To face the intimidating, gothic words on the label, you might believe wines from Alsace hail from Germany. Of course, you probably don't think about Alsacian wines at all since, outside the wine nerd sanctum, they're about as popular as Brussels sprouts.
Recently, while checking out the Alsace section in a local wine shop, a geeked-out sales guy excitedly descended upon me with a spiel about how Alsacian wines are soooo under-appreciated. My initially negative notion was, "Um, yea, the bottles are dust-caked so you're trying to move them, right?" But his earnestness moved me — he's right. Americans know next-to-nothing about this French region, and it's a damn shame. Why? Probably because most people flee German wines, fearing a sweet, syrupy experience (an unfortunate, enduring myth), and Alsacians have all the German wine trappings — same grapes on the label and those stereotyped tall, slender bottles. But if you ask any French winemaker in Alsace, that's all they share with their adversary to the east. Alsacian wines, despite their German names, taste bone dry and austere.
Since the Dark Ages, the fight for the fertile dirt in northeast France has been like our brutal 2008 election — never-ending. Ownership has passed numerous times from German to French hands, causing a bit of an image crisis. But over the years, the indomitable French esprit made this Germanic region increasingly Francophile, including France's food-friendly wine style. The grapes grown there might sound guttural — riesling, sylvaner and gewurztraminer — but their soul is frankly French.
Of all the French wine regions, Alsace takes less brainpower to master. Unlike wines from the Rhône Valley, as well as Burgundy and Bordeaux, you don't have to memorize (or guess) which grapes went into the bottle — they're conveniently listed on the label, easing your shopping pleasure. Due to the Alsace climate, most of the wine is white — fragrant, fresh and invigorating, ideal for summertime quaffing. The pinot noir rosés and reds — if you can find them — are light, earthy and much better with food than alone. Alsacian gewurztraminer [geh-VERTS-trah-mee-ner] can be spicy and perfumey but only faintly sweet; the rieslings, crisp, minerally and citrus-y; and aromatic pinot gris [GREE] and blanc taste soft and lush, with pear and exotic fruit. Pair Alsacians with Asian cuisine, semi-soft cheeses like Muenster (invented in Alsace), roast chicken and sushi, and listen to them sing the Marseillaise with abandon.
Fun Alsace facts:
• Most vineyards remain family-owned.
• Vintners are legally required to use the characteristic "flûte d'Alsace" bottle.
• Most wines are produced using the co-op system — small farmers sell their grapes and/or wine to a common "négociant," who then bottles and markets it.
• Producers listing "domaine" on the label can only use grapes grown on their property.
• An "Edelzwicker" or "Gentil" label indicates a blend of white grapes.
Zind Humbrecht 2005 Gewurztraminer Wintzenheim An aroma you'd want to rub all over to find your Zen. Rose oil, lavender and tangerine rind. Flavor follows with roses, toasted almonds, clove and honey cut with cream. Luscious and rich, but it smells sweeter than it tastes. Sw = 2. $30. 4.5 stars
Pierre Sparr 2005 Pinot Blanc Reserve This humble wine speaks volumes in taste — pear, tangerine and Welch's white grape juice. Soft, approachable and finishes with a clean citrus sensation. Sw = 1. $20. 4 stars
Hugel et Fils 2005 Riesling Crisp and fragrant with chamomile and other green herbs mixed with lime and lemon curd. Has a tart yet slightly sweet finish. Great with sushi. Sw = 1. $20. 3 stars
Other reliable producers to look for: Domaines Schlumberger, Marc Kreydenweiss, Weinbach and Josmeyer.
Sweetness (Sw) rating is out of 10, 10 being pure sugar. 1 (star) rating is out of 5, 5 being wine nirvana.