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Wines of Alsace

Alsace never fails to impress. For me, this is the best white wine producing region in the world for Riesling, Gewurz and Pinot Gris.

ALSACE RIESLING

The Rieslings are very different from German Rieslings in that they are always higher in alcohol, fuller in body (medium to med+ bodied usually), and sometimes bone dry. The acidity is more marked, and sometimes can be bracing, but in the best wines it is a vibrant thread giving life, energy and longevity to the wine.

Weinbach is a favorite, Trimbach’s top wines are exceptional but there are so many others and you don’t have to spend a bomb to get a lovely wine. They are great by themselves or with spicy samosas or spring rolls to get the party started.

ALSACE GEWURZTRAMINER


If only Gewurz had a different name I’m sure it would be much more successful as a grape. Don’t even ask people in the wine industry to spell it. It gets butchered.

Pfaffenheim is a producer that consistently shows well in my tastings. I love the Grand Cru for about $30. I went to visit them a few years ago. It’s a co-operative, with hundreds of members, because there are so many small growers in Alsace with less than a hectare of vines. People often look down on co-ops but this one is top notch, producing excellent quality and lots of it. They generously gave me a Vendange Tardive Gewurz to take home – absolutely stunning and a shame we don’t get more VT here.

The response from Liquor Boards is typically that it doesn’t sell well enough. But that is flawed. If it’s not available in the first place then it can’t sell and a complete portfolio offer should be the goal in a Monopoly system. In fact, the selection at the LDB in several categories is lackluster so check out the private stores as an alternative.

Good Value White Wines for Spring

There are dozens of white wines under $20 that offer excellent quality for the price. I love Sauvignon Blanc for just sipping by itself on the deck and Chile and New Zealand offer plenty of great value wines. Look for Marlborough on the label of Kiwi wines and the Casablanca valley on Chilean wines. These are the most respected regions.

The best value Rieslings come from Germany, Alsace, and Australia. Often German Rieslings can have a touch of sweetness, even at QbA level, and pair well with spicy food. Rieslings from Alsace are much drier, with crisper acidity and citrus flavors. Australians love their Rieslings too, but these can be extremely dry and only for those who like crisp, steely, austere wines.
Pinot Grigio from Italy will usually run you less than $20 a bottle and these are easy drinking wines. They mainly come from the cooler reaches of northern Italy, in Trentino Alto Adidge and Friuli. They are dry, light to medium in body and always marked by crisp refreshing acidity. Try them with scallops and crab cakes, or simply on their own. Pinot Gris is also the most planted white variety in B.C., so there’s no shortage of options from our own backyard and many of them are impressive quality for the price.

Gewurztraminer is under-rated and, as such, many of them are under-priced. It’s partly to do with the tricky pronunciation of the grape. But don’t let that put you off because these can be sublime, especially from Alsace and B.C. They can be very floral and tropical, smelling of roses and exotic fruits, and usually full bodied and heady.

When it comes to Chardonnay, look to Chile and Australia for real bargains. These are consistently well-made and economies of scale allow for attractive pricing. California is another option, as well as some entry level white Burgundies and wines from the south of France. If they are oaky then try them with richer foods, such as roast chicken.

The list could go on, given the multitude of other varietals lining our shelves, but we’ll leave the rest for another time. Oh, don’t forget Spanish sparkling wine, known as Cava. Now that’s a deal.

Riesling – a model of purity

Riesling produces some of the most spectacular white wines in the world. If you want to see a wine lover get really excited then open up an old vintage Grand Cru Riesling from Alsace or a fine Mosel from Germany. In my opinion, drinking a top quality Riesling is one of the greatest experiences in wine. It’s heavenly.

Outstanding quality Riesling is a model of purity. The taste reflects the nature of vineyard where the grapes were grown. The fact that they are never aged in new oak enables the character of the grapes to shine and often in a fine Mosel you can taste some of the minerally nuances that come from the blue slate soils.

Very few other grapes show the complexity that you can find in Riesling and the depth and layers can be astonishing as they unfold in your mouth. I’ve constantly got my nose hovering over the glass because there are so many lovely nuances to enjoy with each sniff.

Riesling also produces wines with incredible longevity, more than almost every other grape. In some of the cellars in Germany you’ll find stocks of wines going back over 100 years.

