Saturday, December 19, 2015

Vins d'Alsace - The Wonderful White Wines of the Alsace, France.

Behind the French Menu
Bryan G. Newman
Updated August 2021
The Alsace and the Vosges
Photograph courtesy of Simon Bonaventure
Where is the Alsace

Alsace is in France's northeast, and since 1-1-2016, it is part of the new region of the Grand Est. The Alsace includes two departments: The Bas Rhin to the north borders Germany to the north and east and the French departments of Moselle, Haut-Rhin, the Vosges to the west. The Haut Rhine is the Alsace's southern department bordering Germany and Switzerland to its east, and the departments of Bas-Rhin and the Vosges to the west: to the south, the Haut Rhin is bordered by the French Territoire de Belfort. 

The departments of the Grand Est. The Alsace includes the Bas Rhin and Haut Rhin to the right of the picture:

Apart from its excellent wines and cuisine, the Alsace has some of the most beautiful countryside and villages in France. Traveling in the region includes the Regional Park of the Ballons des Vosges. The views from the Alsace's high points are entirely different from those of the summer; you may think you are in another country.

Why do I write about the wines of the Alsace?

Over twenty-five-plus years, I worked for ten days a year visiting an annual trade show in nearby Basel, Switzerland, which borders the Alsace. I became enamored with the wines and chefs who made the Alsace a unique culinary center in France. With friends and colleagues, we tried all the wines, most with delight, a few with sorrow.

We took evenings, weekends, and added family vacations to explore the Alsace, its wines, and restaurants. The Alsace was special, and so every evening, we left Basel and drove over the border and dined in France. We explored the Route des Vins d'Alsace, the main wine road of the Alsace.

We began with the recommendations of locally-based colleagues. We added more recommendations from chefs and restaurateurs who were happy to tell us of their favorite restaurants in other villages.  Some of the chefs invited us to their homes and shared local specialties that were off-menu.  If you have to be in the Alsace around April, it is a beautiful time of the year.


Follow this sign
Photograph courtesy of Tjeerd Wiersma

The grapes of the Alsace
And the names used for Alsatian wines 

Unlike most other French AOP wines, the AOC wines of Alsace may be named after the grape variety from which they are produced and must contain 85% to 100% of that grape. There are ten grapes in the Alsace that give their names to AOC wines in the Alsace though some will say nine. Altogether with the crus and sweet wines, these ten grapes become the 51 AOC wines of the Alsace.

  The ten grapes behind the AOC wines of the Alsace.

·       Auxerrois Blanc

·       Chasselas or Gutadel d’Alsace

·       Gewurztraminer d’Alsace.

·       Klevener de Heiligenstein

·       Muscat d’Alsac

·       Pinot Blanc d’Alsace,

·       Pinot Gris d’Alsace also called or Clevner or Klevner

·       Pinot Noir d’Alsace

·       Riesling d’Alsace

·       Sylvaner

The eleventh grape of the Alsace
However, the Alsatian Chardonnay grape does not have its own Alsatian AOC wine.

By itself, the Alsatian Chardonnay grape does not produce an AOP wine. In the Alsace, Chardonnay is classified as a lowly Vin de France. Despite this wine's low stature, nearly half of the outstanding sparkling Crémants d'Alsace AOC include Chardonnay. From my experience, Crémant d'Alsace AOC, in all its variations, is among the best Crémants in all of France. (For more about French wine grades, read my post: AOC/AOP, IGP, and Vin de France. The Labels on French Wines).

The Route des Vins d'Alsace - The Alsace Wine Road
Photograph courtesy of the Alsatian wine route website.

The Alsace wine route runs for some 185 km (115 miles) from south to north; it is practically a straight line crossing all the important vineyards, and at most, it is about 40 km (25 miles) from East to West. Some visitors drive the whole Alsatian wine route in a week or ten days and then say they have been there, done that, but they will have missed a great deal. The Route des Vins d' Alsace runs from Thann in the south (near Mulhouse, the largest city in the Alsace) to Marelheim just past Strasbourg, the capital of the European Parliament. My friends and I chose our wine tours by visiting villages in different areas. We spent evenings and weekends in many different villages; to some, we would return, sometimes, we moved on.

We wandered the streets of these beautiful villages with their endless wine shops, curio shops, and houses with stork nests on the rooftops. There may be ten plus wine shops in a single village, many offer wines from a single vintner. Some shops are set up on the stairs to a house, others in family dining rooms, and yet others are full-service wine shops in a cellar. 

