In the fastidious orbits of the Parisian bon ton, where being from anywhere other than Paris marks one as a rustic, no region is considered more droll than that diminutive province clinging to the northeastern frontier of France: Alsace. Oh, it is a funny place, they say, a slow, provincial region whose people can barely speak proper French. As for the cuisine, the natives think sauerkraut is a delicacy. But it is the wine—poured from tall, slender bottles bearing names such as Weinbach, Trimbach, and Schlumberger into long-stemmed tulip-shaped glasses—that most incites the dudgeon of the Parisian oenophile. Where is the mystique, the grandeur, the awe-inspiring price tag of a Burgundy or Bordeaux? Oh, it is fine, they relent, if you like German wine.
Not everyone shares this view of Alsace. “It is the most beautiful winemaking region in all France,” says wine critic and author Robert Parker, “a wonderful, fairy-tale kind of place.”
Sauerkraut, or choucroute, may be a local specialty, but Alsace is also the world capital of foie gras, and the region has one of the densest concentrations of Michelin-starred restaurants in the country. Knowing this, it will come as no surprise to hear that—Parisian sensibilities aside—Alsace also produces some of the choicest wines in France. “Their Gewürztraminer and Tokay Pinot Gris are the finest in the world,” says Parker, “and their dry Muscats are marvelous. Their Riesling compares to Germany’s best, and their Pinot Blanc is the world’s finest everyday wine.”
This does not necessarily mean you will find these wines on upscale lists in the French capital, the critic advises. “I was in Paris recently, and an Alsatian Riesling would have been perfect with dinner. But the restaurant did not have a single wine from Alsace.” Just why the haut monde of wine has not embraced Alsace as a producer of world-class wines is a mystery of long standing. In Frank Prial’s 1978 book, Wine Talk, The New York Times wine writer describes the Rieslings of Alsace as “incomparable” and its floral, fragrant Gewürztraminers as “like nothing else in the world.” Alas, he concluded, they were also among the least-known wines in the world.
A quarter-century later, Parker grapples with the same conundrum. “Sometimes I think it is the Germanic-style bottle people don’t like, but I realize that’s a cop-out,” he says. “I do know that when I serve them blind, people rave about them. But I don’t think they go out and buy them.”
In those milieus where a wine’s flavor and value are esteemed above éclat and prestige, however, patrons do purchase them; in fact, in France’s neighborhood bars and bistros, the wines of Alsace are the most popular whites in the country. But in circumstances where one speaks knowingly of color and legs and a nose of cherries and chocolate, and where one is given the choice between ordering, say, a Corton Charlemagne, a name that flows mellifluously off the tongue, or a wine that sounds like a German marching order, Alsatian vintners have been at a disadvantage.
It may be, as one culinary historian suggests, that oenophiles simply do not know what to make of these wines. “The wines of Alsace are an anomaly,” says Lynn Hoffman, author of A Short Course in Wine (Prentice Hall, November 2004). “When the Germans took over Alsace in the late 1800s, they ripped out the best vines to reduce competition with their own wines.” This, Hoffman reminds us, was the period in time when so many reputations were being made, when the new rich of the New World and the Old, eager to attain the trappings of gentility, discovered Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Champagne while they were forming opinions and tastes that would endure for generations. Meanwhile, Alsace was compelled to make inexpensive, high-volume wine for the masses.
After World War I, the winemakers uprooted the generic vines they coaxed and began the arduous task of replanting the vineyards. But it would prove far more difficult to change long-entrenched attitudes about wine. “Alsace produces very serious white wines at a time when the most serious wine drinkers think they have to drink red wine,” says Hoffmann. “There are exceptions to this rule, but speaking in the broadest of terms, sophisticated wine drinkers don’t drink much white wine, and white wine drinkers don’t drink much that is sophisticated. Red wine has the gravitas, the complexity, the age, the mystery. Typically, people who drink white wines expect either the California toasted oak Chardonnay or the slightly sweet German Riesling archetype.”
