Happily, France is a country where one doesn't eat food - other than a breakfast coisant - without wine. Therefore the question isn't, as it is in this country, "Shall we drink wine?" Instead one is able to come directly to the point and ask, "What wine shall we drink?"
Invariably, savants counsel one to drink the wine of the region. That's fine advice, especially in Alsace.
Critics praise the wines of Alsace, but in this country at least not enough people drink them. The United States ranks seventh among nations that import wine from Alsace. We recently fell behind Canada! There are a number of theories why: that to Americans the wines are neight French nor German and thus are not asked for by category-conscious shoppers; that the wines, unlike any others from a major French growing area are sold by grape type rather than by estate name or hallowed village or town appellation and therefore lack snob appeal.
Certainly the reason is not the wines themselves. They are dry, light in alcohol, clean to the palate and extremely well suited to the fat-rich foods Alsatians favor. The great majority are white wines from slopes that rise to the Vosges Mountains on the Rhine's west bank. They come from Riesling, Gewutztraminer, Pinot Gris, Muscat, Sylvaner, Pinot Blanc and several other grapes. They go into distinctive tall, green, fluted bottles. While several significant cooperatives have been formed in recent years, most Alsace wine still is made by individual growers with small holdings.
Jean F. Hugel, who makes the wines for the famous firm that bears his family name, told an audience here last year that the biggest jump in his exports has been to West Germany. Following current fashion, the Germans want humble wines, and maybe even Riesling, to be dry, Hugel theorized. Truly dry wines are not the German style.Also, in a world where international cooking has become popular, the gewurtztraminer is very useful because it is a flowery smelling, spicy wine that can stand up to highly seasoned foods.
No one, at least not I, would claim Alsace wines are superior to the magnificent Moselle and Rhine bottles that represent German winemaking at its best. However, most show character and integrity and the best of them age slowly and gracefully. Furthermore, they sell at prices that can only be termed reasonable. The top Rieslings or Gewurtztraminers will retail here for $3.99 and sometimes less.
We sampled local wines in Alsatian restaurants with fish, poultry, cheeses and even meat. The selection in the great restaurants such as AUberge de I'Ill in Illhaeusern and Aux Armes de France in Ammerschwihr is overwhelming. The great wine house of the regions - Dopff, Willm, Trimbach, Hugel - are represented by a succession of vintages. But even in less celebrated restaurants the wines are generally well selected and pleasing.
Intensive tastings at two wine houses, Trimbach and Hugel, revealed the full spectum available and showed how the personalities of great wine-makers fuse with their wines. Bernard Trimbach, according to his brother Hubert, is austere - a tall, thin man of few words. His wines are austere, too. They offer no easy pleasure, but reward the thoughful drinker with their exceptional finesse and the true flavor of the grapes they came from. Hugel's wines, like the man are robust and gregarious, friendly and easy to like.
At both houses we tasted wines not easily available in this country, late harvest or vendange tardive bottles that compare favorably with the auslese wines of Germany. The wines rane from light to honey in color and are possessed of a glorious natural sweetness. At Hugel we were treated as well to samplings from the 1976 harvest, a vintage so promising that not even the winter's cold can still the smiles of the winemakers this year.
The Oechsle reading (sugar content of the grape juice before fermentation) were astonishingly high: A riesling had recorded 80 degrees, a late harvest reisling had recorded 126. A tokay hit 142, while three late harvest barrels contained gewurztraminers with readings of 132, 135 and 142.
The elder Jean Hugel, the 79-year-old patriarch of the firm, said never had he tasted wines so promising. They will be worth waiting for, and the public will have to wait. It is unlikely that the Alsatians will duplicate the mistake of those Germans (who also made wines of extraordinary promise in 1976), who bottled and released some of their much-hearalded 1975 vintage too early, thus disappointing eager consumers.
Wine isn't the only beverage to try in Alsace. There is beer, light, tasty and the best in France, and alcools blancs, the colorless fruit brandies or eaux-du-vie that come from the multiple orchards and berry patches of the region. The best known are those made from cherries (kirsch) , raspberries (framboise), strawberries (fraise), pears (poire) and plums (mirabelle and quetsch).
