although it’s not exactly everyday fare at $40 or $45 a bottle.)

The opportunities for trying Alsatianwines are many- and, obviously, I strongly recommend that you do so. Don’t get tolike them too much, though, and startbuying them up like they were Pouilly-Fuisse or California Chardonnay. If youdo, they’re likely to start costing whatthey’re worth.


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