The Wines of Alsace — Overlooked Gems

In describing the wines of Alsace, Tom Schmeisser, one of the foremost wine retailers in the country at Marty’s Fine Wines in Newton, Mass., calls these wines some of the “most undiscovered, underappreciated, overlooked and undervalued wines from France.”
I agree completely. These outstanding wines, especially the unique white wines from this region, have long been personal favorites, and the only white wines I’ve cellared.

The winemaking history of this region in northeast France goes back centuries, with some of the older houses making wine since the 1600s. And although this area has passed back and forth many times between France and Germany over the centuries, the style of these wines is quite different from their neighbors to the East. German wines tend to be on the sweet side, retaining some residual sugar, whereas the wines of Alsace, except the late harvest versions, are for the most part fermented completely dry. Also, because of the Germanic influence, it is the only region in France to produce mostly varietal wines, typically from grapes similar to those used in Germany, primarily riesling and gewürztraminer.

From still and dry, to lusciously sweet, to crisp and bubbly, one is sure to find an ideal Alsace wine for any occasion. Long known to wine insiders for their freshness and versatility, these aromatic and terroir-driven wines make ideal partners for a dizzying array of cuisines — from Thai to Vietnamese, Chinese, Indian, French, New American and beyond.

At our November Wine SIG we sampled a wide range of varietals from Alsace, including wines made from sylvaner, pinot blanc, riesling, pinot gris (pinot grigio in Italy) and gewürztraminer grapes. As one veteran Wine SIG participant said, “I would buy any of these wines,” with the general consensus of the group calling this the best tasting we’ve ever done.

Notable dry wines we sampled included the 2009 Zind Humbrecht, Herrenweg de Turckheim, Riesling, only 800 cases produced ($39.99 at K&L Wines, SF). Rich, unctuous, crisp and incredibly well balanced were some of the comments.

High marks also went to the 2007 Charles Baur, Pfersigberg, Gewürztraminer, Grand Cru ($23.99 at K&L Wines, SF), from one of the most famous Grand Cru vineyards of Alsace. Well balanced, this elegant wine displayed rich lychee, honey and exotic fruit flavors.

Value wine of the evening was the 2008 Domaine Boyt Geyl, Pinot d’Alsace, Metiss ($15.95 at PlumpJack Wines), an organic and biodynamic wine combining four grapes from the pinot family (pinot blanc, pinot auxerrois, pinot gris and pinot noir). A wonderful aperitif wine, tasters described it as minerally, with well-balanced lemony flavors.

But the showstopper of the evening was a last harvest wine I brought back from my wine cellar in Upstate New York, a 1976 Hugel, Vendage Tardive, Selection de Grains Nobles, Gewürztraminer (purchased in 1982 for $18; now going for around $125). Deep gold in color, with highly concentrated flavors of caramel, butterscotch and coffee, this gem was drinking marvelously now but still had a core of acidity that would carry it another 10 years.

To accompany these terrific wines, Wine SIG members outdid themselves, preparing many wonderful dishes, such as a traditional choucroute garnie, kugelhopf and other tasty delights to make this a truly memorable evening.

Delicious Alsatian foods

Alsatian Cake

By Rodger Helwig