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I recently attended a tasting of representative quality white wines from Alsace, that was held at the French Embassy in Washington. The event was organized by the French International Culinary Society (www.FICSevents.com), a Washington area membership group that plans quality events for those who value fine wines, and foods to match. The tasting also featured superb finger food offerings from noted local chefs, including Patrick Orange from La Chaumiere, Michel Richard from Citronelle, and Christopher Poteaux from Aquarelle at the Watergate. The French International Culinary Society welcomes new members, and judging from this event, to which non-members were welcome, the membership events must be excellent. They are certainly worth checking out, and I suspect, would be less crowded.
It’s been my view for some time now that the wines of Alsace offer fine quality, and remain reasonably priced compared with other French wines. My enthusiasm goes back many years, when I went on bicycle trips throughout the region. Today, this border area of France on the Rhine River, not far from both Germany and Switzerland, has long been rebuilt from the war’s devastation. It offers picturesque villages, with storks nesting in half-timbered houses. The Alsace Wine Route offers 170 kilometers of vineyards, wine caves, occasional castles, and a warm welcome for the visitor. Alsace comprises the two French departments of Haut Rhin to the south and Bas Rhin to the north (since the Rhine flows north here), and you must see its main cities, Strasbourg and Colmar.
We tasted the famous Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Blanc, Muscat d’Alsace and Tokay Pinot Gris. (The last named is actually misnamed. The grape is well known here as Pinot Grigio, from its Italian plantings. The Pinot Gris in Alsace tends to be a fuller wine, expansive and tasty. It has no relationship with the famous Tokay wines of Hungary.) The wines of Alsace are white wines, with the exception of those made from Pinot Noir, not tasted this evening. Also missing was Sylvaner, a very light and pleasant luncheon wine, and a favorite of ours since we used to enjoy it with seafood luncheons on Cape Cod. I was told that this wine remains a reliable seller in France. You might also enjoy a low priced sparkling wine, Cremant d’Alsace, particularly with a teaspoon or so of crème de cassis, which produces a fine kir royale for festive events. (At the well regarded Chez Francois Restaurant near Washington, a touch of raspberry syrup is used for their welcoming kir royale.)
The wines are sometimes blended. For example, Hugel’s Gentil has long been an inexpensive starting point to appreciate the wines of Alsace. By themselves, four varietals (Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Tokay Pinot Gris and Muscat) may attain Alsace Grand Cru status, if grown in one of the 50 vineyards of the region that are so designated. In my experience, these wines are of fine quality, better than the main varietal offerings, and worth the premium. They are not yet priced out of sight. The are no premiers crus in Alsace.
The awarding of grand vin status was said to be the new development of an old tradition in the region. In 1975, the first 25 designations of grand cru vineyards were made. The current 50 were decided in 1992. I asked about recent vintages. It was said that 2000 was a rich year, while 2001 was excellent, with more freshness. In 2002 Alsace had a “good, correct” year, while in 2003, one should “watch out!”
The 2003 vintage was a difficult one in Alsace, as it was elsewhere. Due to the extreme heat, which required unseasonably early harvesting of the grapes, production was down some 40%. Grapes for the sparkling wines were picked in early August, a record early date, while other varieties were harvested in late August. If you are inspired to taste more wines from Alsace and live in the Washington area, let me also mention that there is a Washington Chapter being organized of the Confrerie St. Etienne d’Alsace, a wine society said to have been founded in the fourteenth century. You may email [email protected] for more details.
How long can you store the wines of Alsace in your wine cellar? Generally, they are enjoyable within a few years of being bottled. A noble Riesling, however, could continue to develop 10-20 years, with freshness and added complexity. A Gewurztraminer, on the other hand, should not be kept beyond 10 years.
Jean-Baptiste Adam: Riesling Grand Cru Wineck-Schlossberg 2002 ($30), excellent, a touch on the sweet side, very good in a second tasting; Gewurztraminer 2001 ($13), rather sweet, a late harvest taste, not as spicy as Gewurztraminer is usually.
Jean Becker: Gewurztraminer Rimelsberg 2002, a nice acidity with good spice; Riesling Hagenschlauf 2002, an organic wine, very “together.” The Becker firm, like several others in Alsace, is a family enterprise that has been making wines since the early seventeenth century. The current generation adds organic horticulture to its wine expertise.
Domaine Bernhard-Reibel: Riesling Rittersberg 2002, very fine, a quality example of a noble grape variety ($25); Riesling Vieilles Vignes 2003, open and aromatic. In a difficult year, the 50 year old vines add stability, one suspects by their long roots, which seek out water in spite of the heat wave.
Domaine Paul Blanck Et Fils: Riesling “Classique” 2004 ($23), quite fruity and good, very open; Riesling “Schlossberg” Grand Cru 2001 ($40), excellent, the best wine tasted, very distinguished, fine structure and terroir; Tokay Pinot Gris “Fuerstentum” Grand Cru 2001 ($53), heavier and sweeter, round and rich, a very luxurious mouth feel, superb wine.
Cave Vinicole de Kientzheim-Kaysersberg: Pinot Blanc “The Furst” 2003 ($13), a pleasant wine, to be drunk within 2-3 years of bottling; Riesling “The Furst” 2003 ($14), full-bodied, rather good; Gewurztraminer “The Furst” 2003 ($16), nice, but not as spicy as it should be. Composition corks, and why not?
Dopff & Irion: Riesling “Les Murailles” 2001 ($22), touch of lemon, lots of character, produced at the picturesque and historic Chateau de Riquewihr; Riesling 2003, really not very good; Gewurztraminer “Les Sorcieres” 2003 ($22), very fine, the oldest vines, said to be the place where witches were dispatched!; Riesling Grand Cru 2000 Schoenenbourg ($35), very noble wine from the best vineyards.
Hugel Et Fils: Gentil “Cuvee les Amours” 2003 ($10), medium bodied, fruity; Riesling 2003 ($18), heartier and distinctive; Riesling “Jubilee Hugel” 2000 ($40), a bit sweet; Pinot Gris “Jubilee Hugel” 2000 ($40), weighty, more successful and balanced; Gewurztraminer “Vendanges Tardives” 2000 ($40), rather sweet, not a negative comment for a late harvest wine, but still, a touch surprising for this grape variety. I should add a note that in general, Hugel wines show much better. There was a problem here, in that no arrangements were made for cooling the wines until the doors opened! Therefore, one was sampling these wines, and Hugel was the first displayed, at room temperature. I believe they will show to better advantage when there is time for appropriate cooling.
Rene Mure: Riesling 2002, excellent, racy and lean; Gewurztraminer “Zinnkoepfle” Grand Cru 2001 ($29), best flavored Gewurztraminer yet, spicy and controlled. At 1,300 feet, this is the highest elevation vineyard in Alsace.
Sparr: Pinot Gris “Reserve” 2003 ($18), good substance and body, not overly sweet, shows promise.
Marc Tempe: Zellenberg Pinot Blanc 2001 ($20), a good one, nice body and balance; Zellenberg Riesling 2001 ($23), good balance, a bit too heavy; Zellenberg Gewurztraminer 2001 ($26), not bad, good body, but sweet for a Gewurztraminer.