Alsace is considered a gem, a secret of the world of wine. It is a region known primarily for rich, dry white wines in varietals with which most of us are familiar.
Located in northeastern France on the Germain border, it has been under German control several times. Because of the region’s diversity and history, Alsace is full of colorful architecture, medieval villages, cobble streets and varied languages and dialects. Its unique viticulture results from the region being sheltered from the west by the Vosges Mountains and the Rhine River to the east.
The wines of Alsace are assumed to be sweet because of the tall German-style bottle in which they’re typically found. However, for the most part, the wines of Alsace are overwhelmingly dry, not sweet. Then again, there are still off-dry wines and vendange tardive (late harvest) dessert wines from the region that should also be explored.
There are over a dozen varietals grown within Alsace. But because of Appellation d’Origine Controlée/Protégée regulations, the greatest vineyards – designated “Grand Cru” – cannot allow grapes other than Muscat, Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer. For growers and consumers, this can be frustrating, as the best vineyard sites are consequently not planted with other varietals.
Muscat is often assumed to be sweet, but this isn’t entirely true – especially if it’s Alsatian. This relatively rare and aromatic wine offers notes of orange blossoms and peaches. Dry muscat can be outstanding, fun and an excellent food wine if paired appropriately. Uniquely though, this varietal tends to produce better wine in somewhat off-vintages. The grape’s ability to shine with a natural higher acidity, due to cooler vintages, is more advantageous than a warmer growing season.
The infamous riesling can be largely confusing for some. We tend to associate all rieslings with being sweet. Your typical Alsatian riesling, though, is not sweet and is regarded as one of the longest-lived white wines in the world. Typical descriptors include peach, red apple, clove, honey, rose, diesel, lemon and curry. Riesling has a captivating bouquet that often goes unnoticed. Dry riesling makes a versatile pairing wine.
Pinot Gris is often left with a touch of residual sugar, so little so that it sometimes goes unnoticed with the wine’s high natural acidity. This varietal is the most consistent from year to year in terms of quality. No other pinot gris can compare to the opulent richness and flavor of Alsace. Aromatics include peach, spice and minerals.
Gewürztraminer is obviously indigenous to both Germany and Alsace. Similar to riesling, these dry versions can confuse the palate by differing from their stereotypes. The variety stems for the German word “spice” or gewurz. This varietal produces the richest and fattest of all Alsatian wines. When young, the wine displays fresh floral notes. Over time, the wine begins to honey and take on a gingerbread character.
While you can find varietals from Alsace at a sensible price under $25, the Grand Cru wines fetch considerably higher prices, beginning in the $50 range.
Alan Cuenca is an accredited oenophile and owner of Put a Cork in It, a Durango wine store. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.