A Stand-out Riesling

The French wine region of Alsace shares a border and considerable historic links with Germany and so, perhaps not surprisingly, you’ll find many of the same grape varieties in both places. The Pinot family – Noir, Gris and Blanc – are found in both, although in Germany are known as Spätburgunder, Grauburgunder and Weissburgunder respectively; (I think the French names are a little easier to pronounce!) Gewurztraminer also appears on both sides, but, most importantly of all, so does Riesling.

Almost half the world’s plantings of Riesling are in Germany and they proudly declare that most of their best wines are made with that variety. In Alsace, too, Riesling is considered their most noble grape, but the styles of wine each country produces from the variety are totally different from each other.

Apart from the delicious wines both make to be enjoyed specifically as dessert wines, German producers tend towards an off-dry style. Here, a little sweetness balances Riesling’s high acidity and that is normally combined with exceptionally low levels of alcohol (8 or 9% typically). More recently, some in Germany are beginning to follow the demands of the market and making more dry or almost dry examples (often labelled ‘trocken’) but this still remains the minority. Alsace, on the other hand, has always preferred to ferment its wines out completely dry giving a much richer taste and with higher levels of alcohol.

Alsace RieslingA bottle from Alsace I opened recently showed this perfectly: Domaine Leon Boesch’s Grandes Lignes Riesling (Vine Trail, £13.99) was beautifully fresh and clean and with surprising weight for only 12% alcohol. It had real intensity and the typical young Riesling aromas and flavours of grapefruit and lemon peel. The acidity was there, of course but not intrusive; in fact, it was just enough to make it food-friendly, although it’s a wine you could equally well drink on its own.

The Boesch estate is certified biodynamic which can, most simply, be described as an ultra-organic philosophy with everything in the vineyard being carried out completely in harmony with nature. Some question the science of the idea and I won’t comment on that. All I will say is that this, along with many other biodynamic wines I have tasted, have an intensity and a richness that makes them stand out from the crowd.

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Alsace’s Lotus Flower

My wife and I love the wines of Alsace, particularly the whites – they’re so approachable and food-friendly and, thinking back, I really can’t remember opening a bad bottle.  They also benefit from some of the most straight-forward labelling of any French wines – no complicated Appellations Contrôlées (just Alsace or, for the best single vineyard wines, Alsace Grand Cru) – and then generally just the grape variety (unusual in itself in France) and the name of the producer.

Among the latter, Hugel and Trimbach are the biggest and best known but here, size and popularity are no disadvantages – wines from both companies are always reliable and good quality.  But it’s not just these names to look out for, there are many other very good, even excellent producers in the region.

Lesser known but a particular favourite of ours since visiting a few years back is the family-run Josmeyer with sisters Celine and Isabelle as Managing Director and winemaker respectively.  Run on organic lines for many years and biodynamically since 2000, Josmeyer’s wines always have a particular intensity and focus, a feature based, no doubt, on the fact that their yields are among the lowest in the region.

Fleur de Lotus

I thought I knew most of their wines so, when I saw a different one in a local restaurant recently, I had to give it a try.  Fleur de Lotus – Lotus Flower (around £20 retail from a number of on-line suppliers, much more in the restaurant, of course) is crisp and fresh with an exotically perfumed nose and a vibrant, just off-dry palate.  No specific grape names were mentioned on the label just a ‘blend of local varieties’ but the nose and palate screamed gewürztraminer to me and possibly muscat, too.  Further research on line proved contradictory with one site suggesting a gewürztraminer and pinot gris blend, while another listed auxerrois, gewürztraminer and riesling.  Josmeyer’s own site simply says an ‘assemblage’ (a blend), so no further forward.

But, whatever’s in it, it confirms my high opinion of the wines of Alsace generally and of Josmeyer especially.  Do try them if you get the chance.

A Spicy Choice

Kedgeree was first introduced to the UK from India in Victorian times by those returning from that country after military or diplomatic service.  Then, it was mainly eaten as a breakfast dish in some of our large country houses.  Today, it is more likely to be seen as a lunch or light supper dish – and that’s when my wife and I enjoy it.  But how do you find a wine to pair with a mixture of smoked haddock, pungent spices like cumin and coriander, the sweetness of sultanas and that simple ingredient that is so often described as a ‘wine killer’: eggs?

Let’s start with the basics.  Although I’m not one for sticking rigidly to the ‘white with fish or poultry, red with red meat’ idea, in this case, the tannins of most red wines are likely to make the spices taste much hotter (and so, out of proportion with the rest of the dish) and I can’t see a rosé – even the most assertive example – standing up to all those strong and powerful flavours.  

So, we’re thinking white wine.  But what sort?  You might have heard ‘oaked with smoked’ and I certainly wouldn’t put you off a nice oaked Chardonnay as a match for the smoked fish, but the sweetness and spices gave me another idea: Gewurztraminer.  The word ‘gewurz’ means ‘spicy’ in German and wines made from this variety often have a slightly spicy edge to them.  It’s a grape that is native to both Germany and France’s Alsace region, although it’s now grown more widely – I’ve tasted some lovely bottles from New Zealand, for example.

Turckheim GewurzBut we had one from the excellent co-operative in the Alsace village of Turckheim on our shelf (Corks of Cotham, £12.99) and the cool, aromatic, slightly off-dry taste went fairly well.  But, as anyone who cooks will know, even if you follow a recipe, dishes don’t turn out tasting exactly the same every time.  Perhaps I was too conservative when adding the spices as this Kedgeree wasn’t nearly as flavoursome as I expected.  As it was, the oaked Chardonnay might have worked better – or an Alsace Pinot Gris or even a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. 

Next time I’ll make sure I taste the food before choosing the wine!

 

2 Sides of Alsace

Alsace is a region that looks two ways.  When you visit, the architecture, the food, the local dialect and many of the place names all suggest you are in Germany, which lies just a few miles to the east across the River Rhine.  This view is supported by two of the most widely planted grape varieties there being Riesling and Gewurztraminer.  But despite times under German rule in the past, today Alsace is firmly in France – although many of the locals would probably say that they’re from Alsace first and France second. 

The climate, too, is not quite what you’d expect: lying around 48˚N (similar to Champagne and more northerly than Chablis), and with Riesling and Gewurztraminer thriving, you’d be thinking it would be decidedly cool.  Yet, thanks to the shelter of the Vosges Mountains to the west, Alsace is often one of the sunniest and driest regions in the whole of France, allowing more warmth-loving varieties such as Muscat, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir to ripen, if planted in the right spots.

And Domaine Paul Blanck has certainly found those, with vineyards ideally situated around the village of Kientzheim, just north of Colmar. 

Alsace P NoirHis Pinot Noir (Waitrose, £14.99) is especially recommended.  It’s a grape variety that can be very fussy – thin and tart if under-ripe, jammy if over-ripe – but Blanck has got it just right: quite restrained on the nose but with lovely ripe raspberry and cranberry flavours on the palate leading into a long fresh finish.  The only sign that this comes from a relatively cool site is the modest (12.5%) alcohol, but, for me, that, too is a plus giving the wine elegance and style and making it really food-friendly: duck or turkey certainly, but the lowish tannin would also point to pairing it with some robust fish dish, say a tuna steak.

Although Pinot Noir is most famously grown in Burgundy, it’s also found (as Spätburgunder) in parts of Germany and this example from Alsace is, for me, closer to that country’s style.  One more sign, perhaps, of this region looking two ways.