German grapes and French style combine to make fine wines in Alsace

The Alsace region of France
Laris Karklis/The Washington Post
By Joseph Ward
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The vineyards of Alsace rise along the eastern slopes of the Vosges Mountains, a ribbon of green stretching more than 100 miles from north to south. The Wine Route, which begins just west of Strasbourg, meanders through picturesque villages little changed for centuries and ends at Thann, near the Swiss border. A center of gastronomy as well as wine, it is a favorite destination of Germans and Swiss but seldom on American wine lovers' itineraries. I find that puzzling, because the wine, the food and the scenery make it an ideal wine region. It is certainly in my top three, but perhaps it has an identity problem.

Alsace is a region apart. German in appearance and character but French in spirit and fact, it has captured the best of both. The wines reflect that duality. Two of the three most important grapes, Riesling and Gewurztraminer, are German, while the third, pinot gris, is little planted elsewhere in France. The grapes may be German, but the wine styles lean toward French. Most are vinified dry to partner with food. Riesling is king, and Alsace produces some of the world's greatest, while the full-flavored pinot gris are radically different from the mostly bland pinot grigio being cranked out in northern Italy.

I always look forward to a visit to the Alsace winery of Hugel, but this year's meeting was tinged with sadness. Jean Hugel, known to all as Johnny, died in June at age 84. I've never met anyone in the business more beloved than he, and tributes poured in from around the world. Johnny liked to say that wine people were just nicer than everyone else, and he spent a lifetime proving the point.

Etienne, Johnny's nephew, took me on a tour of the vineyards and cellar before we got down to the business of tasting. Hugel is in Riquewihr, which gets my vote as France's most beautiful wine town.

Hugel is an excellent first stop on your wine tour. As both domaine (vineyard owner) and negociant (purchaser of grapes), it produces a wide range of wines. Most Alsace wines are designated by grape variety, which is common practice in the United States but unusual for France. In addition to the big three, there is also sylvaner, pinot blanc, muscat and the sole red grape, pinot noir. Appellations are straightforward. There are only two for still wines: Alsace and Alsace Grand Cru. Cremant d'Alsace is used for sparkling wines produced by the Champagne method.

From the entry-level "gentil," a blend of four grapes, right through the range of single-varietal dry wines, Hugel is performing very well. Etienne describes both 2007 and 2008 as "excellent vintages, with healthy, fully mature fruit." Highlights of my tasting include Riesling 2004 Jubilee, Riesling 2001 Vendange Tardive and Gewurztraminer 2005 Selection de Grains Nobles. The top dry wines here bear the Jubilee designation, following the company's 350th anniversary in 1989. All the fruit for these wines is estate-grown and all are Grand Cru.

Grand Cru vineyards are a fairly new development in Alsace, and not without controversy. Some firms prefer traditional, proprietary names even for their top wines. "Vendange tardive" means simply "late harvest." Such wines are usually off-dry to medium sweet. Wines designated Selection de Grains Nobles, or SGN, are rarities, intensely sweet and similar to German Trockenbeerenauslese. Hugel is among the leaders in producing this rich style.

No better place

Trimbach, the most-recognized Alsace name in the United States, is in Ribeauville, a few miles north of Riquewihr. This is another great traditional house making particularly fine dry Rieslings. Time to come clean: I like pinot gris and Gewurztraminer, though I find it difficult to pair the latter with food, but I come to Alsace to drink Riesling. And there is no better place for that than Trimbach.

Like Hugel, Trimbach is both domaine and negociant, and there is another striking similarity: Jean Trimbach and Etienne Hugel are both the 12th generation in these venerable family firms. Jean's brother, Pierre, is the winemaker, but "we don't have titles," Jean says. "We do everything."

The basic Riesling 2007 is very good, if a bit firm at the moment. Bone-dry with citrus and mineral aromas and flavors, it needs more bottle age. The Riesling Reserve 2007, made entirely from Ribeauville fruit, is one of the best examples of this wine I've tasted.

Trimbach also prefers proprietary designations for its wines. The Riesling Cuvee Frederic-Emile is always made from Grand Cru fruit from the Geisberg and Osterberg vineyards. The 2004 is textbook Riesling, although probably too dry for some palates. This wine benefits from extended cellaring: The 1990 Cuvee Frederic-Emile is beautiful now. Clos Sainte Hune is Trimbach's, and arguably Alsace's, greatest Riesling. Produced in minute quantities from a 3 1/4 -acre vineyard in Hunnawihr, it is superb, long-lived and very minerally.

Trimbach has a tasting room that is open every day. My other two recommendations are much smaller domaines, and they require an appointment to visit. Domaine Weinbach is on the outskirts of Kaysersberg, the home town of Albert Schweitzer. Established by Capuchin monks in the early 17th century, it has belonged to the Faller family since the late 19th century. Colette Faller and daughters Catherine and Laurence are now in charge of my favorite Alsace winery.

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