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The Alsatian Paradox

January 28, 1998|CLIVE COATES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Coates lives in London and is author of the monthly fine wine journal the Vine and the recently published "Co^te d'Or, A Celebration of the Great Wines of Burgundy" (University of California Press)

Here's a conundrum. All wine merchants love wine from the Alsace region of eastern France, which borders Germany. Its quality is consistently high; prices, relative to Chardonnays, are low. The Rieslings are versatile with traditional French cuisine. And the Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminers are the best possible match for Chinese and Pacific Rim cooking.

Cutting-edge wine drinkers, especially in California, are passionate about Alsace wines. The wnes are even on the brink of becoming fashionable. Yet Alsace wine sales are slugThe wines are unfashionable. gish. Why?

Some people are going to hate my raising this question--namely, Alsace lovers. "Why can't you just keep quiet?," they'll say. "I have been buying my Clos Sainte-Hunes and Zind-Humbrechts at prices I can afford for years. More news media attention means prices will double and availability will evaporate, just as they do whenever some boutique California winery gets singled out."

Well, I'm an Alsace lover too. I have vintages of Clos Sainte-Hune and the like going back to 1971 in the converted baby's bedroom, which is the "cellar" at Cha^teau Coates. I too consider top Alsace the best wine steal in the world.

But I also believe that the ladies and gentlemen who produce these wines deserve more for the excellent wines they make. And I believe that more Americans should be enticed to join the secret society of Alsace freaks.

A bit of background on Alsace first.

This French wine region, which has often been part of Germany (most recently between 1871 and 1918), lies on the eastern flank of the Vosges mountains looking out toward the Rhine and the Black Forest. Geologically, it is a hodgepodge. There are granite and limestone; there are schist and slate and gres (a reddish-purple hard sandstone); there are marl and volcanic soil.

All these soils produce different-tasting wines, even in a single cellar and from a single grape variety. That in itself makes for a fascinating range of choices. And some winemakers, such as Zind-Humbrecht, have capitalized on this by bottling each of their vineyards separately.

Though the Alsace wine country is at roughly the same latitude as Paris and Champagne, and well north of the Loire region, let alone Burgundy, the Vosges mountains protect it from the westerly winds and rain. Summers are hot, autumns prolonged and vintages very rarely less than good. The wines are quite reliable.

The nomenclature, though at times perverse, is easy to understand. Varietal names are prominent on labels; there are 3 1/2 noble grape varieties (I'll explain in a minute) and three lesser ones. The better wines come from 50 or so named grands crus or are called Cuvee This or Reserve Personnelle That. Sweeter wines are called Vendange Tardive (late harvest). Ultra-luscious wines, proclaimed Selection des Grains Nobles, are made from botrytis-affected fruit. That and, of course, the all-important name of the producer are all you need to know.

* The grapes. Riesling is the noblest Alsatian of them all. Flinty dry, normally with an aroma of peaches or Granny Smith apples, totally unencumbered by the flavor of oak and with the ability to last and last, this is one of the greatest white wine tastes in the world. Only Chardonnay comes anywhere near Alsatian Riesling in terms of finesse, complexity and concentration.

Gewurztraminer is spicy, fat, opulent and with a litchi-citrus peel flavor. Pinot Gris, formerly called Tokay (in error; it has nothing whatever to do with Hungary's Tokaji), has a milder spiciness and a hint of barley sugar flavor. These two wines can also last in the cellar. And finally, Muscat--my semi-noble--is grown in small proportions, vinified dry and should be drunk young. I find it often more interesting on the nose than on the palate.

Pinot Blanc, Sylvaner and Chasselas are the lesser varieties, often combined to produce a "house" Alsace: a good wine to serve by the glass in restaurants. These cost no more than $9 a bottle retail. There is a little Pinot Noir, making a wine that is usually closer to rose than red. Alsace is really white wine country.

Though all wines should be best with food, none are so versatile or so rewarding as those of Alsace. Dry Rieslings--and most are dry--will go with anything from cold shellfish to roast chicken. I recently served a 10-year-old "Cuvee Frederick Emile" from the house of F.E. Trimbach at dinner. It was superb with a first course of seared scallops on spinach. With the next dish, pasta with porcini and white truffles, the wine showed quite differently but was just as good.

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