Monday, September 29, 2008

By the Glass - Alsace Edition

Wines of the Alsace...who knew? From what I can tell, the wines of the Alsace are about as popular in the US as square dancing. Less so, actually, as there are some parts of the US where groups of people really love square dancing. Alsace wine lovers, and I'm guessing you're out there - where are you? Do you meet in secret? Do you suffer in quiet loneliness?

For whatever it's worth, I now count myself as one among your ranks. And I say this as a newborn babe. Let me be clear: I know essentially nothing about Alsace as a wine region. I won't even try to kid you - I know so desperately little. But I've been inspired by the quality of what I've tasted recently.

I'm sure that there is a river of Alsace plonk out there, as there is in Burgundy, the Loire Valley, and in every other great wine region. But what I've tasted so far has been excellent. White wines of great clarity and focus, lovely fruit, and great intensity without being weighty or sweet. I look forward to more from this region, especially as the cooler weather sets in. A cold December night, sausages, real sauerkraut, beef stew, cabbage soup, goulash, anything like that with a shimmering glass of Sylvaner? Yes, that's for me.

Here are notes on a few Alsace wines I drank recently. Please feel free to chime in with your own .02 cents on producers or specific wine that are worth trying.

2004 Audrey & Christian Binner Gewürztraminer Kaefferkopf, $20, Imported by Jenny & Francois Selections.
If you think of Gewürztraminer as syrupy and sweet, fit only for the fieriest of Thai food, let this wine be your wakeup call. Bone dry - really. There is a viscous texture to the wine, and incredibly expressive tropical fruit on the nose, but the wine is not at all sweet. It is concentrated and aromatic with lychee and flowers, and a bitter mineral streak underneath. Intensely mineral on the palate with great acidity, there are splashes of fragrance that linger in the mouth after swallowing. Really a lovely wine, one that I could imagine drinking with a variety of meals.But mostly it made me pine for something like choucroute, the traditional "garnished" sauerkraut of the region. Garnished with sausages, potatoes, fatback, and lord knows what other salted meat. This bright and acidic wine would slice very nicely though all of that salt and fat, and might help you to actually finish your plate.

2005 Dirler Pinot Blanc Cuvée Vieilles Vignes
, $27, Imported by Robert Chadderdon Selections.
Gorgeous wine, really inspiring. Such great texture and intensity. Ripe orchard fruit, apple skins, a hint of yeast and lots of mineral character on the nose. Very pure, very fresh, and takes on weight with air time. Intense and fleshy in the mouth but still very lean, completely dry, and with very strong acidity. There is great length to the finish, and a lovely peach pit bitterness. The acidity and raw materials are strong enough here that I would imagine this wine would age quite well. Now that's an interesting question - other than Riesling, do Alsace wines age well?

2004 Albert Boxler Crémant d'Alsace Extra Brut, $28, Imported by Robert Chadderdon Selections. A very shy nose at first, and it never becomes all that flamboyant. Considering the blend of highly aromatic grapes used to make this wine, that surprises me. A bit yeasty, fresh water, only the most subtle hint of flowers. This is very refreshing and pure with apple skins, bitter peach pits and hints of bread dough. Very nice wine, although probably not something I would re-buy at $28. I wonder, would this be better with just a couple of grams of dosage? The label certainly is pretty.

2005 Albert Boxler Sylvaner, $23, Imported by Robert Chadderdon Selections. My favorite of those I tasted so far, this is just amazing wine. It starts slowly, but on the nose it builds to a crescendo of bright orchard fruit and lime peel, with bitter minerals running underneath. Such a rich and deep nose, so enticing! Absolutely pure and fresh. Great acidity frames the incredibly clear flavors of ripe fruit and bitter minerals. Great balance and length, and a whole lot of character. This is probably one of the lowest still wines on the Boxler totem pole, and it is truly excellent - it shimmers with life. And now I read that Sylvaner is being systematically replaced by other grapes in Alsace. About how the wines are unpopular. Say it ain't so. I've had two Sylvaners in the past few weeks and they were both wonderful, and inexpensive.

