By Rose Murray Brown MW Published in The Scotsman 24 February 2018
If you like your white wines with an exuberant personality – head to Alsace. There is no other region in France where you can find such thrilling white wines with expressive aromas, textural richness and savoury vinosity all in one glass.
In this tiny region sandwiched between Germany’s river Rhine and the beautiful wood-topped Vosges mountains, the microclimate is so warm its largest town Colmar is the second driest in the whole of France, after Perpignan. The combination of warm temperatures, low rainfall and a mosaic of ancient soils aid grape ripeness, whilst retaining acidity and minerality.
The result is a foodies dream. A heady aromatic overload with a full dry steely palate making Alsace Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer, the most food friendly whites in the world – many handcrafted by small families who have been in business since C17, despite constant wartime torment. The people of Alsace are a resilient bunch.
Whilst the prices of Alsace’s white wines today are never cheap, the top wines are relatively inexpensive alongside Burgundy. Quality in Alsace is often more consistent and the exotic nuance and dry steely style is totally unique.
Whilst easy to recognise, all bottled in stylish tall green flutes, and easy to understand – with varietal labelling – one issue many people have is whether the wine is dry or sweet.
Interestingly, the drier tighter more austere styles are made by negociant Protestant families like Trimbach, Hugel or Schlumberger, who often trained at Geisenheim in Germany – and their Rieslings are often the best. The sweeter textured more ebullient styles made by the Catholic winemakers near Colmar who trained in Burgundy, like Rolly Gassmann, major in Pinot Gris.
It might seem surprising that Pinot Noir is Alsace’s oldest grape, as today the region is dominated by whites, with 90% of plantings. Reds have for years been disappointingly thin and second-rate, tasting like a poor imitation of Burgundy. Tellingly, Pinot Noir is also not allowed to be labelled Grand Cru, even if it comes from a designated vineyard – but this may change.
Now a new generation of Alsace winemakers, fresh from travels abroad to Australia, South Africa and New Zealand, have been rethinking their approach to Pinot Noir. Reduced yields, selected sites and prolonged ripeness aided by a warming climate – wineries like Paul Blanck, Albert Mann, Olivier Zind Humbrecht and Martin Schaetzel are now making impressive reds at last. Alsace really deserves to be better known.
Cremant d’Alsace Mayerling Brut NV (£14 Woodwinters, Edinburgh)
Alsace sparkling Cremants are hugely popular in France, over 50% of all French Cremant production, but barely known here. If you normally drink Prosecco, try this stylish floral creamy delicate Pinot Blanc-based fizz instead: 12%
Muscat Kuentz Bas 2015 (£12.50 www.thewinesociety.com) ***STAR BUY***
A good introduction to Alsace; delicious blend of grapey, floral and honeyed fruits finishing dry from the masters of Muscat, Kuentz-Bas: 13%
Muscat Turckheim 2016 Zind-Humbrecht (£14 www.gonzalezbyassuk.com)
In typical richly textured Zind-Humbrecht style from very ripe Muscat grown on granite soils; zesty slightly herby with deep minerally core; serve with asparagus: 12%
Riesling Grand Cru Altenberg de Bergheim 2011 Gustave Lorentz (£24 Exel Wines, Perth; Inverarity Morton, Glasgow) ***STAR BUY***
Mature diesel aromas, rich honeyed textural palate from a true Grand Cru - a fabulous example to serve with grilled trout or lightly spiced Thai chicken: 13.5%
Pinot Gris Cuvee Albert 2015 Albert Mann (£20 www.josephbarneswines.com; www.thegoodwineshop.co.uk)
Old vine Pinot Gris from organic producer from Wettolsheim near Colmar who deserves to be better known; light smoke and honey aromas, spicy, expressive with rich intense flavours: 13.5%
OFF DRY WHITES
Pinot Gris Eichberg 2012 Kuentz-Bas (£22 www.thewinesociety.com)
Hints of caramel and vanilla, rich honeyed palate – a treat for anyone who loves bottle aged Pinot Gris to serve with risotto or mild creamy curry: 12.5%
Gewurztraminer Grand Cru Kirchberg de Barr 2010 Maison Klipfel (£22 www.armitwines.co.uk) ***STAR BUY***
Ripe fig and lychees, sweet nuanced palate with great depth from the superb 2010 vintage – sip on its own or with mature Munster cheese: 14%
Pinot Noir 2016 Paul Blanck (£14.99 Waitrose)
A good introduction to Alsace reds. Pale, delicate Pinot with expressive cherry fruit aromas and gentle soft tannins; served slightly chilled match with charcuterie: 12.5%
Pinot Noir Cuvee de Reserve 2015 Martin Schaetzel (£18.99 Raeburn Wines, Edinburgh)
Much deeper in colour than typical Alsace Pinot, this is a modern powerful style. Pioneer of the Alsace biodynamic movement, Martin’s son Jean Schaetzel makes this bright juicy vibrant red: 13%
Riesling Vendanges Tardive 2005 Domaine Rolly Gassmann (£25.65 Berry Bros & Rudd; Raeburn Wines)
A late harvested Riesling from a very warm vintage; rich mature petrol aromas with hints of botrytis noble rot, waxy vinosity and green tea notes on the palate. Made by one of the most charming wine families in Alsace. Delicious with pate or mild creamy blue cheese: 12%
Join Rose’s Organic, Biodynamic & Natural Wine Tasting in Edinburgh Thurs 5 July £42 www.rosemurraybrown.com