The Wine Cellar: the White Wines of Alsace
by Rene Corton
Some of the world's classiest white wines come from Alsace, the German-influenced northeast corner of France. Bounded by the Bosges Mountains on the west and the Rhine River on the east, Alsace's timbered houses, tall slender green bottles, and dominance of the Riesling grape are reminiscent of Germany.
But the wines are quite different and distinctive. While German Rieslings tend toward low alcohol, high acidity, and some degree of sweetness, Alsatian wines tend to be richer, less acidic, more alcoholic, and are fermented to complete dryness. In short, the Alsatian wines are good alternatives to chardonnay and are especially good with fish.
Pinot gris with salmon and Riesling with halibut or sole are two of the best wine food combinations I've found; the crisp, slightly steely dryness complements the oiliness of the fish better than the fat buttery character of Chardonnay. Alsatian wines are also excellent with spicy Asian and Indian foods, although it's unusual to find them on the wine list (listen up, restauranteurs).
Fortunately, while widely available in most wine shops and reasonably priced, Alsatian wines are not terribly popular or well-known. Unlike most French wines, Alsatian wines are labeled by grape variety. Pinot Blanc is fresh and deliciously fruity with a hint of spice. Pinot Gris (sometimes called Tokay-Pinot Gris) is richer and fuller with good acidity and a spicy complexity. Muscat is dry with a musky-flower character, while Sylvaner should be dry with sappy fruit.
Most consider Riesling the best variety with a crisp classy fruit and solid acidity. The top Rieslings are best at 5 to 10 years of age. This is quite a different wine than the slightly sweet version made immensely popular by Chateau Ste. Michelle.
Gewurztraminer often has some degree of residual sugar and less acid resulting in big, fat, spicy wines with a sweetish lychee nut taste. It is excellent combined with spicy Asian foods, but not particularly good with fish.
Several producers are usually available in the Northwest market. I like the good quality to price ratio of the Pierre wines and the excellent Rieslings and Gewurztraminers of Marcel Deiss (pronounced "dice"). Trimbach wines are the most widely available; ranging from very good generic varietals up through the Reserve Personelle level to the top-end Seigneurs de Ribeaupierre Gewurztraminer and Frederic-Emile Riesling. Trimbach's Riesling Clos Ste-Hune is considered the best Riesling in Alsace; indeed, in the world.
Finally, the wines of Zind Humbrecht, though scarce, expensive, and made from very low yields, are absolutely top-notch across the range. Some 1992s and '93s are available now, and you should place your orders for the 1994s now.