2006 Domaine Weinbach Riesling Cuvée Théo, $37, Imported by Vineyard Brands, Inc. This also started slowly (am I drinking this way too young?), but took on some weight with time. Wet stones and lime peel on the nose, hints of apple skins. Clean and fresh in the mouth with attractive mineral and fruit, and an athletic and nervy body, a bit tense.
It is a lean and mineral style of wine, and seems like it would be a perfect accompaniment to cold poached salmon with cucumber and dill, or smoked sea trout, or something like that. We enjoyed it with sea scallops in a creamy curry reduction, roast baby turnips and braised turnip greens. Tasty, but the wine is almost too fine for that meal.


Anonymous said...

You might like some of Ostertag's wines. He, too, makes a Sylvaner. Pinot Gris ages very well. I find it difficult--no, impossible--to predict with any accuracy how dry or sweet an Alsatian wine will be and that tempers my enthusiasm for them in general.

Alex said...

I love wines from the Alsace. Here in the UK Turckheim is a readily available and well priced producer.

ARBeck said...

I too really love Alsatian wines. The only issue I have with them is that it is impossible to know ahead of time how much residual sugar is in the wines. I don't mind the balanced residual sugar (as it usually is balanced), but I wish I could always know before opening a bottle what it would be like.

Aaron said...

Great post. Alsace is one of the few great French wine regions that gets, if possible, less respect than Germany. The issue of residual sweetness is indeed a challenge, as the usually-telling clue of alcohol content doesn't necessarily apply: even wines with higher alcohol contents can harbor plenty of sweetness. It is helpful to research the styles of the major producers, and to know that Riesling tends to go quite dry, while Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer often show RS. But yeah, it's a crapshoot, albeit a delicious one.

ARBeck said...

I agree with the delicious crapshoot. It's the best kind of crapshoot to have!

Re-reading my post, I don't think I came across with just how much I love Alsatian wine. My number one favorite wine is Alsatian Gewurztraminer. I can't get enough of it. I also love their Pinot Gris (it's so different here than everywhere else) and the Riesling.

Also, if you can, hunt down some of the Pinot Noirs. I've had examples from "warmer" years (2005 and 2003) and found them to be very very good.

Marty said...

I am an Alsace fan, but for some reason it doesn't grab me the way the Mosel and Nahe do for Riesling. The wines have a distinctiveness and, for me, but I'm not as pumped about them as I feel I should be. Underappreciated, I'd say.

Mmm, good producers. You hit some of my favorites! Boxler makes an outstanding Chasselas, if you liked the Sylvaner. A bit richer and broader than one might think. For me Alsace is spotty, but a few houses reign as gems. Dirler, Boxler, for value and Deiss, Weinbach, Marc Tempe and a few others for splurge. Try the Deiss "vins de terroir" where he bottles by vineyard instead of by varietal. The Engelgarten is usually well priced (around $35) and us uber-yummy. For uber-value, the Kuentz-Bas Alsace blend (auxerrois, chasseslas, muscat, etc.) can be found for $11 and can be drank in like 4.5 seconds with a light meal.

And Deiss made a killer 2003 Pinot Noir, the vineyard name starts with a B...that's all I got. It was bacon-y and great.

Aaron said...

To my palate Deiss may be the greatest producer currently in Alsace. I also love, love, love the wines from Domaine Weinbach, although I have encountered a high recurrence of corked bottles with this producer. Also love the wines from from Jean-Christophe Bott at Bott-Geyl. Lest I be pegged an indiscriminate fan of biodynamie, I'm not a huge fan of the style at Zind-Humbrecht. When I worked as a sales rep, I was struck by how fans of big, syrupy, overextracted California Cab and Aussie Shiraz gravitated in Alsace almost solely to the wines of Zind-Humbrecht. Maybe a case of guilt by association, and Olivier Humbrecht is a truly brilliant winemaker, but his bottlings sometimes leave me cold.