It’s with age that the wines really start to shine because it takes time for the complex nuances to evolve. With a few decades of maturity you can find a combination of elegance and power, delicacy and intensity, and a vast spectrum of flavors and nuances. And to cap it all off, Riesling refreshes the parts that other wines don’t reach.

So, where are the classic regions and what should you buy? If you like dry white wines then Alsace is the classic area for outstanding Riesling. It’s situated in north eastern France, just across the Rhine River from Germany. I love it here because there are so many small family owned wineries that have been making stunning wines for hundreds of years. In fact, it’s my favorite region in the world for white wines, which include the fabulous Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminers.

The towns and villages can resemble something out of Hansel and Gretel. Think thatched roofs, cobble stone streets, small cozy restaurants, and everyone seems to know each other so there’s much kissing and a constant exchange of “bonjour” as the locals go about their business.

Alsace produces wines that are much fuller in body and higher in alcohol compared to the Mosel in Germany. This is largely thanks to the dry and sunny climate that is the result of the rain shadow effect of the Vosges Mountains, which are high enough to ski on. So most of the Rieslings are in the 12-14% alcohol range, are typically medium in body, dry, and have crisp acidity. The aromas and flavors can include a beautiful citrus and green apple note, with a hint of ripe peach, and a touch of the classic petrol aroma that develops with age. The top wines inevitably have a streak of minerality that’s to die for, and the length that can last for hours.

My favorite producers are Domaine Weinbach, Trimbach, Zind Humbrecht and Ostertag. But there are so many other excellent producers like the reasonably priced wines from the co-op Pfaffenheim. One of the tricks to buying good Riesling is to buy Grand Cru, which can retail for around $30 per bottle all the way up to $100+. And if you’re keen on specific recommendations then you can’t do much better than the Trimbach Cuvee Frederic Emile, the Weinbach Grand Cru Schlossberg, and if you are looking for rich, fat and powerful wines then Olivier Zind Humbrecht is your man.

Alsace also produces a late harvest style of Riesling called Vendange Tardive and, in exceptional years, a sweet botrytis effected wine called SGN, standing for Selection de Grains Nobles. One of the greatest bottles I ever had was from Domaine Ostertag, whose sweet wine showed sublime flavors of honey, pineapple and apricot with just the perfect amount of acidity to counter-balance the sweetness. That’s the art of achieving balance in sweet wines.

Another classic Riesling producer is, of course, Germany, albeit in a totally different style. Most of the wines are sweeter, to one degree or another, and have less body, lower alcohol and more delicacy. They can age for decades, and once upon a time they were the most expensive white wines in the world.

My favorite region is the Mosel where the wines can be as low as 7.5% in alcohol, which means you get to enjoy more of them whilst still remaining coherent. What never ceases to amaze me is the steepness of the slopes in the Mosel, which are not far off being precipitous cliffs. The angle and aspect of the slopes is all important because you are so far north that ripening grapes can be a challenge. Exposure to the sun is critical here.

Buying wine from Germany can be a challenge because the labels have so much complex terminology on them. The key words that I always look for relate to the level of sweetness you will likely find in the wine, and that is determined by the so called Pradikat level. You see, German wines are classified according to the amount of sugar in the grape at harvest time.

If a producer picks some grapes earlier in the season, at lower sugar levels, the wine could be classed as a Kabinett, which is typically the driest of the Pradikat levels. If you leave the grapes on the vine for longer and pick later, when there is more sugar, the wine could be classified as a Spatlese which are usually a touch sweeter. Then comes Auslese which is generally a pretty sweet wine.

But there is a trend in Germany to produce drier wines and so you need to watch out for the word “trocken” on the label, which means dry. You see it is feasible to find some Auslese trocken wines, which means that the winemaker has picked the grapes at Auslese sweetness but then fermented it into a dry style. German wine labeling can be so complicated that you’ll need a glass or two just to recover from the brain strain.

And yes, there are other categories too, including an even sweeter Beerenauslese and then Trockenbeerenauslese, which are botrytis effected sweet wines. Icewine is also made in vintages when it gets colder than -8 degrees Celsius.

My favorite wineries are Dr. Loosen, Fritz Haag, JJ Prum, Dr Thanisch, Selbach Oster and Egon Muller. For a life altering experience try to get your hands on a Spatlese or Auslese with a few decades of age and feel the acidity dance across your tongue as the ripe stone fruit and honey flavors seduce you.