But there are others. At the handsome Hotel du Parc in Obernai on Christmas Eve the young host, Marc Woltner, gave a sleight-of-hand demonstration sniffing and shifting about eight alcools blancs he promised we had not tasted previously. The flavors included pine, service tree and holly berries. These brandies are costly, from $15 to $20 a bottle in Washington. (Several Alsatian experts recommended quetsch, not so much in demand as some others, as the best value of them all for the money.) They smell wonderful but are strong to the taste.
Woltner taught us a trick. Instead of sipping the brandy, he chews it forcefully for several seconds before swallowing. This leads to a true explosion of flavor in the mouth.
Wine prices are high in French restaurants, at least for wines for wines of recent vintages. In Gevrey-Chambertin, site of some of the greatest red Burgundy vineyards, the local wine selected for the restaturant cost $11. Hardly another wine from the town was priced under $20. Sometimes older vintages, unobtainable in this country, will be on a wine card for prices that, relatively at least, are very reasonable.
Along with the revolution in cooking called la nouvelle cuisine has come a revolution in the dining room. Help costs more, so there is less of it. One victim of the cost-cutting appears to be the sommelier, or wine waiter. In only two of nearly a dozen and a half restaurants did we encounter a sommelier. In the others, the host or a waiter would take the wine order and present the bottle.
At Raymond Oliver's Grand Vefour in Paris, where the admirable list contains a staggering selection of Bordeaux and a true range of price, the advice of Georges Lepre is invaluable. Elsewhere, if there is no sommelier, or if the sommelier is unwilling to recommend "small" wines, the selection process becomes defensive. You try to avoid the too-young wine and be wary of the inflated price tag that probably will be placed on a famous vineyard name. Unlike most French restaurants in this country, restaurants in France keep fairly extensive cellars. Therefore you have another problem: the possibilty that the aged vintage you order will be a worn-out wine.
The path I recommend is to stick with something from the area (or if it is not a wine region, a wine produced nearby). Narrow your alternatives to two or three wines at prices you are willing to pay, then ask the waiter or the owner, who may take the orders himself if he is not the chef, for his choice.
Don't reject a top-priced regional if you are in an area less renowned than Bordeaux or Burgundy. The best restaurants in an area pride themselves on offering the best local wines. You will learn a great deal by drinking them. Yet if more than one wine is to be ordered (a fairly common occurence with a full menu), do not be embarrassed to make one of them an inexpensive bottle or to jump from one region to another.
The French appear to have recovered from the shock of California wines winning a tasting of cabernet sauvignon and pinot chartlonnay in Paris last summer. But, as usual, there are several causes being espoused or denounced with great passion. One is the nouveau Beaujolois, the first wine from the vintage.
It has become chic beyond the belief of habitues of Lyon bistros, who used to drink it only because it was cheap, readily available and, according to a school led by influential critic Robert J. Courtine, unrecognizable. While most tasters greeted the new win with pleasure and approval, Courtine has denounced it as being little more than sugared grape juice.
We learned, after what can only be termed "concerted research" in Paris and Lyon, that the wine tastes remarkably full and mature. This means that to the untutored tongue it tastes good. But should any event, I wouldn't rush out to buy a case. Taste it as a curiosity but wait for the real thing, 1978 Beaujolais, to arrive. Incidently, tasting several bottles of the poorly regarded 1975 Beaujolais convinced me some good quality wine was made in that year, particularly among the village wines. We had some excellent Morgon and a good Chiroubles. They should be purchased with caution, though.
The other grand battle, with Courtine again in the middle, is over the temperature at which wine should be served. In Burgundy even the great bottles ar chilly when served. The temperature of modern rooms is ruining wine, Courtine thunders (wearing an overcoat and muffler, no doubt). White wine at 70 degrees or higher will give off a full bouquet, the argument goes, it begins to lose its character in the glass. To them wine at 70 degrees is tepid and a tepid wine is dull and sleepy in the mouth.
They urge keeping and serving even great red wines at 65 degrees or less. If it is too chilled, it will warm up gradually in the glass. (Courtine has been known to carry a thermometer with him and pop it into a glass to win bets with unsuspecting restaurateurs who claim their wines are at proper cellar temperature, defined, I believe, as 64 degrees.)
So if you see a red wine disappearing into an ice bucket in a French restaturant, don't be alarmed for feel tempted to ride to the rescue. It's just someone following the latest dictates of wine fashion. And who knows, if you see the fellow at the table fooling with a thermometer, it may be the great Courtine himself.