Twisted Vine

Our Blog

Alsatian Whites: A Plea for Consumption

September 30th, 2015

Hugel "Classic" Pinot Gris. A delicious yet affordable (and distinct) Pinot Gris from Alsace

Hugel “Classic” Pinot Gris. A delicious yet affordable (and distinct) Pinot Gris from Alsace

A couple of weeks ago we put on a wine class that focused on the white wines of Alsace. Many class attendees had only limited experiences drinking Alsatian white wines, with some of them being nearly completely unfamiliar. Overall, the wines from the class were very well received, which led me to think about how “seasonally appropriate” these wines really are.

Alsace is considered a “wine geek” category these days, and for good reason. The critic and journalist James Suckling recently published an article on his personal site detailing profiles of what he believes to be the 100 best Alsatian wines currently on the market. Many of the bottles featured on Suckling’s list are relatively unavailable to many consumers, due to such factors as price or unavailability to our local markets. However, just because we won’t be able to taste some of the more noteworthy bottles on Suckling’s list does not necessarily mean that we cannot gain a decent amount of exposure (or expertise) on what makes Alsatian wines both unique and enjoyable.

Alsace is a region located in NorthEastern France that straddles the German border. The region has a lengthy history of switching back and forth between French and German control. Visitors certainly notice a decent amount of Germanic influence despite its current identification as “property” of France. The Vosges Mountains to the immediate west of the long slivered wine producing areas are the most impactful geological determinant of Alsatian wines, causing what many wine writers refer to as a “rain shadow” effect. Because of protection from the Vosges, Alsatian vineyards are routinely exposed to elevated temperatures and prolonged sunlight that are uncharacteristic of many French wine regions. These qualities have profound impact on the resultant wines.

Alsatian wines are characteristically white (with the noteworthy exception of Pinot Noir) and are notoriously dry. “Notorious” may seem an odd descriptor until one considers the almost off-putting nature of the dryness of these wines to unaware of unsuspecting consumers. Make no mistake, these wines are dry and generally extremely full-bodied. As references previously, this quality makes wines from Alsace quite different from other wines made in other parts of the world from similar or identical grape varieties.

A host of popular white grape varieties are used to make these distinct wines. Four grape varieties (Riesling, Muscat, Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer) are known as “noble” grape varieties. These are the varieties that are informally considered to be some of the most historic in the region, and also those which take up most planting space in Alsace’s grand cru vineyards. Other grapes work to produce some other delicious wines in the region, including Pinot Blanc (used often as the base for a traditional-method sparkling wine called Crémant d’Alsace) and Sylvaner. Unlike most other French wines regions that are subject to AOP regulations, Alsatian wines tend to feature the grape variety expressed prominently on a bottle’s front label. This quality alone should help vintners connect with New World consumers more than their counterparts in other EU wine regions.

Alsatian wines also have a “time sensitive” quality this time of year based on how well they seem to be suited to many of the cuisines we indulge in during the final months of each year. As a general rule, I recommend lighter red wines or “weightier” whites to serve alongside some of the heavier or more rich fare we tend to consume around Thanksgiving or Christmas holidays (should you choose to celebrate these particular holidays). Any Thanksgiving table filled with turkey, stuffing, Alsatian white wines and softer reds (e.g. Cruz Beaujolais or a more elegant Pinot Noir) is bound to be one where I’ll attempt to reserve a seat.

Don’t forget about Alsatian white wines when you’re embarking for your holiday booze shopping this year. These bottles are extraordinarily “food friendly,” especially when consuming dishes that are slightly to moderately more rich and heavy than those to which you are ordinarily accustomed. Drink up, folks!

-Brent Bracamontes