The wines of Alsace, on the other hand, represent an entirely different paradigm. “It is often said that a Riesling from Alsace is drier than those from Germany, that a Gewürztraminer should be drunk by itself, or that a Tokay Pinot Gris makes a perfect aperitif,” says Hoffman. “But the tradition of Alsace is far more complex than that.”
This is to be expected from a region that has had to switch national allegiance and official language four times in less than a century. Although 60 years have passed since the German flag flew over Alsace, the signs of its Germanic past are difficult to miss. When motoring eastward through the Vosges mountains, about 200 miles out of Paris, you will notice a transition taking place. On the road signs, names such as Bainville-aux-Saules, Gérardmer, and La Forge give way to Kienzheim, Kaysersberg, and Wettolsheim. Along the way, the sepia-tone structures characteristic of French villages are replaced by brightly colored houses and half-timbered shops hung with flower boxes. Cafés and taverns become weinstuben where chalkboards list daily specials of flammenkuche, baeckeoffe, spaetzle, and kugelhopf. Here, the official language is still French, but the local patois is Elsaessisch, an arcane form of German spoken in Alsatian homes.
What strolling French tourists seem to find most arresting, though, is the rather un-Gallic sense of orderliness. “Regardez les rues,” they cry out. “Elles sont si propres.” (“Look at the streets. They’re so clean.”) As Pierre Adrien Jauffret, chief sommelier at the Dopff & Irion winery in the medieval hamlet of Riquewihr, observes, to some of his countrymen Alsace remains an enigma. “When we were German, the Germans thought we were French,” says Jauffret. “Now that we are French, the French think we are German.” Though they have been both, in their approach to wine, the Alsatians are neither.
Alsace is the only fine wine-producing area in France or Germany that labels its wines according to varietal instead of château or place of origin. Blending, common in Bordeaux and Burgundy, is forbidden; a wine from Alsace must be 100 percent the grape designated, either Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Tokay Pinot Gris, Muscat, Sylvaner, Pinot Blanc, or Pinot Noir. Of these, only the first four are considered noble grapes, suitable for classification as grand crus.
No less a factor in the uniqueness of Alsace is the ethos that underlies its winemaking. “This is not Bordeaux,” says Hubert Trimbach, as he leads the way into the weinstube of Le Chambard, a small hotel in the village of Kaysersberg, and then pours a bottle of his Riesling 2002 into a decanter. Trimbach is well versed in the lore of Alsace: His family has been making wine here since 1626, and his ancestor was the 19th-century Gourmet of Hunawihr, who was responsible for upholding the quality of wines in that nearby village. Today, Trimbach is coproprietor, with his brother Bernard, of F.E. Trimbach, and owner of the legendary Clos St. Hune vineyard, which many critics consider the source of the world’s finest dry white wine. “Nobody owns a vineyard in Alsace as a status symbol, and you don’t have wealthy people waiting in line to buy a château,” he says. “Land is hard to buy. It’s almost all family-owned, and the families have been here since the 1600s. The vineyards are small, mostly under four acres. For an outside investor, these small plots are not worth their time. And even if they were, they wouldn’t know how to manage them.”
Of all the French appellations, none is as antithetical to economies of scale as Alsace, a thin ribbon of vineyards strung 60 miles along the foothills of the Vosges. In 1870, some 160,000 acres were planted, but now only 33,000 are under vine to produce a higher quality wine. Given the uneven terrain and the widely diverse soils, the terroir can vary dramatically within the most diminutive estates. A single hillside, too, can represent multiple microclimates, depending on thermals, slopes, watersheds, and fog. Most vintners grow all seven varietals to make the most of the varying conditions, and it has taken centuries of trial and error to determine which grapes to plant precisely where and how to cultivate them.