One memorable visit.

When looking for a particular vintner whose wines we had enjoyed the year before, but couldn’t find in a wine shop. We arrived at a private house well away from a village. We were taken into the family living room, where, from the family pictures, we could see that time had stood still since the 1920s. The elderly and gracious owner plied us with wine from two different appellations from her vineyards and three different years and then gave each of us two bottles to take with us and refused to take any payment. She said, this is my home; you are my guests. This is not our shop, that is in the next village. This is my home, and here I do not sell wine. Over a beautiful two hours, while battling through with my bad French, we learned about the owner's family and the history of their wines. N.B. Alsace has over 1,000 producers, and all produce wines from more than one appellation, and of course, they offer wines from different years. To do the Alsatian wines justice, you do not need 25 years; you need 100!  

Storks on a roof in the Alsace
Photograph courtesy of ilovebutter

The importance of resting before serious wine tasting and dining.

After lunch, we would return to our hotels and rest; we needed to be rested to be ready for the serious business in the evening. Alsatian wines will be on the wine list and the menu; in a few restaurants, friendly sommeliers, maitre D's, and chefs explained how Alsatian wines are used in the kitchen.

Wining and dining in the Alsace in Alphabetical order:

Auxerrois Blanc AOC

The first wine in the alphabetical list is the Auxerrois Blanc AOC. However, while I once saw Auxerrois on an Alsatian website, I have never seen it on a restaurant's wine list. This white wine competes with Chardonnay for the most important grape behind the Cremant d'Alsace. Auxerrois also replaces some 30% of all Pinot Blanc d'Alsace wines, though the label will still read Pinot Blanc. So you probably will not see this wine on its own; it may well be hiding in that bottle marked Pinot Blanc; you would never know. 

A Vin de France

Chardonnay in the Alsace is probably the most important grape used in the Crémant d'Alsace. However, important this wine on its own has to be sold as a Vin de France. A Vin de France is today the most basic rating for a wine from France; it replaces wines that were previously called Vin de Table, table wines. These are often the cheapest wines on the market and the wines most often seen on the table in private homes. Most Vins de France wines are considered basic and inexpensive wines, but knowledgeable sommeliers and restaurateurs will find gold among these wines. A wine may be reduced to Vin de France status merely because they did not keep one of the rulings for an AOP wine or were grown 100 meters (100 yards) outside an appellation's fence, though they remain a great wine. Restaurateurs and sommeliers look for a Vin de France, which should be rated much higher, and they buy up all the production they can afford. Then they make this their house wine, and with a unique find, they can offer their customers real value and have them returning for the wine alone. The Alsace sells plain, not sparkling, Chardonnay wines and we did find a few of these. We found these wines in the villages of Turckheim and Kayseberg, both better-known for their Gewürztraminer wines. We did not see Chardonnay d'Alsace on any wine lists, but I am sure they are out there.

Crémant d'Alsace AOC

The Crémant d'Alsace is a beautiful sparkling wine. This Crémant may be blended from a variety of other Alsatian grapes, but the primary white blends will be Chardonnay or Auxerrois Blanc. Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, and Riesling may also be in the blend. The label will not note the grapes in the blend though the vintner may tell you. The Crémant d'Alsace is made by the traditional method, that means the Champagne method, made with a second fermentation in the bottle. Though we are only supposed to call it the Méthode Traditionelle, The bottle design is the traditional Champagne shape. For the visitor and buyer at home, I suggest ordering a dry Crémant d'Alsace, that is a brut, dry, or, if unavailable, an ultra brut, very dry, whether the Crémant is, a white or a rose. The wine will be an enjoyable sparkling wine that can accompany nearly any dish. N.B. A semi-sweet crémant will be very, very sweet and may make many dishes unpalatable. Click on the posts on Crémants and Champagnes and note the sparkling wine sweetness grades at the end. Check the sweetness grades before you buy or order any sparkling wine. For all sparkling wine, the meanings of dry, semi-dry, etc., for all sparkling wine, are very different from those of still wine. 

Crémant d’Alsace
Photograph courtesy of Ellen Bouckaert

For the Crémants d'Alsace, we first visited three villages 5 km (3 miles) from each other in the Haute Rhine. We chose Mittelwihr, Kaysersberg, and Sigolsheim. These villages are also 12 km (8 miles) from Colmar, the beautiful departmental capital with many excellent restaurants. The village wine shops offer more than just the Crémant d'Alsace, and around these beautiful villages are many growers who specialize in Gewurztraminer.

