The next time you find yourself in a restaurant ordering wine from a list of unappealing names, turn to the Alsatian wines. There you stand the best chance, ordering blind, of finding a well made, flavorful white that will not be an embarrassment and a financial disaster. Alsace is one of the best kept secrets in the global vineyard. Tiny (the growing area is only 70 miles long), scenic and carefully maintained, Alsace uniformly produces wines of distinction, puts labels on them that you can understand, does not charge too much, yet remains an underappreciated commodity in the average consumer's mind.
Alsace, in the northeast corner of France, is a bit of a historical hash. Claimed for centuries by different rulers, devastated during two world wars, theoretically part of Germany but assigned to France, it has replanted its vineyards many times and goes on making white wines that draw on the best traditions of both countries. Wine drinkers who appreciate the extreme fruitiness of riesling and gewurztraminer yet value depth and an absolutely dry finish will love them.
Do not make the mistake of lumping Alsation wines with those of Germany, which they merely resemble. Alsation whites are known for their fragrance and ripeness, but they do not have sweetened grape juice added to them before bottling, as do most inexpensive German wines. Chaptalization -- the adding of dry sugar to boost alcoholic content -- is allowed, but the sugar is totally fermented, thereby eliminating the sweet tast and allowing the flavor of the grape to come forth.
Alsatian wines, with a few exceptions, should be drunk with food. However, pinot blanc serves as a good aperitif or accompaniment for light hors d'oeuvres. The pinot blanc is a little-known grape in America, less expensive than chardonnay and less demanding, but the wine has great appeal. The '81 pinot blanc produced by Trimbach is clean, pleasingly fruity and typically dry. Weinbach also produces good pinot blanc.
Alsatian riesling and gewurztraminer, because of their distinct flavor and depth, are best when accompanied by full-bodied fare. They are perfect matches for autumnal pork dishes and full-bodied cheeses. The bigger gewurztraminers go well with Stilton and other blue cheeses and with Muenster. Gerwurztraminer's spicy aroma and long, vibrantly fruity tast is an excellent foil for foie gras or a smooth, characterful pate.
Trimbach and Hugel -- the larges suppliers of Alsatian wines here -- both make excellent gewurztraimners for about $7. Trimbach's more prestigious entry is the Cuvee des Seigneurs de Ribeaupierre; the '79 is about $12. (The more concentrated versions require a few years to age.)
Alsatian riesling can be matched with some game, such as quail and pheasant, and with fish not too delicate or bland for the intensity of the fruit. Gustave Lorentz's '79 Cuvee reserve Altenberg, a pale straw color with great fruit and acidity, costs about $10. Even those wines, known as vendange tardive, made from late-picked grapes and destined for the honeyed dessert wines, have more depth because of higher alcohol levels as well as a clean, crisp finish. These late-harvest gewurztraminers and rieslings go very well with fruit tarts or with fruit poached in the same wine -- an extravagance you're unlikely to forget.
And if you're still curious, try the vendange tardive tokay d'Alsace (pinot gris), a sweet wine that with age acquires breadth and unique concentration of flavor.