Once the grapes have been harvested, vintners have traditionally allowed the terroir to express itself rather than impose a specific artisanal technique, as is common elsewhere in France. Alsace’s wines usually age in stainless steel or old oak barrels lined with tartaric crystals to preclude any influences of new oak.
While many French winemakers have adopted malolactic fermentation to produce a wine that is smoother and lends itself to being enjoyed at an earlier age, Alsatian winemakers strive for the opposite effect. “The three most important characteristics of a wine from Alsace are freshness, fruit, and acidity. You should be able to taste all three distinctly and individually,” says Trimbach as he and his guest sip glasses of the Riesling, a wine with a delicate bouquet and the startlingly pristine mineral flavor of a mountain brook. The taste is so ethereal that the alcohol is not immediately evident, although Trimbach’s contains almost 50 percent more alcohol than a German Riesling: 12.5 percent versus about 8.5 percent. This, says the winemaker, is the rule with Alsatian wines. “Unlike German wines, ours are fermented to the end. This gives them more structure while allowing them to be aged much longer, sometimes 30 years or more,” says Trimbach, as he uncorks a second bottle, a 2001 Riesling Reserve.
Sitting in the weinstube, sipping Trimbach’s vintages while watching the passersby on the road outside bid each other “Bonjour” or “Guten Tag,” Trimbach’s guest has no choice but to agree with the local guidebook that claims, “In Alsace, joy and happiness are everywhere to be seen.” Such a description, however, does not apply to Alsace’s system of grand crus. “Ridiculous,” responds Trimbach when asked about the system. “It dilutes the whole meaning of grand cru.”
Like many wine laws, the Alsace code appears so arcane that one might presume it was drawn up by medieval clerics. However, the first 25 grand cru sites were not selected until 1983, and 25 more were added in 1992, giving tiny Alsace more than twice as many sanctified growths than Burgundy. For reasons primarily political, only sites of multiple ownership are considered for classification as grand crus; single-ownership sites such as Trimbach’s Clos St. Hune and Domaine Weinbach’s Clos des Capucin—two of the region’s most famous vineyards—are excluded from this ranking. Perhaps as a consequence, Trimbach refuses to indicate grand cru on any of his wines, though some of them come from sites so designated. Domaine Weinbach is less adamant and labels its wines from its grand cru sites—Grand Gru Schlossberg, Grand Cru Furstentum, and Grand Cru Mambourg—as such.
The grousing over the grand cru system notwithstanding, says Jean-Marie Winter, director of marketing for Domaines Schlumberger, Alsace’s largest winemaker and producer of Kitterlé, Kessler, and Saering grand crus, the classifications were necessary to call attention to Alsace. “We have suffered from a lack of image,” says Winter. “People were still confusing us with German wines. They are less likely to do that with a grand cru. Further, it underscores our move to higher-quality wines.” However, he is quick to point out, as a matter of civic pride, that the grand crus are not the only superb wines in Alsace. “Even the communes in Alsace make some excellent wines. The first winegrowers’ cooperatives were formed here in 1895, and the standards are high,” he observes. “It’s not like Bordeaux, where after the classified stuff you get lots of plonk.”
The year after the first grand crus were announced, a rather more salutary event occurred when the Appellation d’Origine Controllée designated a form of late-harvest wines known as Vendanges Tardives as exclusive to Alsace. These wines are similar to the German Spaetlese but, because of the higher temperatures in Alsace, possess a higher alcohol content: from 14.3 percent to 16 percent. On those years when the noble rot arrives and botrytizes the grapes, the berries may be picked one by one to produce a nectarlike, hedonistic wine known as Sélection de Grains Nobles. “For us, this is a rare event,” says Winter. “We have produced a Grains Nobles only 10 times since 1945.”
Among the most renowned late-harvest wines are those from Domaine Weinbach. Housed in the Clos des Capucins, a picturesque, 12-acre monastery just outside the village of Kaysersberg, the domaine was first settled by Capucin monks in 1612. Théodore Faller, whose grave lies beneath the vines, and his brother Jean-Baptiste acquired the domaine in 1898. Today, the firm is run by the stately Colette Faller and her two daughters, Catherine and Laurence, and the invitation to dine at the monastery is a coveted one.