I have never had a Crémant d'Alsace that I did not enjoy, but the wines do differ from vintner to vintner. A Crémant may also be offered as a Blanc de Noir. A Blanc de Noir is a white wine in the Alsace made with the black Pinot Noir grape, and that is a different Cremant d'Alsace. In the restaurants, when ordering Crémants, we usually drank the same wine all through the dinner apart from occasional changes for an aperitif and digestif.


Cremant d'Alsace.
Photograph courtesy of wincz

The Alsatian Rosé Crémants may only be made from Pinot Noir. In Champagne, the pink champagnes are made by adding red wine to a white Champagne wine. If you tried that in the Alsace, you would be out on your ear!

Crémant d’Alsace on French menus:

Your aperitif may be a Kir Royale au Crémant d'Alsace. Kir, the aperitif, has a black currant liquor, Crème de Cassis, added to a Crémant wine. While no longer at the top of the popularity stakes, Kir has never gone out of fashion. The original Kir and  Kir Royale came from Burgundy and was prepared with Champagne. Burgundy now has its own Crémant de Bourgogne. I have also enjoyed more than one Kir Royale where both the Crème de Cassis and the Crémant came from the Alsace.

Kir Royale
Photograph courtesy of Alex Brown

Noix de St-Jacques Rôties, Beurre Blanc au Crémant d'Alsace, Risotto aux Champignons – The roasted meat of the king scallop served with a beurre blanc sauce made with the Crémant d’Alsace and a button mushroom risotto. The Beurre Blanc sauce is one of France’s favorite sauces for fish and seafood. Also see the post on the city of Nantes where this sauce originated.

Sorbet Goyave Arrosé Crémant d'Alsace - A guava, the fruit, sorbet sprinkled and flavored with Crémant d’Alsace

Choucroute Royale au Crémant d'Alsace Choucroute Garni is a huge Alsatian traditional meal of pickled cabbage, sausages, pork and much more. Choucroute Royal is the over-the-top version of this dish, replacing the white wine with a Crémant.

Chasselas or Gutadel AOC

Chasselas or Gutadel outside the Alsace is the grape behind the French Pouilly-sur-Loire AOC/AOP wine and the Swiss Fendant. The Alsatian Chasselas wine has a fresh bouquet and is a crisp, slightly mineral, dry wine. The Alsatian Chasselas is an excellent wine for an aperitif, but only a little of this unique wine is grown in the Alsace.

The Chasselas vines originally came from Germany, and Chasselas's second name is Gutedel, which means good and noble in German. The Chasselas grape's most famous cousin, albeit a distant cousin, is one of France's two most famous AOC table grapes; this is the unique and delicious Raisin Chasselas de Moissac AOC. For our first look at the Chasselas wine, we went to the villages of Riquewihr and Ammerschwihr; they are some 8 km (5 miles) apart. These villages and communities all offer most Alsace wines, but some of the best Chasselas come from the area around these villages.

Chasselas d’Alsace on French menus:

Les Filets de Féra du Lac Pochés, Servis Avec une Sauce du ChasselasFilets of the broad whitefish, a trout, and salmon family member, caught in the lakes, poached and served with a Chasselas wine sauce.

Blanquette de Sandre su Chasselas Etuvée De Lentilles Vertes En Duo De Poireaux Aux Deux Façons - A stew of pike perch, zander, the fish.  The stew will be flavored with mushrooms and the Chasselas wine, and here it is served with steamed green lentils and leeks prepared in two different manners.

Edelzwicker AOC and Gentil AOC

Edelzwicker and Gentil are mixed blended wines that may include other Alsatian wines with some minimum quantity rules. I recommend all other Alsace white wines apart from these two wines. I advise you to leave them alone. These two wines are inexpensive and have tastes that vary from year to year, along with ingredients that differ from one producer to producer. These wines can only be excused as a marketing manager's way of cheaply getting rid of overproduction. They are sold cheaply, but it is best to forget about them as they are rarely good, and you will never know what you will be getting—none of those wines for me.

Gewurztraminer AOC

Gewurztraminer AOC is a very fruity, occasionally sweet, but primarily semi-dry wine. It is probably the best-known Alsatian wine and is now grown and produced all over the world. When semi-dry, it is my favorite Alsatian wine, narrowly winning against the Alsatian Pinot Gris and winning hands down against all the copies from outside the Alsace. If I had to choose an all-around favorite for dinner with only one white wine and menu choices of asparagus, fish, poultry, fruit, cheese, and a dessert course, then it would have to be a Gewurztraminer d'Alsace AOP. Locally this wine is called Gewürz. Do not choose a sweet Vendage Tardive Gewurztraminer for your main course. A Vendage Tardive Gewurztraminer is very sweet and makes a fine aperitif or when accompanying foie gras, but it would take over the tastes of the entrees and main dishes.


