There must be a reason why the almost uniformly delicious wines of Alsace haven’t caught on.
Maybe it’s the tall, thin bottles, which resemble those of Germany and thus connote sweetness, even though the wines are often bone-dry.
Maybe it’s the acidity, which races through all Alsatian wines no matter the level of sugar.
Maybe it’s the prices, which tend to start around $15.
Or maybe it’s that they’re mostly white, and “serious” wine drinkers tend to gravitate to reds.
“I have to hand-sell Alsatian wines at the restaurant,” said Nicolas Giraud, general manager at St. Paul’s Meritage. And he’s a Frenchman at a French restaurant.
I would run out of fingers and probably toes if I were to count the number of winemongers who have told me Alsace sales were dormant.
Well, it’s high time for that to change. I have been checking out Alsatian wines for several months — my kind of research! — and feel secure in proclaiming that no other region can match Alsace’s quality and reliability in the $15 to $20 range.
Yes, as Giraud notes, “the acidity is a very strong characteristic of the wines.” And granted, even though the sharpness is almost always deftly integrated with the fruit — making the wines very food-friendly — that style is not for everyone.
So here’s the deal: Alsatian wines are only for those who like floral, spicy aromatics; pure, expressive fruit, and long, refreshing finishes. And something that goes with trout, pork (including Easter ham), salads, etc., etc.
The back story
It might be easier to think of Alsace not as French, but as its own entity. For centuries, this region has been swapped back and forth between France and Germany; as the fabulous book “Wine and War” recounts, Alsatian men were conscripted into the German army early in World War II. Today, the towns have German names, but most residents speak French.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that not only the distinctive bottles (vin du Rhin, or “Rhine wine bottle”), but also most of the vintners’ names (Weinbach, Zind-Humbrecht, Hugel) and the primary grapes (pinot blanc, pinot gris, gewürztraminer) are more German than French. Alsace is also the only French region that lists the grape rather than the place on the labels.
These wines have a precision and focus that one might associate with the nation just across the Rhine River. But they differ from German wines in surprising ways: The rieslings and gewürztraminers generally are drier but more aromatic, and some Alsatian gewürz and pinot gris is fermented in oak (verboten, unofficially, across the border).
Alsace also produces fantastic pink sparkling wines, labeled “Cremant d’Alsace Brut Rose”; look for Lucien Albrecht, Pierre Sparr, Paul Zinck or Wolfberger.
Like those bottles of bubbles, expect to pay $20 to $25 for these highly recommended wines:
Riesling from Meyer-Fonné or Paul Zinck; gewürztraminer from Lucien Albrecht, Hugel or Zind-Humbrecht; pinot gris from Hugel (“Classic”) or Meyer-Fonné. The spectacular Domaines Schlumberger “Les Princes Abbes” pinot gris checks in around $18.
Those who decide to move up a price point or three are likely to fall truly, madly and deeply for spendier wines from Albert Boxler and/or Domaine Weinbach.
But before getting that far down the road, try one of these gems in the $15 range: the Martin Schaetzel Edelzwicker blend, the pinot auxerrois from Domaine Ehrhart or pinot blancs from Wolfberger, Paul Zinck, Hugel (“Les Amours”) or Kuentz-Bas.
“We have a pinot blanc by the glass,” Giraud said, “but people don’t buy it because it’s from Alsace; they get it because it’s pinot blanc.”
He paused and sighed. “We will just have to keep on hand-selling Alsatian wines.”
A more worthwhile mission I cannot imagine.