Candlelight flickers off the walls of the parlor as Catherine Faller pours a Cuvée Sainte Catherine, produced from vines 25 to 30 years old. “Before the grand cru classification, my mother called our finest Rieslings Cuvée Sainte Catherine because the picking usually fell on Saint Catherine’s Day, November 25, and because it is my name,” she begins. “Then my sister, Laurence, joined us as winemaker, and since I had my own cuvée, it was only right that she have one, too. So we created Cuvée Laurence, a Gewürztraminer cuvée from the grand cru Furstentum or Mambourg hillsides.”
Although the Fallers produce a wide variety of wines from all seven grapes, in recent years they have concentrated on such exclusive wines as their Grand Cru Cuvée Sainte Catherine L’Inédit (The Original One). “That is the ultimate in late-harvest wines,” says Catherine. “It tastes like honey and fruit.”
She frowns, though, when asked if a futures market exists for these wines. “No,” she responds. “There is no speculation in the wines of Alsace. Collectors don’t buy them.” Then Catherine adds, “I hate collectors.”
One of Europe’s leading wine experts sees glimmerings of new enthusiasm for the fine wines of Alsace. “Not among the French,” says Enrico Bernardo, Europe’s champion sommelier in 2002 and chief wine steward at Le Cinq, the three-star restaurant at the Paris Four Seasons George V. “For them it must be either Bordeaux or Burgundy. They do not feel comfortable with wines from Alsace; they complain there are too many styles.” Among others, however, it is a different story. “For our British and American and Belgian guests it has become the sign of the connoisseur to order wines from Alsace.”
To illustrate why, he pairs a Riesling Geisberg 2000 Kientzler Vendanges Tardives with his guest’s cream of watercress soup with caviar, a Riesling Kastelberg 2001 Kreydenweiss with the foie gras and rhubarb, a Pinot Noir Grand Cuvée 2001 with the veal chop and capers, and a Gewürztraminer Geisberg 1989 Kientzler Selection Grains Nobles with dessert, a pineapple tort with a ginger sorbet. At the end of the dinner, Bernardo’s guest concludes that the French do not know what they are missing.
In the United States, while sales of French wines from other districts plummeted in the year of Freedom Fries, sales of those from Alsace declined the least. Perhaps this is because, as Bernardo suggests, Americans had developed a new affinity for Alsatian wines. But Alice Loubaton of Sopexa, the New York firm that markets wines from France, offers an alternative explanation: “It’s because they think we’re German.”
Trimbach Riesling Clos St. Hune Said by some to be the source of the greatest Riesling of all, Clos St. Hune is a 3-acre plot in the middle of the Rosacker grand cru vineyard. Very dry but of phenomenal complexity, it develops an extraordinary mineral aftertaste following a few years in the bottle. It is one of the rarest wines in Alsace, with fewer than 7,000 bottles produced each year.
Weinbach Gewürztraminer Altenbourg Cuvée Laurence Gewürztraminer is the wine most widely associated with Alsace, and this one is among the region’s most distinctive. It is produced from a plot on the Faller family’s Altenbourg vineyard, where the soil of limestone, clay, and sand produces exquisite late-harvest wines as well as a rich, expressive Gewürztraminer loaded with aromas of lychee and grapefruit. It will age for at least 10 years and is a terrific companion to rich poultry and meat dishes or foie gras.
Schlumberger Tokay Pinot Gris Grand Cru Kitterlé Originally cultivated by the Jesuits, Kitterlé is the most famous of Schlumberger’s grand crus. Known to field hands as the “leg breaker” for its steepness, this tract is protected from northerly winds by the slopes above it, while its southern exposure traps the sun. The light, sandy soil overlies immense dry stone boulders and permits only a limited yield. The toasty, smoky aromas gain with age, making it an ideal companion for such diverse foods as quenelle of pike and foie gras.