Gewurztraminer d’Alsace
Photograph courtesy of Dominic Lockyer

For Gewurztraminer, we visited the villages of Winzenheim, Hunawihr, Kaysersberg, and Riquewihr, and they are about 11 km (seven miles) from each other. Apart from the wines, we were also targeting restaurants in the area. We found the workplaces of quite a few outstanding chefs and listened to their suggestions for Alsatian wines.

The many grades and types of Gewurztraminer. 

This includes the Gewurztraminer Grand Crus from various appellations and Vendage Tardive wines, plus the Sélection de Grains Noble. The Vendage Tardives are made with grapes left on the vine long past the usual harvest date. Open a bottle of a Gewurztraminer Vendage Tardive, and the area around is filled with the scent of flowers; these are very sweet wines. The Sélection de Grains Noble Alsatian wines are different wines and are even sweeter than the Vendange Tardive wines. The Sélection de Grains Noble Alsatian wines are the highest grade of the Alsatian dessert wines. Even after a few weekends concentrating on Gewurztraminer, we still needed our books and notes; there is too much for amateurs to remember. There are 51 Grand Cru appellations covering four wines!

Then there is the Marc de Gewürztraminer. Marcs, like Italian Grappas and similar brandies from other wine-producing countries these are made from grape skins, leaves, pulp, and seeds that are leftover from the production of wines. Marc de Gewurztraminer, 40% alcohol, is a digestif and in the kitchen adds its particular scent and taste to sauces. The wine also makes Gewurztraminer vinegar. Gewürztraminer Vinaigrette and other dressings made with this vinegar bring that scent of flowers to a meal. For more on all the versions of Gewürztraminer, see the post: Gewurztraminer the wine.

While the Grand Crus come from separate appellations and may be improved by aging over many years. That is not true for the less expensive Gewurztraminers that we bought. The wines we bought were at their best at two years of age. Grand Crus can cost more than the meal in restaurants, and we had agreed that we would not pay more for the wine than the main course. The sweet Vendage Tardive wines are made with grapes left on the vine long past the usual harvest date, and when bottled, these sweet wines may be aged for years. When you open a bottle of a Gewurztraminer Vendage Tardive, the area around is filled with the scent of flowers. The Sélection de Grains Noble Alsatian wines are even sweeter than the Vendange Tardive wines and are the highest grade of the Alsatian dessert wines.

Gewurztraminer on French Menus:

Dos de Maigre aux Effluves d'Epices Cuit sous vos Yeux Sauce Beurre Blanc au Gewurztraminer et son Risotto aux Champignons - A thick cut from the back of meagre, the fish. The fish is called Croaker or Salmon Bass in English. Here the fish is scented with spices and cooked in front of the diner in a beurre blanc sauce made with Gewurztraminer wine and served with a mushroom risotto. The beurre blanc sauce that originated in Nantes is France's favorite sauce for fish dishes and certain seafood dishes.

Munster Flambé au Marc de Gewurztraminer -The Alsace's famous AOP Munster cheese served flambéed with the Gewurztraminer 40% alcohol Marc brandy.

Parfait Glacé au Gewurztraminer This is a frozen dessert parfait, often this will be a fruit-based mousse made with cream. Here, it is flavored with Gewürztraminer.

Muscat d'Alsace AOC

Muscat d'Alsace is a dry white wine, not at all like a sweet Muscat. This is a very special Muscat wine that is distinguished from others in Germany and elsewhere in that it is a very clean tasting dry wine. The Muscat also makes an excellent aperitif. There are two types of Muscat, and their origins are noted on the label. In our tastings, we could taste differences, but neither seemed to dominate as the very best.

The rarest of the two Muscats in the Alsace is called the Muscat à Petits Grains. This Muscat is said to be one of the world's oldest grapes. This is the grape that is grown all across the Old World and used for raisins as a dessert wine and is behind all the different variations of Muscat wines. The other Muscat in the Alsace is the Muscat Ottonel.

We went looking for Muscat in the villages of Voegtlinshoffen and Geuberschwihr. The two villages are less than one km (less than one mile) apart, and we also visited the village of Turckheim about eight km (five miles) away.

