Alsace: a meal & a primer.
This week, wine school was all about Alsace. From previous classes, I've learned I should, I don't know, prepare, for this schooling I have paid many dollars for that is supposed to secure my professional standing as someone who does not just open bottles and rhyme off wine statistics (80 percentttt melot, 7% cabbbbb, 33% oakedddd, 100% meaningless).
As such, I spent the week with Alsace on my mind mind. Studying it, inadvertently buying it, drinking it with friends, and studying it some more.
Alsace is full of really great wine you should pay attention to. Just like Chablis and Sancerre - that I've mentioned before - the wines of Alsace fall into that super delicious, refreshing, easy-to-pair-and-drink category.
BUT Alsace is a French region that is actually quite unique. Here are the top 5 things you should know to impress cute strangers at awkward holiday parties when the topic of Alsace comes up, which let's be honest, is just about every time.
1. These are varietally labeled wines. On Alsatian bottles you will see grapes! This is extremely unlike the rest of France where wines are labeled by their place (excusseee me, their terroir): think things like Pauillac (Cab/ Merlot blend), Pouilly Fuisse (Chardonnay), Beaujolais Villages (Gamay), Chinon (Cabernet Franc) and Champagne (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier). Why is this?! History of course. Alsace is a bit of the recess hand-ball of Europe - tossed between Germany and France a bunch of times between the wars. This had a huge affect on production - Alsace was making really great wine in the 15th and 16th century - they had a great reputation and many royal fans, as one does. Then things like disease and war messed up everything and in the early 20th century this was a region of hybrids. Of gosh, here is another topic. Basically there are obvs many different types of vines and not all are created equal. In wine it is all about Vitis Vinifera, hybrids are a crossing of two or more Vitis species - pro: they grow easily and are super resistant to disease! con: they taste gross and don't age!
Sooooo all that to say, putting the varietal on the label was super important. It was a way to lure customers back after the crappy wines of the early 20th century. Hey! Guys! Forget that garbage juice! This is pure, tasty Riesling we are talking about! Now, those hybrids are gone and banned and Alsace is back to making delicious varietal wines.
2. Speaking of varietal wines, Alsace is all about grape purity. This is a region of aromatic, high acid white wines (with a bit of light coloured, high acid Pinot Noir). The winemaker has a very simple job: make the wines taste like the grapes. No funny oak business, no funny lees business, just pure flavours. Traditionally wines are fermented in giant, extremely old oak casks (we are talking 100 years old+) that impart no oak at all to the blend - in fact, they have so much build up from past vinification that they have an almost glass like sheath of tartrates between the oak and the wine. Cool, right!
3. Okay, so all about purity, but there are a lot of grapes!! Here are the most important ones to know about and what they taste like so you look like a TOTAL PRO at the wine shop.
Riesling: most widely planted! bone dry with floral, citrus and stone fruit flavours and crisp high acidity (great for food!), zippy and delightful. with age can develop petrol/ gunflint notes. yum.
Gewürztraminer: "Gewürzt" means spice in German. These wines have lots of sweet spice! Also tons of tropical fruit! Basically, they are a lot. Think lychee, rose, grapefruit, a really old, fancy lady's bag. Often dry to off-dry with high alcohol and low acidity that sounds gross, BUT they can be + great if balanced and a great pairing for asian-y foods.
Pinot Gris: think petite Gewurtz! The body and spice of its bodacious brother, but with higher acidity (yay! great for food and freshness) and a bit less of everything. I love Pinot Gris. Think peaches and apricot, but with a good, fat mid-palate and this hint of something savoury like smoke. Yum. Can be off-dry, but more typically bone dry. A great place to start into Alsace's more adventurous, full-bodied grapes - in contrast, to its lean mean badass sister, Riesling.
Pinot Blanc: the workhorse of Alsace! Easy to grow, base of the sparkling wine you find in the region. Simple, good-tasting, dry wines. Salty and pleasant. Hot day? Summer salad? Pinot Blanc is cheap and your friend, go there.
lastly Muscat: the fermented grape that tastes like grapes! Dry, grapey, musky. Very small production, but a fun weird and wonderful thing if you get a good example. I would laugh and be impressed if someone brought this to me as a dinner party gift. Muscat can also be gross, so as a rule, pay at least $20 or risk peril.
3. Wait a second: why are these varietals all white and high acid?! Geography and climate, of course. Alsace is isolated in the north-east corner of France. It is separated from the rest of France by the quite ominous Vosges Mountains and from Germany by the Rhine river. Its northern latitude makes it very cold (average of 16 degrees during harvest), so grapes take a long time to ripen, developing complex flavours and keeping their high acid - this compared to very warm climates that ripen grapes very quickly, but have no acidity and are the dictionary definition of flabby, if the dictionary lived in your unimpressed mouth, i.e., why there is no wine in Costa Rica. The mountains also act as a rain shadow, which is super important for the long growing season. The dry weather (the driest in France!) allows for grapes to grow happily for a long time without disaease pressure - this is why Alsace is the seat of organic and biodynamic production in France. Why spray when you don't need to?
4. On sweetness. Typically these wines were always dry! It was actually a great way to differentiate them from their German counterparts. BUT, as the world goes sweeter - apothic, dear god, apothic SO SWEET GUYS JUST STOP IT, the coke of wine - and global warming keeps coming (Alsace has seen an average temperature rise of .6% over the past 40 years - this is a huge!) these wines are getting sweeter. In general, Riesling, Pinot Blanc and Muscat should be dry. So should Pinot Gris, but you can see some sweet ones. Gewurtz is ususally a bit sweet. Best bet, ask your wine store. This is one of the labeling probelms of Alsace, they should really better communicate perceived sweetness to customers. Alas. The French.
4. There is a Grand Cru, but don't trust it. There are 51 Grand Cru vineyard sites that can be labelled "Alsace Grand Cru", some are really great, but the area of each Grand Cru is MASSIVE and not all bits of it are created equal. This means that Grand Cru is not an indication of high quality, but it can be. The worst, right?! The system is so flawed that some producers like Hugel mercilessly campagn against it and refuse to label their Grand Cru wines "Grand Cru", as the crappier examples lower the reputation of the region as a whole and are deceiving to customers. All that to say, sorry I can't help. :( If you want great Grand Cru Weinbach and Zind-Humbrecht are great fail-safes and grab a badass wine from Alsace bad-body Marcel Deiss if you can.
5. These high acid, aromatic wines are AWESOME for rich food. As such, for #SundayDinner with my only three friends in Vancouver we made Choucroute garnie. Think all of the sauerkrout in Granville Island plus all the meat and then more meat. It was kind of disgusting and way too much, but also delicious and amazing and the best. Here are some silly photos.
Phew! So what do you think? Alsace, right!? Go buy some and report back, kk?