Anonymous said...

Ah, Alsace. Great white wines and one of the most beautiful wine countries in the world. (We visited for a couple of days back in 9/2001.)

Checking my consumption stats on CellarTracker, I see I consume more Alsace whites than any other region. (5 times as many as Champagnes, too.)

Zind Humbrecht and Domaine Weinbach remain my two favorites, although Marcel Deiss and Dirler (esp. for their killer dry Muscat) are also faves.

Btw: Alsace wine sales are hindered by two things: Bottle shape is not a Chardonnay bottle (and is illegal to use such a bottle!), and, sweetness level is uncertain enough (in general) that some consumers shy away.

Brooklynguy said...

hey all, thanks for your comments. seems like it's the question of RS in the wine that is off putting for some. I hear that. i thought it was more predictable than you're saying. I thought that a particular producer makes a certain style of wine, and the sweetness would be part of that. for example, dirler=dry, boxler=pretty dry, deiss=some RS, etc. i guess that's too simple.

jack - i actually like the shape of the bottle. there is something elegant about it. i suppose it might be tough to store i9n a standard wine fridge.

Anonymous said...

It's like many other European wines if you're not familiar with it. You have to research a bit and know the styles and zones of the producers. Many times vintages are generally classified as good late harvest years or good dry years. So, if it's not a sunny ripe year, the alcohol content would help determine the dryness whereas in a ripe year it wouldn't. Zind-Humbrecht is an exception in most cases and hard to know unless you've read reviews. I have a personal cult following for muscat. If you haven't been there, you must go sometime.

Cliff said...

I'm with you on Alsace. Part of it is Parker's raving about ZH, which is fair enough: they do the style well; I just don't like the style. Then there's Boxler Riesling Sommerberg, which I adore, but which has always cost about $10 more than other wines I love; I should still have more than the couple I've managed to hang onto. I've been very impressed by the Binner wines I've tried. Ostertag has been hit or (mostly) miss for me. I don't like his use of wood. I'm still waiting to try a mature Trimbach.

Cliff said...

I thought that a particular producer makes a certain style of wine, and the sweetness would be part of that. for example, dirler=dry, boxler=pretty dry, deiss=some RS, etc. i guess that's too simple.

I think that's a pretty good rule of thumb, but you can still end up with surprises.

Debra Morgan said...

I am a huge fan of Alsace, especially during pullover season, these wines want turkey, squash, chili, and fall.
Global warming has been tough on Alsace, which used to be known as significantly drier than Germany.
ZH does put a dryness number on their labels, called an indich. It is a really tiny on a bottom corner of the label, so you'll need glasses and plenty of patience to find it, but roughly, this is what you can expect
Indice 1 is dry
Indice 2 is off-dry/round
Indice 3 is medium sweetness.
Indice 4 is a sweet wine.
Indice 5 is rich and sweet

I wish more Alsatian producers used this system.

ARBeck said...

Here are some producers that I've tried and liked:

Domaine Leon Boesch
Bott Freres
Barth Rene (Their Gewurz is a great value)
Klein aux Vieux Remparts

Anonymous said...

I forgot to mention an Alsatian wine I tasted in France last year. It was a vin de table called "PG" (probably for Pinot Gris) made by Gerard Schueller et Fils. I fell very deeply in love with it. I've never seen this producer's wines in the U.S., but maybe they show up in NY.

Re Ostertag: he oaks his Pinot Gris but not his other varietals as far as I know.

peter said...

We'll have to get you some of the sauerkraut, lardo and guanciale in time for your next bottle of gewürtz...

Anonymous said...

I have to second the rave reviews on Deiss, I just did a great tasting of their rieslings, and I happily rely on Ostertag's Vignoble d'E for 15 euros/$19, but I've recently come across Clos Saint Landelin near Colmar in Alsace and was very impressed - highly recommended if it's available in Brooklyn!