Muscat d’Alsace on French menus:

Foie Gras de Canard au Muscat d'Alsace, Confiture d'Oignons  Fattened duck's liver prepared with the Muscat d’Alsace and served with a sweet onion jam.

Le Poêlon d'Escargots au Muscat d'Alsace  Lightly fried snails prepared with the Muscat d’Alsace.

Pinot Gris AOC

 Pinot Gris AOC was previously called Tokay Pinot Gris AOC. (The name change is another story and connected to Hungary's sweet Tokaj wine). Pinot Gris d'Alsace is an excellent full-bodied fragrant semi-dry to dry wine and my personal choice for salmon and poultry.

The grape was only distinguished from Chardonnay 100 years ago, and while different, the Chardonnay association may be noticed.   

Pinot Gris is one out of several varieties of the Pinot family that are grown in Alsace. In Italy, Pinot Gris is known as Pinot Grigio, and there the original grape may have developed. Today the Alsatian Pinot Gris and the Italian Pinot Grigio are very different wines. In the Loire Pinot Gris is called Malvoisie, which was one of the wines blended with Champagne in the 17th century. In Burgundy, Pinot Gris is called Pinot Beurot and grown chiefly in the department of Yonne. Pinot Gris also has Grand Cru wines along with the sweet Vendant Tardive Pinot Gris and their Sélection de Grains Noble Pinot Gris.

Pinot Gris d’Alsace
Photograph courtesy of Vivino  

Pinot Gris AOC on French menus:

Dos de Sandre Rôti sur Peau, sur Lit de Choux Vert Confit, Sauce de Pinot Gris A thick cut from the back of a pike perch/zander roasted in its skin and served on a bed of green cabbage that was slowly cooked and as a sweet cabbage jam and all flavored with Pinot Gris.

Foie Gras de Canard "Maison," Gelée au Pinot Gris et Pain de Campagne Grillé - Fattened duck's liver prepared in the chef's unique manner along with an aspic jelly flavored with Pinot Gris and served with toasted country bread.

Gros Turbot Sauvage: Rôti sur l'Arête, Potimarron et Châtaigne, Réduction de Pinot Gris – A large cut from wild turbot roasted on the bone and served with pumpkin and chestnuts and a sauce flavored with Pinot Noir. Wild turbot "sauvage" is clearly noted here as France is one of the few countries that are actively sea-farming turbot. Here, the restaurant wants to be sure that you know why you will be paying a higher price. Remember, fish are very much what they eat, and wild turbot is tastier than farmed turbot.

Pinot Blanc d’Alsace AOC also called Clevner or Klevner

Pinot Blanc or Clevner or Klevner is not to be confused with the Alsatian Klevener Heiligenstein. In the Alsace under the appellation rules, the Alsace Pinot Blanc may be applied as a wine designation to a white wine consisting of Auxerrois Blanc. Nearly 20% of Alsatian vineyards are planted with Pinot Blanc. 

Pinot Blanc has a pale yellow color with hints of green. The bouquet is fresh, slightly fruity. It is a perfect example of a medium Alsatian white wine

The Auxerrois Blanc grape may legally replace the Pinot Gris in a bottle and retain Pinot Blanc's name. I suppose you have to know the vintner, but in any case, we never suffered.

For Pinot Blanc, we visited the villages of Katzenthal and Niedermorschwihr, which are less than 0.5 km apart.

Pinot Blanc d’Alsace
Photograph courtesy of Vivino

Pinot Blanc d’Alsace on French menus:

Fricassée d'Escargots au Pinot Blanc et Champignons - A snail stew made with Pinot Blanc and button mushrooms

Filet de Sandre au Pinot Blanc - A filet of Pike Perch, Zander, prepared with Pinot Blanc.

Pinot Noir d’Alsace AOC

Pinot Noir d'Alsace AOC is the only red wine, really a very dark rosé, grown in the Alsace. It is a pleasant light rose or vinified as a light red wine. If you have ordered a steak or a beef stew and wish for an intense red to accompany it, you will need to choose a red wine from outside the Alsace. Some meat dishes made with a Pinot Noir sauce are excellent though the Pinot Noir d'Alsace does not suit every meat dish.

Pinot Noir is, along with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, one of the worlds' most famous grapes in blended red wines.

For Pinot Noir, we visited the villages of Pfaffenheim, Rouffach, and Westhalten with less than five km (three miles) between each village. 

