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Wine & Spirits

Appreciating Alsace's many charms

Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer are the region's great grapes. Quality is high, prices reasonable and all are terrific food wines.

March 10, 2004|Russ Parsons | Times Staff Writer

Every couple of years, the wine writers of the world decide it is time for you to discover Alsace. The wines are wonderful. The prices are reasonable. What's not to like? But still you resist.

As a result, Alsatian wines are as scarce in Southern California as restaurants serving authentic choucroute.

That's bad news for Alsace, but good news for you. Because Alsatian wines are hard to sell, retailers stock only a few of the very best. And for the same reason, they can charge only relatively modest amounts.

As a result, you can choose among the top bottlings from a region that has been making great wine for more than 1,000 years, and the vast majority will cost less than $40 a bottle. Astonishingly good wines are available for less than $15.

"This is still one of the most underrated areas around," Opaline's David Rossoff says. He adds that when putting together the list for his restaurant, he wanted to feature some lesser-known white wines, expecting they would be Germans or Austrians. But after tasting the wines blind, he ended up with mostly Alsatians. "When it comes to the price-quality ratio," he says, "these wines are incredible bargains."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday March 16, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Vineyard owner -- An article on Alsatian wines in the March 10 Food section mistakenly said the Alsatian vineyard Clos Ste. Hune is owned by Zind-Humbrecht. It is owned by the Trimbach estate.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday March 20, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Vineyard owner -- An article on Alsatian wines in the March 10 Food section mistakenly said the Alsatian vineyard Clos Ste. Hune is owned by Zind-Humbrecht. It is owned by the Trimbach estate.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday March 24, 2004 Home Edition Food Part F Page 2 Features Desk 0 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Vineyard owner -- An article on Alsatian wines in the March 10 issue mistakenly said the Alsatian vineyard Clos Ste. Hune is owned by Zind-Humbrecht. It is owned by the Trimbach estate.

In a recent tasting of nearly two dozen Alsatian wines with Rossoff, Beverage Warehouse's Barry Herbst, Times acting food editor Leslie Brenner, columnist David Shaw and staff writer Corie Brown, there was hardly a bottle in which we couldn't find something to applaud.

The best place to start your tasting expedition is Riesling, probably the region's greatest grape and certainly the one with which most wine drinkers have at least a passing familiarity.

Alsatian Rieslings share a certain floral quality with their German neighbors, but there are differences as well. The Alsatians tend to be leaner, more minerally and more delicate than the German Rieslings, which have more rounded honey and fruit qualities. Think of them as more silver than gold.

Or maybe more common elements would be more accurate. A great dry Alsatian Riesling has a flinty, stony edge that can make you think of drinking from a cold stream running through a wildflower meadow.

With its tart acidity, Riesling is one of the great food wines, able to match foods from sole to steak, depending on how it is vinified. Because the wines we tasted seemed a little more delicate than the norm, they are probably best served with foods at the lighter end of the spectrum.

The next wine to investigate is probably Gewurztraminer, alternately loved and hated because of its distinctive flamboyant nose of rosewater and spice. Rossoff says these are tough sells at his restaurant. "Do customers shy away because they don't know the grape or because they know it and don't like it?" we asked. Definitely the latter, he said.

Still, the half-dozen Alsatian Gewurztraminers we tasted, ranging from entry level to top of the line, were notably restrained. In fact, in some cases they could have been mistaken for richer Rieslings, with a slightly syrupy texture and just a bit more clove on the nose.

The cliche match for Gewurztraminer is Asian food, the theory being that you match spice with spice and that the slight sweetness and fuller body stands up well to saltiness. But it would also be a great match for choucroute.

Probably the hardest grape for the tasting panel to get a grip on was Pinot Gris (frequently labeled Tokay-Pinot Gris), which in Alsace produces monster wines of great density. It seems impossible that this is the same grape that produces the light, flowery Pinot Grigio of Northern Italy.

These wines ranged from slightly off-dry to full-blown honey (including a couple that seemed to have a trace of botrytis character -- that slight burr at the back of the throat you find in great Sauternes). All of this without a hint on the label as to which style the wine might be.

Still, these were amazing wines in their distinctive way. The best had an expressive minerality and taut acidity that pulled together to make a stunning package -- once you got used to it.

Indeed, a few connoisseurs of Alsatian wine hold that Pinot Gris is the region's truly great varietal, particularly when it comes to aging. Still, for newcomers the unpredictable range of sweetness makes it difficult to approach.

Furthermore, it's hard to imagine what dishes to serve these Pinot Gris with. Probably the best matches would be foods with really emphatic flavors of their own. Strong cheeses (particularly semisoft, such as Muenster) are one obvious choice. Foie gras is another -- at last, an alternative to all that Sauternes!

All-important terroir

Our tasting focused on wines that were -- at least ostensibly -- dry. The truly sweet wines of Alsace are among the region's most prized. The labels of those would include the words vendange tardive (late harvest) or selection de grains nobles, made from individually selected bunches of botrytised grapes.

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