Hugel Tokay Pinot Gris Cuvée Jubilée Perhaps the most famous of the Alsace winegrowers, Hugel & Fils is a purist when it comes to expressing the terroir of its wines. “We are in the wine business, not the lumber business,” says Etienne Hugel, explaining the family’s philosophical aversion to new oak. Hugel’s Tokay Pinot Gris Cuvée Jubilée is grown on the family estate on the grand cru site of Sporen, though, like Trimbach, the winemaker spurns the nomenclature. It should not be drunk for at least three years, after which it takes on aromas of honey, quince, and fresh butter. It is excellent served with saltwater fish and black truffles.
Dopff & Irion Les Amandiers Muscat Huddled against the southerly flanks of the Vosges, the Amandiers has a microclimate that is so mild it blooms with almond trees every spring. The gentle slopes are composed of marl and gypsum beneath a light, sandy topsoil blown from the slopes above—conditions ideal for the two types of Muscat grown in Alsace, the Muscat d’Alsace and the Muscat Ottonel. Both can be difficult grapes; Muscat Ottonel has a rich bouquet but may be vulnerable at flowering, and Muscat d’Alsace can be challenging to vinify. Muscat therefore represents only 9 percent of Alsace’s vines. Yet when these grapes are handled adroitly, the result can be sensational. Dopff & Irion combines the two grapes to produce a wine that tastes like biting into a ripe grape. It is excellent with Indian and Asian cuisines.
A Taste of Alsace
Whether it is French with German influences or vice versa, Alsatian cuisine is unabashedly flavorful. These three restaurants offer some of the region’s most enjoyable dining experiences.
Au Crocodile, Strasbourg
With a huge skylight over the dining room and a monumental Napoléonic-style painting extending along its back wall, Au Crocodile is perhaps the most showy restaurant in Alsace, but it is a must for visiting gourmands. Part of its appeal is the themed prix fixe menus, with dishes evoking people or places. A recent menu featured foods native to locales in the works of Malraux. More traditional Alsatian dishes include a baeckeoffe of truffles and duck liver, and the goose liver encased in Gewürztraminer aspic is a specialty of the house. The wine list is extensive, with a wide assortment of vintages from Bordeaux, Burgundy, and the Rhône and Loire Valleys, as well as from Alsace.
www.au-crocodile.com Restaurant Buerehiesel, Strasbourg
It may or may not be true that the European Parliament moved to Strasbourg, the capital of Alsace, to allow its deputies to dine regularly at Restaurant Buerehiesel, but its habitués do not doubt the story for a minute. Situated in the city’s Parc de l’Orangerie, the restaurant was originally a 17th-century country house. Today, guests can dine in the glass-walled conservatory overlooking the park’s lush greenery. The restaurant has earned its three Michelin stars with spectacular renditions of such Alsatian specialties as la poularde de bresse en baeckeoffe aux truffes (chicken and fresh truffles in a vegetable casserole) and schniederspaetzle et les cuisses de grenouilles poelees (frogs’ legs and pasta with onions and chervil).
Jean-Yves Schillinger, Colmar
There are plenty of stylish, inventive restaurants in Alsace, but none more so than Jean-Yves Schillinger, named for its young chef and proprietor, whose late father, restaurateur Jean Schillinger, was known as the “king of foie gras.” The younger Schillinger combines the elements of fantasy and gourmandise in a picture-postcard setting. Outside, the restaurant is 17th century; inside, it is Manhattan-sleek, with modern art on the walls over the Chesterfield settees. The cuisine is eclectic—who would expect calamari tempura in Alsace?—and the presentations are colorful, with Asian influences evident in traditional entrées such as monkfish en croute. In warm weather, there is dining on the terrace overlooking “Little Venice,” the Colmar canal.