Pinot Noir is also used for the production of Crémants d’Alsace Blancs de Noirs and the Crémant d’Alsace Rosé. Blanc de Noirs, as with Champagne, are white wines made with black grapes. These do have a different taste to white Cremants made with white grapes.

Pinot Noir d’Alsace on French menus:

Faux Filet Rôti, Sauce Aux Pinot Noir  – A steak from just below the French entrecôte, roasted; this is just below the cut for a U.S. rib-eye steak. In the USA, this may be called a strip steak, among other names. In the U.K., this would be a U.K. sirloin steak, the cut above the rump and a very different cut to the U.S. sirloin; these are very juicy steaks, and if you have the choice, order yours as thick as possible. A contre-fillet will be grilled or lightly pan-fried and never well done. Well done, this cut will be very tough. See the post: Ordering a steak cooked the way you like it.

Filet De Loup De Mer Au Pinot Noir  - This is the European Sea Bass, more often on French menus as Bar. Loup de Mer – The European Sea Bass served in a Pinot Noir Sauce.

Le Magret de Canard au Pinot Noir, Poires aux Airelles et Späetzles Maison – Duck breast prepared with Pinot Noir, pears, European cranberries, and the restaurant's particular version of spaetzli. Spaetzli or Spaetzle are small dumplings from the Alsace. They look like overweight, bumpy noodles and will be served as a garnish instead of potatoes or rice. Despite their shape, like most other dumplings, they are made with flour, eggs, and water or milk; they are often flavored with herbs and or mushrooms. The dish originated in Germany, and the word spâtzlé means little sparrow in German.

Magret de Canard – Duck Breast
Magret de canard au poivre vert, pommes de terre sautées
Photograph courtesy of Frédérique Voisin-Demery
Sylvaner d'Alsace AOC 

Sylvaner d'Alsace is a light white with the best dry and crispy. Among the wines of Alsace, it is somewhat less aromatic than others, but it is terrific with many seafood dishes.

In search of Sylvaner, we visited the villages of Rouffach, Westhalten, and Orschwihr, all under four km (2.5 miles) from each other.

Sylvaner d'Alsace on French menus:

Foie Gras de Canard, Chutney de Mirabelle au Sylvaner – Fattened duck's liver served with a chutney made with France's favorite and unique Mirabelle plums flavored with white Alsatian Sylvaner wine.

Papillote De Saumon Et Rouget Sur Lit De Julienne De Légumes Ou Choucroute et sa Crème de Sylvane Salmon and Striped Red Mullet cooked inside a sealed waxed paper or baking parchment paper (in English-English, that's grease-proof paper). Alternatively, aluminum foil is often used. The sealing keeps all the flavors inside. Inside the sealed bag, the fish on this menu listing is cooked on a bed of thinly cut (Julienne) vegetables along with the Alsace's signature choucroute (pickled cabbage). All come served with a crème Sylvaner sauce. When opened, in front of the diner, all the aromas rise together, and none of the tastes are lost.

Terrine de Lapin au Sylvaner (This is an Alsatian specialty) – A rabbit pate flavored with Sylvaner. The dish is made with farmed rabbits and is an Alsatian favorite, almost an Alsatian comfort food.

Terrine de Lapin, Sauce Ravigote
Photograph courtesy of Marie Claire Cuisine et Vins
Riesling d’Alsace AOC

Riesling is, among the serious Alsatian wine cognoscenti, the number one wine of the Alsace, my claim for Gewurztraminer non-withstanding. Riesling is also the most widely grown vine in the Alsace.

Riesling vines probably began over the border in Germany on the banks of the River Rhine and spread to wine-growing regions all over the globe. The Riesling grown in the Alsace is very clearly better than its German relative though the German's are coming out with some newer and excellent dry Rieslings. The Alsatian Riesling has a beautiful bouquet with fruity aromas and a flinty taste in the back. Riesling is also one of the Alsatian white wines that will age well in the bottle.

We visited the villages of Bergheim, Hunawihr, and Saint-Hippolyte, all about 4 km (2.5 miles) from each other when searching for Riesling. The Alsatian Riesling is a light green to yellow wine with a mineral bouquet with slight floral notes. This wine is not like the sweet Rieslings of Germany, and the Alsace makes no sparkling Riesling. The Alsatian Riesling is a dry white wine; Alsatian Rieslings also have Grand Crus and sweet Graines Nobles.  


Riesling d’Alsace
Photograph courtesy of Anns and Michal

Riesling d’Alsace on French Menus:

Demi-Coquelet au Vin d'Alsace, Spaetzle Maison – Half of a 4 – 6 weeks old cockerel, a rooster. A young chicken of similar age is a poussin. This will be a French entrée, the starter, or part of a light lunch. Spaetzli or Spaetzle are small dumplings from the Alsace.

