In other words, think Alsace.
Alsatian wines to try
Alsace is squeezed between the Rhine River to the east and the Vosges mountains 15 miles to the west, about the same as the distance from the White House to Franconia in Northern Virginia. Yet it produces an amazing array of wines, mostly white, with an impressive complexity and subtlety that almost — almost — make you wonder why you would ever need to drink red wine again.
To understand Alsace and its wines, you need to know history, geography and geology. The history is simple: France and Germany fought over the area for years. Germany won it during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, and France took it back after World War I. The political border is the Rhine, but the viticultural and perhaps cultural boundary is the Vosges. Alsace’s climate is more like Germany’s and favors Germanic wine varieties such as Riesling and Gewurztraminer. The architecture is German; Alsace resembles a Christmas village as conceived by Hollywood.
And the vintners are almost invariably Germanic: names such as Sparr, Trimbach, Zind-Humbrecht, Bott-Geyl, Weinbach, Wolfberger. Well, you get the idea. The French influence comes through strength and structure. Alsace wines traditionally are weightier, drier and more alcoholic than their Mosel cousins from Germany.
And the geology? There are 51 vineyards in the small region classified as Grand Cru, based on their geology and track record for producing stellar wines. Many vintners own or lease parcels in several vineyards and are often so attuned to the geologic differences in the vineyards that they can tell you in precise detail the soil types the grapes were grown in and how they are reflected in the flavors of the wine. Many produce a dizzying number of wines. I vividly remember one blissful afternoon in 2005 during a visit to an Alsace producer. My group tasted two dozen delicious, impeccable whites. As we thanked the winemaker and staggered toward the door, he said, “But you haven’t tasted my Rieslings!”
Luckily for us, we don’t need to decipher Alsace in such detail to appreciate its wines. Here’s a basic primer: Most of the wines are single varietal and labeled as such, which is unusual for France but convenient for the U.S. consumer.
Riesling is king. Alsace achieves a delicious expression of the grape, which is versatile with a wide variety of foods from fish to ham to cheese.
Pinot gris is the same grape as Italy’s pinot grigio, but in Alsace it takes on a completely different character, with exceptional body and rich fruit that lingers on the palate. (Oregon pinot gris strikes a delightful middle ground between these two styles.)
Pinot blanc and sylvaner tend toward the drier side and are excellent as aperitifs or partners for simpler foods. Gewurztraminer is a flowery, exotic wine that tastes of rose petals and litchis. Its fruitiness and slight sweetness make it an excellent partner to spicy foods.
About that sweetness: It causes many consumers to shy away from Alsace wines. It should not be a problem, as most wines are well balanced with fruit and acidity to give them structure. Wines labeled “vendange tardive” (late harvest) or “Selection de Grains Nobles” will be decidedly, deliriously sweet — and expensive — dessert wines.
The sparkling wines, labeled Cremant d’Alsace are a final reason to explore Alsace. They are often exceptional values and an inexpensive alternative to champagne. Such value can be quite satisfying.
Alsatian wines to try
McIntyre blogs at dmwineline.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dmwine.