You can’t talk about Germany without mentioning the Rheingau, which is the other classic region for Riesling, and lies just outside Frankfurt. The Rheingau is home to some of the oldest and most famous wine growing estates in the world. Because it is a little warmer here the wines tend to have a touch more body and alcohol compared to the Mosel. One of my favorite places to visit is Schloss Johannisberg. They have a lovely restaurant where you can sit on the terrace and feast on asparagus, a specialty in Germany, and drink copious amounts of divine low alcohol Riesling.

Australia is another major player on the Riesling scene. The Clare and Eden valleys are the classic areas for high quality Rieslings. They are certainly in a very different style to the German wines in that they are very dry and often so sharply acidic that they can taste austere. But they can be excellent quality, with flavors of lime juice, a petrolly character, and a piercing acidity that certainly refreshes under the hot sun. Grosset, Yalumba, and Heggies all produce good wines.

Speaking of Canada, we do make some fantastic Riesling, especially in Ontario. Although it’s the preferred grape for icewine production, there are many versions in a dry to off dry style. I have always admired Cave Spring winery because they have this beautiful delicacy in their wines, and are often leaning closer to a Germanic style.

Closer to home, I’m a huge fan of Tantalus winery out in the Okanagan. The vineyard is on the outskirts of Kelowna and was planted back in 1978. The only problem is that it seems to evaporate in the glass. I love the almost dry style, the racy acidity, and the combination of lime juice and stone fruit flavors. The label design is perfect for British Columbia, with depictions of the masks worn by the original native settlers.

So when it comes to Riesling I would buy the dry wines from Alsace and the sweeter wines from Germany. I would definitely try to find some older vintages and be on the look out for Grand Cru designations on the labels. As an alternative, I might venture off to Australia or stay closer to home in Canada, just for a change of scene.

In terms of food and wine pairing the dry or off-dry wines can be delicious all by themselves, but usually pair well with seafood like scallops, prawns, crab cakes and white fish. When you find wines with a touch more sweetness then start thinking about spicy dishes such as many Asian foods, especially Thai dishes, because you need intensely flavored wines to stand up to the strong flavors of the food. All this is making me very hungry and thirsty. Where’s a bottle of old Riesling and a plate of fresh seafood when you need it?

SUGGESTED FOOD AND WINE PAIRING

Dry Riesling – Tantalus Old Vines, Okanagan
Paired with prawns, scallops, goat cheese

Off-dry Riesling – Selbach Oster Kabinett
Paired with sushi, German sausages

Medium sweet – Dr Loosen Spatlese
Paired with spicy Thai chicken curry

Sweet – Fritz Haag Auslese
Paired with a fresh fruit plate

Dry Riesling – Domaine Weinbach, Alsace
Paired with Munster cheese

What to buy for $15?

The good news is that you can buy quite a few good quality wines for that amount. The fact is that most people don’t spend much more than $15 on a bottle of wine.

In sparkling wine I would buy Spanish Cava. Wines like Segura Viudas are exceptional value given that they are made in the same method as Champagne. Don’t expect anything widely complex, but instead the wine will be dry, medium to light bodied, crisp and refreshing and showing lots of green fruit.

In Sauvignon Blanc I would buy from Chile, which just inches out New Zealand which tends to be a few dollars more. In Chile look out for wine labeled as coming from the Casablanca valley. They are aromatic, pure and focus, with Sauvignon’s classic herbaceous qualities. Santa Rita can make good wines.

There are some pretty good Pinot Grigios from Italy in this price range, Chardonnays from Australia, and for a few dollars more you can buy delicious Rieslings and Gewurztraminers from Alsace. But if you really want me to name a single country that makes excellent value white wines from a multitude of different grapes it has to be Chile.

For red wines, Malbec from Argentina is excellent value. They’re deep, dark, full bodied and brimming with juicy black fruits. These are the best value red wines on the market today.

In Europe, southern Italy and southern France can offer some excellent deals on their red wines. Look for areas that are not well known. Producers here have a harder time selling their wines and that works in your favor. Portuguese reds are incredible value too and Spanish reds from La Mancha ranks amongst the best values.

Again, I would take a serious look at Chile for Merlot and inexpensive Pinot Noir. And Australia has some unbelievable prices on Shiraz. So in fact there is quite a lot of choice.

For sweet wines you typically pay more than $15 but the best values are Canadian late harvest Rieslings, sweet Chenin from the Loire valley, and you can even buy Sauternes for $20.

