There is a wine region in the east of France where the population is at times a little confused. At least, I imagine they must be, since ownership of the area has changed from one country to another and back again several times. This is the Alsace, a picturesque area of rolling hills on the borders of France and Germany, squeezed in between the Vosges Mountains to the west and the majestic river Rhine to the east.
The wines from this area also suffer from another confusion. They are presented in tall, slim bottles and many of the grape varieties are those often associated with German wines. Thus the perception by many people is that the wines are Germanic in style. This in itself is not a reason to avoid the wines, since there are a great many very fine German wines on the market, including dry, medium and sweet styles. However, consumer’s memories are long, and visions of cheap Liebfraumilch, Niersteiner and Piesporter pop into their heads at the mere mention - or sight - of a German wine bottle.
The Alsace wine region is relatively far North in terms of latitude, and being some distance from the sea, enjoys a continental climate, with cold winters and hot summers. This climate is ideal for those grape varieties suited to a cooler climate, such as Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Pinot Noir. The first two of these, which are white grape varieties, do not sound typically French, another part of the confusion. In fact, they are seldom encountered in any other wine regions of France, yet are widely grown in Germany. Again, the climatic conditions, soils and topography are ideal for these varieties to show their best.
Other commonly encountered grape varieties in Alsace are Pinot Gris (Grigio in Italy) and Pinot Blanc. The wines have good body, are very aromatic and are essentially dry. There are some sweeter styles made from late harvested grapes (vendanges tardives), but these are the exception rather than the rule. The majority of Alsatian wines are dry whites, although some light, fruity reds are made from Pinot Noir. The best vineyards in the area are classified as Grand Cru and have exceptional depth of flavour and quality. It is recognised as one of the top white wine regions of France. Apart from the UK, the main export markets are Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark.
As an erstwhile importer of wines from this region, I always remember great difficulties in selling them, due to the issues outlined above. But once introduced to a customer, they invariably came back for more. For me, they are amongst some of the best ‘food’ wines produced anywhere in the world. With their aromatic character, full body, dry, long finish and complex, interesting fruit flavours, they can be paired with a great variety of dishes. Try Pinot Gris with roast chicken, Riesling with duck (or even the Christmas turkey), or Gewürztraminer with its extraordinary tropical fruit aromas and flavours with a host of Asian cuisine, such as Sweet and Sour pork, Peking duck or dim-sum. Richard Esling DipWSET, @richardwje,
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