Alsace is our next visit to a French wine region. It is a long narrow area between the Vosges Mountains and the Rhine River that borders Germany. The region, at various times, belonged to Germany and the two countries repeatedly battled over this small strip of land. After Champagne, Alsace is France's northernmost wine region -- but, thanks to the protective mantle of the Vosges Mountains, less rain falls on the vineyards here than on vineyards elsewhere in France. The region is separated into the Haut-Rhin and Bas-Rhin, with wines from Haut-Rhine of superior quality. Alsace is the only place in France where wines can have the grape variety on the label, most likely because the area belonged to Germany in the past which allows the variety on the label.
Alsace is a rare wine region devoted almost exclusively to white wine - riesling, gewürztraminer, pinot gris, muscat and pinot blanc. The only red wine is pinot noir which looks strange flowing from the only bottle permitted - the Alsace (Germanic) flute.
The dominant variety is riesling - it's dry, flinty, steely, acidic and softens with age to a mineral taste with peaches, green plums and citrus. Alsace rieslings can age a decade or more. The German rieslings right next door are from the same grape but thoroughly different wines.
Gewürztraminer from Alsace terroir takes on a range of gripping flavors, a finesse, and a complexity not seen elsewhere. There is immense fruitiness - litchi nuts, gingerbread, vanilla, fruit-cocktail syrup, grapefruit, smoke, spice, stones, minerals and honeysuckle - but most are dry or nearly so.
Pinot gris is not like the pinot gris from Oregon or from Italy (pinot grigio). Here it is a high-impact wine, with a full body and bold, concentrated flavors of bitter almonds, peach, ginger, smoke, vanilla and earth. It can have the depth and richness like white Burgundy, where it has been suggested that it originated.
Muscat is thought to be one of the oldest varieties of grapes. Two varieties of muscat grow in Alsace: muscat blanc, a petits grains, and muscat ottonel. They are complimentary so they are often blended together. The result is a dry, dramatically aromatic wine redolent of peaches, orange peel, tangerine and musk. Alsace is one of the few places where dry muscat is produced - and it makes an evocative aperitif.
Pinot blanc is Alsace's chardonnay, easy to like, dependable and safe. They're tasty wines with baked-apple flavors and light creamy textures. Cremant d'Alsace is a sparkling wine made in the traditional Champagne method using the pinot blanc grape. Pinot blanc is the genetic cousin of pinot gris and pinot noir.
We can't leave Alsace without mentioning two sensational late harvest wines - vendage tardive and selection de grains nobles. These are rare wines that can only be made in certain favorable years and generally make up less than one percent of the entire region's production. Vendage tardive is not exactly a dessert wine and can be dry or medium-sweet but with profound concentration. They are generally drunk by themselves (try this as a finale to a big dinner). The selection de grains noble wine is always sweet but is balanced by high acid, high alcohol and huge extract so it actually finishes in a way that seems almost dry.
I hope this visit to Alsace wines will prompt you to try one.
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