George Saintsbury, a confirmed red wine man, once declared white wine to be not unhealthy if used as a substitute for beer. Regardless of your position on red wine versus white wine generally, this season clearly calls for the latter, and, beer notwithstanding, there may be no better antidote for Washington's late summer than the cool, crisp white wine from the French province of Alsace.
Just as most American tourists bypass Alsace, at home most Americans bypass the wines of Alsace. In 1977, the United States accounted for only 3 percent of Alsace wine exports, while West Germany, in contrast, accounted for 64 percent. Given the exceptional flavors of these wines, it's unfortunate that we do not see more of them. Alsace wines combine seemingly contradictory characteristics: They are light and fruity and, at the same time, complex and elegant.
It is helpful in understanding the taste of Alsace wines to compare them with their German and American cousins made from the same grape varieties.
The Germans (with the exception of their new "troken," or dry, wines) strive for a delicate sweetness and a fruity acidity, while the Alsatians seek strength. Alsace winemakers take the flowery-scented grapes of Germany and give them the body and authority of white Burgundy or Bordeaux, proper companions for a meal. German wine, on the other hand, has a delicacy that makes it more enjoyable before or after a meal. California wines made from these same grape varieties cover the full spectrum from strong fruitiness to light elegance, though they rarely possess a certain earthiness that is characteristic of their Alsatian counterparts.
The unusual characteristics of Alsace wines arise from the unusual climate and geography of the region. The Vosges mountains separate Alsace from the rest of France and give that province its own climate.
They shield Alsace from the rain making it the second driest region in France. This lack of moisture requires the roots of the vines to go deep for nourishment, resulting in a sturdy root structure that enables the vines to withstand the cold climate. The mountains also hold in the morning fog, slowing the maturation of the grapes. Alsace differs from the other fine wine areas in France in that it has a very rich soil. Also, 60 miles of foothills provide many favorable vineyard sites with southern or southeastern exposure, facing the sun. In this regard Alsace resembles the famous Cote d'Or in Burgundy.
Because they are harvested late and fermented in a cool climate, Alsace wines undergo an exceptionally long fermentation. Jean Hugel, of the famous firm bearing his family name tells that after the great 1976 vintage, his wines fermented for nine months. A vinification tool not widely used in other parts of France is the centrifuge. Most of the larger producers, such as Trimbach, Dopff "Au Moulin" and Hugel, centrifuge the must (grape juice) prior to fermentation to remove solids, permitting less handling of the wine later.
With the exception of Champagne, Alsace wine labels are the easiest to read in France. The only geographical term on an Alsace wine label is "Alsace." The name of the grape variety provides the only other complication -- and the most important clue to the taste of the wine.
There are seven "noble" grape varieties in Alsace, all producing white wine -- Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Muscat, Tokay, Sylvaner, Pinot Blanc and Chasselas. An Alsace wine bearing the name of one of these varieties on the label must contain 100 percent of that variety. One will occasionally find a bottle labeled "Edelzwiker," varieties.
The two most distinguished of the seven varieties, and, fortunately, the two most widely available in the United States, are the Gewurztraminer and the Riesling. The Riesling, when grown on favored sites, gives wines of unmatched elegance and depth of flavor. This grape, which also yields the great German Rhine and Mosel wines, produces a more subtle wine than that made from the Gewurztraminer.
"Gewurz" means spice in German and wines made from the Gewurztraminer grape live up to the name. Their extraordinary spicy fruitiness goes well with smoked salmon as well as with many oriental foods and currys. Of the other "noble" grapes, the easiest for the uninitiated to drink may be Pinot Blanc and Sylvaner. These grapes produce mild, pleasant wines lacking the unusual flavors of the Gewurztraminer and Riesling. Some red wines are now being made from Pinot Noir, the same grape used to make the great red Burgundies. These Alsatian Pinot Noirs resemble a very light Burgundy such as Santennay.
The 1979 harvest brought good news from Alsace. The vines produced grapes of high quality and plentiful quantity, precisely the combination needed for good wines at a reasonable price. Bernard Trimbach, of the firm bearing his name, likens 1979 to 1973, also a plentiful year of high quality.
Some excellent Gewurztraminers currently available are the 1975 Dopff, "Au Moulin," the 1975 Trimbach "Cuvee des Seignurs des Ribeaupierre," and for a rich, full Gewurtztraminer with lots of flowerness and spice, the hugel "Reserve Exceptionelle" 1975. Some excellent Rieslings include the Trimbach "Cuvee Frederick Emile" 1975, the Trimbach 1975 and 1976 and the Hugel 1975. The recent great years in Alsace were 1971 and 1976; above average were 1973, 1974, 1975 and 1979.
No discussion of Alsace is complete without mention of the excellent and flavorful fruit eau de vie's or brandies produced there. Large quantities of a fruit, such as pear, plum or raspberry, are pressed and fermented, yielding a fruit wine. This "wine" is then distilled several times yielding only the essence of the fruit. The aromatic power of a tablespoon of pear eau de vic seems equivalent to approximately three pear trees.
Perhaps the high quality fruit eau de vie comes from a company having its headquarters not in Alsace, but in Paris -- J. Danflou. Its products are occasionally seen in Washington and are well worth seeking out. If you are in Paris, a visit to their tasting room at 36 Rue du Mont-Thabor, near the Place Vendome, yields a veritable carnival for the palate.
The widest variety of high quality Alsacian eau de vie is produced by Gilbert Miclo in the heart of the Vosges at Lapoutroie, Miclo makes his eau de vie from both traditional fruits such as pear, plum, cherry and raspberry as well as from more exotic sources such as pine and holly.