To cap it all off, Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) Port is a fantastic deal with some around  $20-$25. Plus the bottle can stay open for about one week.

You usually get an increase in quality as prices go up. But there are plenty of nice wines around $15 too.

In Awe of Alsace

Alsace, France

Arriving in Alsace by way of Champagne is the way to go. The route heading east takes you over the infamous Vosges Mountain range to a lush valley, more Germanic than French, where Riesling reins supreme. The Alsatian valley is a long and narrow one, dotted with historical villages, each with a steeple peaking through the red-tiled roofs and brightly coloured buildings of yellow, turquoise and red all decorated with bogenvelia spilling from every window sill. It’s not hard to imagine Hansel and Gretel skipping around the corner hand-in-hand.

Alsace is renowned for its production of single noble grape varieties vinified to preserve the freshness and purity of the fruit and the minerality of the soils, packaged in elegant flûted bottles. Typically dry to off-dry, there are also two other classifications of Alsatian wines depending upon the ripeness of the grape: the sweeter styles of Vendange Tardive (Late Harvest) and the botrytis-affected Selection de Grains Nobles. The top examples of Alsatian wines have the ability to age for decades. Organic and biodynamic vinification and minimal intervention winemaking is the status quo for this region.
On our inaugural visit to Alsace, Tracey and I were honoured to have been welcomed into four prestigious domaines.

Alsace by iPhoneClos St Landelin, René Muré
This is clearly a family-driven winery as we were welcomed into the tasting room by René Muré himself, the 11th generation of the business, our purchases of the day were delivered to our car by his son Thomas, and our subsequent correspondences have been with his daughter Véronique. The nurturing and care given by the family to the vines, which surround the domaine, is evident in the glass. Common among many Alsatian winemakers, René Muré produces the full range of varietals and styles of the region.

Alsace, France - Domaine OstertagDomaine André Ostertag
The front gates of the modest Ostertag Domaine open to a tranquil backyard lined with well-tended, biodynamically farmed vines. André classifies his wines into 3 categories, according to the expression of the unique terroirs: ‘Vins de Fruit’ wines emphasize the purity of the fruit, ‘Vins de Pierre’ expresses the soils and ‘Vin de Temps’ includes the wines that have the greatest longevity. The captivating labelling is another personal touch to the wines, as each bottle is adorned with the original artwork of André’s wife. André’s gentle nature revealed itself during a stroll trough his pet project: a small plot of vines that he planted in a yin yang formation above his cellar. It must be said that all 3 styles embody the passion, intensity and austerity of the winemaker himself.

Alsace, France - Domaine WeinbachDomaine Weinbach
Colette Faller et ses filles

The wines produced by this family are of outstanding quality as each exhibits the power, character and elegance of the women behind the Domaine. The winery and family home are one, located in the middle of the walled Grand Cru Clos des Capucins. This experience blew our mind. From being greeted at the door by the family monarch, Colette Faller, to tasting 19 unique wines with the stunning and sophisticated Catherine, at the dining room table while Mother prepared the morning breakfast in the adjacent kitchen. Where else in the world would you taste top flight Rieslings to the crackle of bacon and eggs? We reluctantly parted ways, knowing that we will soon meet again, as Catherine hand packaged our order including a few gifts from the house. The experience was exquisite.

Alsace, France - Anne Trimbach of Maison TrimbachMaison Trimbach
Maison Trimbach is a big player from the region, as evidenced by the company with whom we shared the extensive tasting: top buyers from around the world. Led by the young and graceful Anne Trimbach, who commanded the room with ease and charm, we tasted the range of the Trimbach portfolio including back vintage examples of their prestige and collection wines. The wines, especially the Cuvée Frédéric Emile and the domaine’s top wine, Clos Sainte Hune, are benchmark examples of Alsatian Rieslings. We wrapped up our day with a tour through the winery which houses both traditional and modern equipment and the rustic family cellars.


Alsatian wines, with their purity, power and broad food pairing abilities, are enough to draw any wine enthusiast to the region. However it is the charm of the villages and the openness of the people with their emphasis on family that will make every visitor a fan, leaving wanting more.

Needless to say, as we departed for Burgundy and bid Alsace adieu, our luggage bags were downgraded to being stuffed into the back seat of our Peugeot, making room in the temperate trunk for the copious amount of wines we collected along the route. What else would you want with you as a third passenger on a car ride through France?

Originally written by Megan Mallen and Tracey Dobbin