Monday, 10 August 2009

Are UK wine drinkers spooked by odd-looking bottles?

On the face of it, Alsace is a pretty straightforward wine region. Wines are labelled with the name of the grape variety, à la New World, making it easy for non-French drinkers to gauge what they’re choosing. To keep things simple, it’s pretty much all about white wines – they do make some red from pinot noir but, to be fair, the reds are never going to set the world on fire. The style of wines from Alsace is fresh, fruity and dry, or almost dry – in other words, easy-going, and particularly good for drinking with the spicy foods of South and East Asia that we love so much in this country. Alsace itself is an almost impossibly pretty region in Eastern France, owing more to Germany than France for its architectural and cultural traditions and with lower rainfall and more hours of sunshine than you would think by just looking at a map. Why then, don’t we drink more Alsace wines in this country?

For one thing, that proximity to Germany (and it used to be more than proximity: Alsace and neighbouring Lorraine were annexed to Germany from 1870 to 1919) has brought not just cute gingerbread villages, but a tradition of using the Germanic “flute” wine bottle. Any combination of Germany and wine is commercially toxic in the UK: if it looks German, we tend to steer clear.

Why we should face our demons and embrace German wines is something for another column, but Alsace has become unfairly embroiled in our rejection of what we deem to be cheap and nasty sweet wines. I’d go so far as to say that a substantial minority of the UK population does not realise that Alsace is French and not German. We Brits don’t tend to holiday there, so it lacks the high profile and instant recognition of, say, the Loire.

If you’d like to indulge in some aversion therapy to overcome your fear of tall, thin wine bottles and try some Alsace wines, where should you start?

Uniquely amongst French wine regions, Alsace has a tradition of putting the name of the grape variety on the label, which makes life so much simpler for the novice. Here are the major varieties you’ll encounter:

Pinot blanc:- The workhorse grape of the region, it is the most widely-planted variety, producing soft, round and fruity wines.
Pinot gris:- The name suggests a relation to pinot blanc (and pinot noir for that matter) and indeed it is part of the same family. Pinot gris produces wines with more defined fruit and perfume than pinot gris, often with a hint of richness and some spice. Pinot gris is our old friend pinot grigio, the UK’s favourite wine –but the best Alsace versions offer infinitely more character than the bland, mass-produced ones from Italy.
Gewurztraminer:- the most aromatic of Alsace varieties, frequently reminding tasters of rose petals, Turkish Delight or lychee. It has the richness and spice of pinot gris and, with age, develops a smoky complexity. A fantastic match for soft, smelly cheeses.
Riesling: - most growers in the region consider Riesling to be the king of grapes, the one which allows them to demonstrate the influence of that very French notion: terroir. Always with a backbone of acidity, it can show a great range of aromas and flavours from fruity and floral to stony and mineral – no really.

Where to buy Alsace wines
You’ll come across odd bottles of Alsace wines in almost any good wine shop and Waitrose have the best range of Alsace wines on the High Street. But, with a region like this, if you want to do more than dip your toe in, it pays to go to a specialist.

The Wine Society ( is the UK’s oldest wine mail order outfit and run along non-profit making lines as a co-operative making it undisputably a “good thing”. It also has a particularly strong Alsace selection; they were voted Alsace Specialist Merchant of the Year in the 2008 International Wine Challenge. Here are some of my favourites from their mouthwatering list:

Gewurztraminer Tradition 2007 Cave de Turckheim - £7.95
This is made by arguably the region’s best co-op and represents a gentle introduction to the variety with good weight of aromatic fruit and some spice. Waitrose list the, probably almost identical, Cave de Turkheim Gewurztraminer 2007 for £8.09.

Riesling Tradition 2007 Kuentz-Bas - £8.95
This is dry - just (4 grams per litre of residual sugar for those who like to know that kind of thing), but with a lovely floral nose and more citrussy palate and of course crisp acidity. One to try with Asian food that’s not too spicy or sweet.

Riesling Domaine Frédéric Mochel, 2005 - £12.50
To see what the fuss over Alsace Riesling is all about, you really need to drink a wine four or five years old, and here’s your chance. This Riesling is bone dry, in what Frédéric Mochel calls the Protestant style of wine – by which he means dry, linear and pure. With age, hints of petrol (in a good way) add to the tropical fruit. If this gives you a taste for more mature Riesling, the Society also list Mochel’s Grand Cru Altenberg de Bergbieten 2002 at £14.95, which is a super-charged version of the straight Riesling, with even more of those delicious exotic but elegant flavours.

Gewurztraminer, Domaine Zind-Humbrecht, 2007 - £14.95
If the notion of a Protestant wine has intrigued you, here is what you might logically call a Catholic wine. Olivier Humbrecht is, arguably, the most gifted and important winemaker in Alsace. The former scientist and first ever Frenchman to become a Master of Wine, has embraced the notion of natural wine-making. His dazzling skills have blazed a trail for organic and biodynamic wines which other growers have since followed, but it’s Domaine Zind-Humbrecht that created the model. If you want to know how a wine can smell and taste of where it’s from, rather than just of the grapes from which it’s made, then you can have no better illustration than the wines of Zind-Humbrecht. All his wines are worth trying – and be warned that prices only go upwards from here. A hands-off, non-interventionist approach means it’s hard to generalise about the wines: dryness levels vary by wine and by year, for example. This wine has a sense of richness rather than sweetness and fantastic concentration. Waitrose have Zind-Humbrecht Riesling Heimbourg 2006 for £20 and Zind, a blend of varieties with great character, for £14.99.

Pinot Gris Hugel Jubilée 2007 - £22
A steep price, though Hugel does make cheaper versions of their varietal wines, under the Tradition rather than Jubilée label which sell for around £12-14. If you want to know what sets Alsace pinot gris apart from Italian pinot grigio, then it pays to splash out. The Hugel family are practically wine-making royalty in Alsace, dating back to 1639. We’re back in the Protestant wine mould here: while there’s richness and concentration in Hugel’s wines, there is also purity and dry restraint which make them extremely food friendly.

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