A French winemaker once told me his dearly departed grandmother had lived under four different governments without ever moving from the house in which she was born. She was from Alsace, of course.
This top-rated white wine region is located — to its frequent disadvantage — on the often-shifting border between France and Germany. In 1871, Alsace was annexed by Germany after the Franco-Prussian War. In 1919, it was returned to France by the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I. In World War II it was reoccupied by Germany, and the French returned after the war in 1945.
Alsace’s people reflect the mixed history with names like Jean-Paul Schultz or Pierre Weiss. Signs on streets and shops frequently use both languages.
The region’s wines also show that duality. They have German names like riesling or gewurztraminer, but are made in the French style — drier, fuller in body and higher in alcohol.
Alsace is white wine country — sylvaner, pinot blanc, muscat, riesling, pinot gris, gewurztraminer — too far north for most red wines except for the occasional pinot noir.
Its riesling has powerful mineral (some say petrol) aromas and flavors that are at once spicy, delicately fruity and racy with acid. It’s often served with the region’s signature choucroute garni, sauerkraut with several kinds of sausage and cuts of pork.
Alsatian whites are full-flavored enough to go with veal, roast chicken, pheasant, smoked fish, crab cakes. Its gewurztraminer is aromatic enough to go with spicy Asian food.
Alsace’s pinot gris is made from the same grape as Italian pinot grigio, but where the latter is crisp and light, the Alsatian style is fuller, riper and spicier and more viscous.
The region’s pinot blanc is a white version of pinot noir. It’s often delicate and soft, with ripe-peach flavors and medium acid.
One Alsatian wine that’s exploding in popularity is Cremant d’Alsace, a sparkling white blend. It gets its bubbles by the same method used in France’s Champagne region, but they are bigger and under less pressure, giving the wine a creamy feel — in fact, that’s what cremant means.
Another appeal is price — often, as you can see in the tasting notes, under $20.
2010 Albert Mann Cremant d’Alsace Brut Sparkling Wine, AOC Alsace (pinot blanc, auxerrois, pinot gris, riesling): big, active bubbles, aromas of yeast and toast, flavors of green apple, citrus and minerals; $22.
2011 Domaine Schlumberger Pinot Blanc “Les Princes Abbes,” AOC Alsace: golden hue, aromas of flowers and yeast, flavors of ripe apricots, crisp acids; $15.
2009 Domaine Zind Humbrecht Riesling, AOC Alsace: floral aroma, intense flavors of green apples, lemons and minerals, crisp acids; $25
2011 Willm Vineyard Pinot Gris Reserve, AOC Alsace: full-bodied and rich, lightly sweet, with aromas and flavors of peaches and honey; $14.
2009 Hugel & Fils Pinot Blanc “Cuvee les Amours,” AOC Alsace: pale straw hue, aromas of toast, citrus and melons, quite dry, crisp; $15.
2011 Paul Franck & Fils Pinot Blanc d’Alsace, AOC Alsace; floral aromas, flavors of ripe peaches and spice, crisp and dry; $15.