An Alsatian at the Table

by Jim Clarke
September 2004

The word “Alsatian” can be either a noun – as in the dog – or an adjective; think “Alsatian wine.” This contrast may not seem worth mentioning, but this is actually a point of contention among wine geeks, some of whom argue that the phrase “Alsatian wine” is likely to be mistaken for “dog-now-commonly-called-a-German-Shepherd wine,” so one must use expressions like “the wines of Alsace” or “Alsace wine.” If I start talking about my grandfather and his beagles’ birthdays, then understand I do indeed mean that there were dogs at the dining room table (much to my grandmother’s dismay); otherwise, I’m talking about wine.

That Alsatian wines are not more popular here in the U.S. baffles me. There’s no Byzantine system of appellations to learn, just “Alsace” and “Alsace Grand Cru.” It’s the only major French appellation to allow the grape varietals to be listed on the label, which Americans appreciate, since that’s how our own wines are marketed. The varietals themselves in the region are generally well-known: for example, Riesling, Pinot Gris, Muscat, and Gewurztraminer, to name what are called the “noble” grapes of the region (in Alsace, only the noble grapes can be labelled Grand Cru.).

My guess is that people are sometimes reluctant to order an Alsatian wine because they’re not sure if it will be dry or off-dry, especially as many German wines from the same grapes are made in an off-dry style. Alsace has changed hands between Germany and France a number of times throughout history, so today the region’s wines offer German varietals with French winemaking. German winemakers typically use a touch of sweetness to balance the extreme acidity that comes from growing grapes in such a cool climate. In Alsace they prefer to chaptalize, which means adding sugar before fermentation that will be converted into alcohol, making a dry, but higher alcohol wine (it is illegal in France to chaptalize a wine and not ferment out all the sugar). German wines usually have much lower alcohol as the winemaker stops the fermentation while there’s still some sweetness left from the grapes; if you do come across an Alsatian wine with alcohol below 12% or so, it may be in an off-dry, “German” style, but the customary preference in the region is to vinify their wines dry.

Alsatian wines are also great companions in the dining room (whereas the dog is prone to begging). They are generally full enough to accompany white meats, but not so aggressive as to be unsuitable with more delicate fish dishes. This makes them especially useful in restaurants when a bottle is being shared alongside several different entrees. Gewurztraminer often gets a bad rap among wine drinkers for its rather over-the-top nose, but its gentle character in the mouth and flowery aromatics suit a number of dishes. Its classic companion is a Gruyere or Munster cheese, and with its characteristic lychee note it also does well the Asian dishes, soothing spiciness and often bringing out the brighter tones of a chutney, for example.

These are matches by contrast, but for a great match of like with like try the J.B. Adam 2001 Gewurztraminer paired with Clark Frasier and Mark Gaier’s Sautéed Maine Halibut with a Citrus Marigold Sauce and Lemon Candy the orange and cherryblossom notes of the wine blend with the marigolds in the sauce, enveloping the fish without overpowering it. Gewurztraminer is also the best match with avocado that I’ve come across. Serving the 2000 Rene Muré Vorbourg Grand Cru Gewurztraminer with Roberto del Grande’s Lobster with Avocado Salad demonstrates what I mean. This is a bigger, bolder, example of Gewurztraminer, with a mineral quality and a full body that will stand up to the lobster and avocado’s richness and top it with lychee and rose petal aromas.

Riesling is a great partner with fish, especially freshwater fish and salmon. Smoked fish is often paired with oak-aged whites like Chardonnay, but I find that minerally, spicy Alsatian Riesling or Pinot Gris complement them more equally. And when smoked fish is served in an Asian setting, as in Cliff Wharton’s House Smoked Salmon and Crisp Wonton Napoleon with Kaiware Sprouts and Chinese Mustard Honey Aioli, you won’t want that oakiness anywhere near your wine; spice will bring out a bitter, rough flavor from your glass. Riesling is a natural with spicier food; with this dish the Lucien Albrecht 2002 Riesling in particular has great slate and melon notes plus a touch of baking spices that help bring the flavors of the dish together.

Sparkling wines from Alsace are becoming better and better, and are great values. Their appellation name is “Cremant d’Alsace,” and they’re made using the same method as Champagne’s more famous – and more expensive - wines. I love sparkling wines with soup; not only does the pairing create a textural contrast in the mouth, but if you serve sparkling wine as your aperitif it flows right into the meal when soup arrives as a traditional first course. Both Lucien Albrecht and J.B. Adam produce Cremants that suit Pamela Morgan’s Squash, Apple, and Ginger Soup very well. The former emphasizes the fruitier side of the soup, while the latter has a striking cinnamon flavor that blends well with all three primary ingredients. Be careful; this combination will set a high standard for the rest of your meal.

The Alsatian white varietal that has caught on the most with winemakers on the U.S.’s West Coast – especially Oregon, which has a similar climate to Alsace – is Pinot Gris. The same grape is making the rounds among American wine drinkers right now in its light, crisp Italian manifestation as Pinot Grigio, but the Alsatian rendition is a different animal. Typically it’s fuller and spicier, and lacks the citrus fragrances common to its brothers from below the Alps. The J.B. Adam Tokay Pinot Gris Reserve 2002 is a great example; while it does have a lemon curd note, that’s just one player alongside aromas of pear, mineral, baking spices, and even mushroom. That last aroma together with the wine’s full body and creamy mouthfeel make it a great companion to David Burke’s Sautéed Veal Chops with Wild Mushroom Risotto and Watercress.

