I have always held a special affinity with Alsace. I often fondly reflect on the incredible Erasmus year I spent in the Alsatian capital, Strasbourg, the highlights of which included chasing Racing Strasbourg FC around Europe in the UEFA Cup, and chasing Colombians and Mexicans around the nightclubs of the city. Other must-sees included daily strikes, the 2005 riots in la banlieue and our landlord who proudly declared upon our arrival “Je deteste les irlandais!”. Otherwise Strasbourg is famous for its ancient cathedral, the delightful Petit France quarter, and the honour of being home to the European Parliament once a month, when the bureaucratic gravy train of politicians, diplomats, officials, journalists, researchers and protestors descend on the city, all to satisfy the French’s desire to retain a significant European institution in the country. What I also developed during my year there was a penchant for Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer. For in Alsace these wines reach heights of complexity and character that it is almost unmatched anywhere else in the world.
The first thing you’ll notice about a bottle of Alsatian wine is the heavy Germanic influence. Alsace is the only appellation in France which permits varietal labelling, i.e. the law permits that the producer can helpfully print the grape variety on the label. This was a German tradition long before the New World wines were onto it. Every bottle of wine will also come in the traditional German flûte shape. This can be a bit of a nuisance selling wines abroad – the consumer has been slow to change their perception of these wines being sickly and sweet in the old Blue Nun/Black Tower style, while retailers have sometimes had difficulty shelving and displaying the tall and slender bottles. I certainly remember them not fitting into the wine fridge in Donnybrook Fair when I worked there.
So onto the wines themselves. First of all nearly everything is white, 91% of it in fact. You can get a small amount of Pinot Noir (pale and served chilled), and the region’s underrated sparkling wine, Crémant d’Alsace. The main white wines are extremely aromatic and floral, and really express the terroir from which they come from. As a result these wines never need oak to take on additional flavour. There are four ‘noble’ grape varieties in Alsace – Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris and Muscat; these are permitted in the production of the region’s sweet wines – Vendange Tardive (VT) and Sélection de Grains Nobles (SGN). These grapes are picked late, so that they are shrivelled and concentrated with a high proportion of natural sugars – the result is a wine sweeter than a Jermaine Beckford strike at Old Trafford.
Riesling is the most widely planted grape in the region, and is probably the best regarded. On the vine it’s a little green grape with freckles (my mom always said they were attractive!). It makes a dry, elegant and powerful wine, with stunning ability to age, taking on oily character with aromas of kerosene. Now you’ll probably wonder how drinking petrol is attractive, but it’s the ultimate and coveted expression of aged Riesling.
Gewürztraminer is a mutation of the Traminer grape, in fact Gewürz means spice in German. This is a big pink grape which is picked when ripe and luscious. It’s best known for its seductive rose petal and lychee fragrance. This wine is well known for its pairing with spicy Asian food, like Thai and Indian. The richness of Gewürztraminer and its slight sweetness on the finish offsets the spiciness of these dishes beautifully.
Pinot Gris is the same grape as the ridiculously over-hyped Italian Pinot Grigio. Back in the early 1800’s Napolean’s soldiers heading to Russia brought Merlot and Pinot Gris cuttings from France and planted them in Northern Italy. You can get complexity and richness in Alsatian Pinot Gris which is rarely found in Italian Pinot Grigio. You’ll have to pay a bit more for it but definitely worth a try if you’re a fan of Grigio and not Gris.
Muscat is the last of the four ‘noble’ grape varieties of Alsace, but sadly doesn’t make it too far away from the domestic market. It has highly aromatic ‘grapey’ character. In my days as a grape picker harvesting technician I recall it being the only wine grape I came across which actually tasted delicious on its own. The others – Syrah, Grenache, Merlot, Carignan, Mourvedre, Cinsault and Chardonnay all tasted watery and bland. Muscat wine is essentially grape in a glass.
One of the best experiences that stuck with me from the year was travelling the Route des Vins. This is a 170 kilometre road taking you through 67 idyllic and picturesque communes that make up Alsace wine country. You’ll pass by fairytale castles, imposing mountains and gorges, mysterious forests, and beautiful rolling golden vineyards, and stop by wineries for tasting and buying of course. But what gives the region most of its charm are the villages themselves – entering places like Riquewihr, Ribeauvillé and especially Colmar you’d be forgiven for thinking you’ve stumbled into some sort of medieval time warp. Throughout history Alsace has constantly changed hands between the French and the Germans, and most recently during World War 2, thankfully most of the region’s villages escaped the war’s ravages. So the half-timbered houses, quaint churches and traditional Winstubs still stand, in the exact same way as they have done for centuries. I did the Route twice – once with the college where the objective was to get two busloads of international students as drunk as possible – and then with my parents where we rented a car and took the region in at a much slower and enjoyable pace, stopping to eat and drink at our leisure over the day. It was a truly wonderful day.
Last weekend I spotted a tweet from On The Grapevine in Dalkey and called in, where the lovely Carol took me through the wines she brought back from her recent trip to Alsace. It was great to talk to someone with such passion and knowledge about the region, the wine and the food. That evening I tried my hand at a bit of Alsatian cuisine, you’ll find my recipe for tarte flambée here. I accompanied the tarte with the Domaine Ostertag 2007 Riesling, which Carol picked out for me, priced at €21.99. On the nose it was fruity and aromatic, and was starting to develop those classic oily aromas. It tasted crisp and florally, hints of green fruit, with a lovely honeyed citrus coming through on the finish. They’re doing 10% off all Alsace wines for the month of May, so get down there fast.
Unfortunately Alsace is a pain in the ass to get to, as frequently complained by numerous Irish MEPs doing time in the European Parliament, as there’s no direct flight to Strasbourg from Dublin. We used to get on the Baden-Baden flyer (where the WAGS ran amok in 2006) and get a train up, or else Strasbourg is a two-and-a-half hour TGV from Paris.