The bottles are long and slender, typical of German wine. The labels bear names like Trimbach, Zind-Humbrecht, Hugel and Dopff. German again. And many of the wines are made from Riesling or Gewurztraminer grapes. More of the same. But here's the difference: the labels also read, "Alsace, France."
Regrettably, the wonderful white wines from this region are a well-kept secret. Many of them are not only delicious, very food-friendly and versatile, but excellent values. And the best of them have an aging potential comparable to the great white Burgundies.
Alsace is located in northeastern France. The Rhine River forms its eastern border with Germany. On the west, the Vosges mountain range separates it from the rest of France. The Ill River, a tributary of the Rhine, forms the eastern border of the wine-growing area. The entire region is about 70 miles long and 1 to 2 miles wide.
Like other border regions, Alsace has been a political football throughout its long history, passed back and forth between Germany and France, depending upon which was on top at the time. As early as A. D. 496, the Emperor Clovis claimed Alsace for the Franks. The ascendancy to the throne of the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne in 800 led to significant development of the area as a wine-growing region. It went back to the Germans in 843 when the Treaty of Verdun divided up the Holy Roman Empire and that's where it remained, torn by natural disasters and internecine struggles.
The end of the Thirty Years War (1648) saw a war-torn Alsace handed back to France. In 1639, the Hugel wine firm was established and to this day is a major Alsace wine producer. In 1870, at the end the Franco-Prussian War, it became Germany again. The Germans discouraged the planting and development of noble grape varieties and the grapevine disease called phylloxera ravaged much of what was left.
World War I ended and Alsace was French once more. The focus was again on the noble grape varieties and wine standards improved. World War II brought the Nazi occupation and mass destruction of much of the Alsace wine region as the German forces retreated at the end of the war.
Starting in 1945, the quest for quality was rekindled and continues to the present. In 1962, Alsace was designated an appellation controlee, the last of the great French vineyard areas to be awarded that recognition. This establishes a distinctive identity for the wines produced in the region and strict standards for guaranteeing this identity.
Wine labels from Alsace are very easy to understand. As in California, the wines are named for the grape varieties from which they are made. But unlike California, no blending is permitted; the wines must be made exclusively from the grape named on the label.
The major grape varieties in Alsace are Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Muscat. Most Alsace wines are very dry, yet the distinctive fruit flavors and aromatics of the grapes stand out.
Riesling, one of the great white wine grapes, has notes of pineapple, honey and orange peel with a hint of earthy, mineral-like, flinty overtones.
Gewurztraminer produces a highly distinctive, intense spicy white wine. Bright flavors of Iychee nut, ripe pineapple and rose petals dominate. It is an ideal accompaniment to highly spiced Asian cuisine and goes well with fois gras and rich, pungent cheeses.
Pinot Blanc is crisp and dry with a nose of apple and orange and crisp apple flavors. This excellent food wine is usually moderately priced.
Pinot Gris, also known as Tokay-Pinot Gris or Tokay d'Alsace, combines a spicy note of Gewurztraminer with peach and apricot flavors and a hint of smoke.
Muscat has a refreshing grape fragrance, is crisp and fruity, like biting into a fresh grape.
Better Alsace wines are fermented in ancient oak barrels, which are lined with tartrate crystals, preventing the flavors ofthe wood from overwhelming the inherent fruit characteristics. …