Few Alsatian whites are going to match red meat the way red wine does, but some are certainly good matches for game, especially fowl. Even a recipe with a variety of components, like Dean Fearing’s Oven Roast Pheasant and Pumpkin-Molasses Purée, served in the recipe with a sauce of apples, tequila, and ancho chiles and garnished with a crispy tortilla relish, can find a partner in Alsace. The Rene Muré 2000 Clos St. Landelin Vorbourg Pinot Gris would go very well. Firstly, it has enough body and presence to balance the pheasant itself. It won’t conflict with the heat of the chiles, and its own cinnamon and cardamom notes will bring out the savory side of the pumpkin and apples. Being able to address a number of aspects of a dish like this is an example of the versatility of Alsatian wines that makes them so good with food.

Auxerrois is a lesser-known but fairly heavily planted grape in Alsace, its main virtues being high yields, acid, and alcohol; unfortunately it is usually rather bland. Most of it goes into blends (Edelzwicker is the usual name for generic white blends from Alsace.), but occasionally a producer invests enough work into growing and vinifying the grape to create a varietal wine of some concentration and interest. Lucien Albrecht’s 2000 Cuvée “A” de Albrecht is one such wine. Old vines from three separate vineyards have been pruned back to ensure low yields and concentrated flavors of pear, minerals, and some spiciness, with a round mouthfeel and refreshing but not piercing acidity. This wine can stand in for Riesling in many cases; try it with Tom Condron’s House Smoked Trout and Jumbo Lump Crabmeat Cakes with a Cracked Mustard Sauce. The minerality and spice complement the smokiness of the trout and the light fruitiness smooths the mustard’s bite.

Alsace, as you may have noticed by now, is primarily white wine country; it’s too cool a climate for most reds. Pinot Noir is grown there, however, and producers in the area have recently been learning how to handle this difficult grape more successfully than they did in the past. So red meat with an Alsatian wine is not out of the question: Dante de Magistris has a recipe for Maple Crusted Loin of Venison that finds a friend in the Rene Muré “V” Pinot Noir 2000. The wine has a note of clove that complements the cumin and coriander in the marinade, and notes of violets and dark fruits like loganberry that blend well with the maple crust. Good acidity and smooth tannins help cleanse the palate between bites. The “V” is actually from a Grand Cru vineyard –Vorbourg - but since Pinot Noir is not one of the Alsatian “Noble” varieties it isn’t permitted to be labeled as such. Muré’s commitment to growing Pinot Noir at the site despite this marketing limitation is justified by the exciting results.

The practice of late harvesting has provided Alsatian winegrowers the opportunity to make higher alcohol wines that do retain a touch of sweetness, providing an exception to the guideline I mentioned earlier. These wines can only be made when weather permits the grapes to stay on the vine until November or even December, and must attain minimum sugar levels to legally designated “Vendange Tardive” (“late harvest”). The level of sweetness can vary from very slight to true dessert character, but all “VT” wines are big, rich, and powerful. The truly sweet dessert wines of Alsace are called SGN’s (Selection des Grains Nobles); their sugar level at harvest is even higher because the botrytis cinarea fungus (known as “Noble Rot”) attacks the grapes and shrivels them, concentrating flavor, acid, and sugar.

One food that pairs extremely well with Gewurztraminer or Pinot Gris – Vendange Tardive or SGN especially – is foie gras. Michael Cimarusti of Water Grill in Los Angeles has a recipe for Foie Gras Torchon with Asian Pear that screams for a late harvest Gewurztraminer like Lucien Albrecht’s 1996 Gewurztraminer VT. The rich, moderately sweet wine matches the foie gras’ intensity, and the wine’s aromas of lychee, peaches, and flowers heighten the Asian pear, anise, and cardamom in the dish. I often prefer a less-sweet wine with foie gras since it is usually served near the beginning of a meal, and truly sweet wine can dull the palate for dry wines that may accompany later courses.

Alsatian wines remain a great, often-overlooked deal in the U.S., all the more so since importers have been selective and have generally not brought over wine from mediocre producers. Prices range from the teens on up; Grand Crus, VTs, and SGNs are more expensive because of their rarity. Great values are available at all levels, and many of the wines profit from aging if you can hold off from pulling the cork. With the growth of popularity for over-the-top wines that shout out whatever they’re sharing the table with, it’s a relief to find great wines that are as eager-to-please as man’s best friend.

Featured Producers:

I’ve only included the wines from three Alsatian producers here - the tip of the iceberg. J.B. Adam and Rene Muré both date from the 17th Century. The former is especially noted for the great value of their lower end wines; Muré’s wines are often among the most age-worthy, and the “V” Pinot Noir mentioned earlier leads the pack of Alsatian reds. The first records in Alsace of Lucien Albrecht date back even further to the 15th Century. Their wines span a great range of styles including some refreshing, early-drinking wines as well as wines of depth and concentration. In 1997 they even created a Vin de Paille – a dessert wine made by drying the grapes to concentrate the sugars. Tellingly on their website (unfortunately only in French) they provide tasting notes for some wines dating back into the early 80s, so aging is certainly a possibility. For information on other producers and Alsatian wines in general, visit the Site Officiel de Conseil Interprofessionel des Vins d’Alsace (includes pages in English).