Truite au Riesling - Rainbow or Steelhead Trout - This trout is also called Kamloops trout, Salmon Trout, Summer Salmon, and Coast Angel Trout. N.B. (The trout called salmon trout in North America is not the fish called salmon trout in Europe, they are different members of the trout family). Probably 90% of the trout in France are arc-en-cel, rainbow trout, and most will have been farmed. Other rainbow trout in France will have been caught in rivers and lakes that have been stocked. Rainbow trout have a firm flesh with an excellent taste, and when the menu says trout without any additional names, then the trout on the menu is rainbow trout. The majority of the farmed fish are sold when they weigh less than one kilo ( 2.2 lbs), though, in the wild, they may grow to over 20 kilos (44 lbs) 

Ėchine FuméeSaucisse à l'Ail, Saucisse au Riesling et Pommes de Terre Vapeur Smoked pork spare ribs with garlic sausage and a Riesling flavored sausage served with steamed potatoes.

Klevener de Heiligenstein AOC

Klevener de Heiligenstein is a rare grape variety also known as Traminer or Savagnin Rose. It is produced in only a few hectares around the village of Heiligenstein. We went to the villages of Heiligenstein, Obernai, and Rosheim, all some 6 km (4 miles) apart, in search of Klevener de Heiligenstein. There we found the wine and learned that the village of Obernai is even more famous for the local breweries that include the Kronenbourg and Stoeffler beers, among others.

Klevener de Heiligenstein is very popular with the Alsatian wine cognoscente. It is a light dry white wine with a golden yellow color, with a mild aromatic floral bouquet that is very clear. This wine will often be on a wine list as an aperitif or dessert wine. The wine is less aromatic than Gewurztraminer, and if you buy a bottle, it is at its best when just two years old. The wine is not to be confused with the other wine made from grape varieties named Clevner or Klevner.

Klevener de Heiligenstein on French menus:

Filet de Turbot Fine Sauce au Klevener de Heiligenstein – A filet of turbot, the fish, served with a sauce made with the Klevener de Heiligenstein wine. 

Foie Gras de Canard Parfumé au Klevener Prestige de Heiligensteinet sa Confiture de Figues Violettes Fattened duck's liver perfumed with the Prestige Klevener de Heiligensteinet and served with a jam made from violet colored figs

Le Sandre Rôti au Klevener de Heiligenstein, Riz et Légumes de Saison - The fish Pike-Perch or Zander; roasted with the Klevener de Heiligenstein wine and served with rice and the seasons vegetables. Pike-Perch is a meaty, tasty freshwater fish somewhat similar to pike, called brochet, in French and very popular. In the Alsace, the lakes and rivers are stocked with these two fish and they are also farmed.

All Alsace wines, except the Crémants, must by law be bottled in the region of production in the traditional thin-looking Alsace bottle called a flûte. (see the post-Bouteilles, on French bottle shapes and sizes).

Among the four Vendant Tardive wines of the Alsace the Vendant Tardive Gewurztraminer and the Vendant Tardive Pinot Gris, can hold their own against the Sauternes from Bordeaux.

Exploring the wines of the Alsace is a unique experience. It is very different from exploring the wines of Bordeaux or Burgundy and not just because Alsace is famous for its white wines and produces only one red. It is different because the wines are different, as are the villages, the people, and the countryside. With rare exceptions, the wines are not limited to a single area and grow in vineyards all over the place along the wine route.

In the beginning, we were novice explorers enjoying the newspaper and magazine reports on excellent Alsatian chefs and the wines served in their restaurants. Later our guides to the wines were the chefs and sommeliers. These experts became friends, and then they would suggest their favorite wines and even competing restaurants where there were other great chefs.

The Alsace wine route has many smaller trails branching off along the way, and there you will see many of France's most beautiful villages. We chose the quieter trails and picked groups of villages close by each other to wander and taste different wines. We did not want to spend hours driving, but instead, we chose fairyland villages that were at most a ten or fifteen-minute drive or walk rom another village. I had never expected to spend twenty-five years for ten days a year in the Alsace, but that time frame also gave me many opportunities to meet many of the growers and return a few years later and then again. The wines from a single vintner are not the same year after year; the climate affects wines, and while they may always be good, they will be different.

