Alsatian Viticulture's Dual Characteristics
Lukacs, Paul, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)
Alsace has a personality all its own. Steeped in both Germanic and Gallic traditions, this easternmost region of France is very much a world unto itself - a crossroads of cultures, customs and tastes. Much the same is true of its wines, whose distinctive character makes them the most food-friendly white wines produced anywhere in the world.
Lying in a narrow plain just to the west of the Rhine, Alsace has a bloody history. Caesar judged this land "the best of all Gaul," and people have fought over it ever since - Franks and Alemans, Holy Roman emperors, Protestant Swedes, Catholic Hapsburgs and, in our own century, armies in two world wars.
Given its troubled past, one might expect Alsace to be a bitter, or at least world-weary, place. The opposite is true. The Alsatians certainly know their history, but they also know how to enjoy life in the present. As a local phrase has it, the region is "un carefour entre le serieux et la gaiete" - "an intersection where seriousness and joy can meet."
The duality manifests itself in the Alsatian attitude toward food and wine. As the region's many Michelin stars indicate, eating and drinking is serious business here, but whether at a simple bistro or the fanciest restaurant, the goal is always pleasure. This is the home of both hearty cabbage and elegant foie gras, pungent Munster cheese and delicate white asparagus, a cuisine that marries German amplitude with French finesse.
So, too, with the golden-hued wines, which borrow from French and German viticultural traditions and yet have a style and identity of their own.
Unlike elsewhere in France, Alsace identifies its wines not by appellation but by grape variety - as pinot blanc, pinot gris, Riesling or Gewurztraminer (the four most important varieties). At the same time, unlike German wines, the vast majority of Alsatian wines are vinified dry. No matter the grape, unless an Alsatian wine is labeled "vendage tardive" or "selection des grains nobles," it will not taste sweet. As one winemaker wryly puts it, "We sit on the dry side of the Rhine."
Alsace is on the dry side because of its sun-drenched climate. The Vosges Mountains to the east provide shelter from rain-laden west winds, and the vineyards receive considerably more sunshine that others in comparable northern climes.
The Alsatian wine style, then, is distinctive because it is double. At their best, these wines emphasize both ripe fruit and minerally earth, both fruity aroma and flinty flavor, both rich, round texture and tart, balancing acidity.
This double character is important because it enables the wines to complement an amazingly wide variety of foods.
No other white wines manage as successfully to combine subtlety with ripeness and weight with sophistication. As a result, no matter what dish you want to pair with a white wine, whether fish or poultry, pork or veal, whether sauced with cream, mustard or Oriental spice, you can't go wrong if you look to Alsace.
The following recommendations represent the best of the nearly 60 Alsatian wines that I had the opportunity to taste over the past month. Obviously, certain wines match best with certain foods, but what's most important to remember is that as a general category, Alsatian wines are remarkably versatile at the table. They have a personality well worth getting to know.
Pinot blanc in Alsace produces fresh, fairly light wines that almost miraculously gain weight and character when drunk with food. Characterized by ripe apple and citrus fruit flavors as well as a stony, sometimes honeyed bouquet, they constitute the region's best values.
Leon Beyer Pinot Blanc 1995 ($11) is a first-rate example. The wine exhibits a classic interplay between ripe fruit and stony mineral elements. Stylish and elegant, it tastes about as good as pinot blanc gets.
Trimbach Pinot Blanc 1994 ($12) offers good value, too. …