Alsace wines have a Confrérie

Of course, to promote and protect its wines, Alsace has a confrérie. This one goes back to 1561, probably the oldest specifically wine-centered confrérie in France. This is the Confrérie Saint-Etienne. The name is derived from the feast of Saint-Etienne, historically held on the 26th of December. In 1973, its headquarters were installed in the Château de Kientzheim near Kaysersberg, and no one may become a Confrère unless he is joyful, fond of good living, of Alsace wines, and has passed a wine tasting test set by the Grand Council.

The escutcheon of the Confrérie Saint-Etienne.
Photograph courtesy of Mark Morgan.

Confréries were Brotherhoods; today that's brotherhoods and sisterhoods, dedicated to food and wine. France once had hundreds of brotherhoods, many with ancient religious or secret craft backgrounds, shades of the Da Vinci Code. However,  modern France has hundreds of confréries that devote themselves to foods and wines, including liquors, cheeses, fresh mayonnaise, the Real Tarte Tatingarlicblood sausages, cattle breeds, snails, etc. All confréries are determined to enhance and protect their chosen area of interest. Many also use their organizations for charitable events; however sincere they are, they are marketing organizations.

Tasting Alsatian wine

With so many different wines and years, the final number of choices is beyond counting. In the villages, some wine shops are owned or dedicated to the wines of a single producer, while others promote a variety of different vintners. For a small contribution to the local economy, you may try a small glass of each. Of course, the sellers hope that you will then buy a whole bottle or possibly a case. When visiting the villages, we would stop for a light lunch, often choosing one of Alsace's signature dishes, such as Tarte Flambée, Flammekueche in Allemand Alsacien. N.B. Tarte Flambee is not an Alsatian pizza! Of course, at lunch, we would also try another Alsatian wine, but not a whole bottle.

Alsatian cuisine

Alsatian cuisine is much more than traditional dishes such as Choucroute, Baeckeofe(also called Potée Alsacienne), Foie Gras, Tarte FlambéeCarp, (the fish), Alsatian Honey and Munster cheese. The highly skilled chefs of the Alsace emphasize local produce with the cutting edge skill of the great modern chefs of France. Despite pursuing the latest French cuisine for the traditionalists, most restaurants will offer at least one of the traditional dishes on their regular menu. The diners should not be surprised if those traditional dishes may come with a few recent changes. Read my post on: Dining in the Alsace, France - Cuisine à l'Alsacienne.

Buying wines from the Alsace.

When buying Alsatian white wines, apart from the aged sweet dessert wines and the carefully nurtured Crus, you can purchase excellent inexpensive wines that are just one or two years old. A two-year-old white wine from Alsace is often ideal, quaffable, memorable, and affordable. From personal experience, outside of the Grand Crus, a three-year-old white will often be no better than a two-year-old. 


The Alsace in Winter.
Photograph courtesy of Heiner Adams

The language of the Alsace

Alsacien or Allemand Alsacien is the German-based dialect used in the Alsace. Both Alsace and Lorraine changed hands reasonably frequently between France and the various German States with their continual wars and then again with a united Germany during both world wars. The Alsace and Lorraine German-based languages are in use today with local newspapers and radio programs available; the dialect used over the border in Lorraine is somewhat different and called Franconian. Many local menus will be in Allemand Alsacien and offer a French translation, but not all Alsatian menus will provide an English translation! Despite that, French-speaking visitors should not worry as the population of the Alsace all speak perfect French and Allemand Alsacien.

The German influence in the Alsatian wine industry.

The wars between France, the German States, and Germany over many centuries saw the Alsace being ruled by Germany and France in turn, with the German viniculture influencing both the shape of the bottles and in some of the Alsatian wine production methods. Only in 1962 did the Alsace join the French AOC system.

As I have traveled around France and enjoyed its cuisine and wine, I have tried, as far as I can, to keep away from the various labels of Crus, Grand Crus, etc., as they are so unique and outside most diners’ day to day budgets. There are enough fabulous wines at prices that will not deter the traveler. Even more to the point when choosing a top-of-the-line Cru, when you do not know the vintner and the year, you may well get less than you bargained for. On my journeys, I have been invited to enjoy some of these fabulous wines, but this post is based on the wines that most of us will try and enjoy without knowledgeable outside advice.

An impressive number of top-named vintners have changed to or added organic wines to their products in recent years, and that trend is set to continue to grow and add new tastes.


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Bryan G. Newman

Behind the French Menu
Copyright 2010, 2015, 2021
For information on the unpublished book behind this blog write to Bryan Newman

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