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White Wines Rule in Alsace

Slideshow SLIDESHOW: White Wines Rule in Alsace

[Photographs: Sarah Bray]

Alsace is the only region in France dedicated almost exclusively to making white wine, and the breadth of grapes, soils, vineyard locations, and styles makes this region a gold mine for wine lovers to explore. From still to sparkling, light to rich, dry to sweet, the wines of Alsace offer a wealth of flavors to choose from, something I discovered on a recent visit.

A long, thin region on the eastern side of France, about a 2.5-hour train ride from Paris, Alsace lies on the border with Germany. The first thing you notice when you get there is how beautiful it is. Steep slopes, timbered houses, and clear light all define the landscape, and the slopes aren't the only famously sunny thing about the region—the Alsatians have been at the crossroads of two warring neighbors for centuries, and yet they are some of the friendliest people I've ever met.

The Hugel & Fils tasting room greets visitors as they enter Riquewihr's main road.

Although fiercely French, German influences are everywhere, especially when you think about some of the grapes that they grow here, namely riesling and gewurztraminer. Indeed, in Alsace Riesling is king, but unlike the wines produced in neighboring Germany, the Alsatian style is bone dry and racy, unless it's a late harvest wine, known here as Vendange Tardive or Selections de Grains Nobles.

Other grapes commonly grown here include pinot gris, muscat d'Alsace, and pinot blanc, along with a little chardonnay, pinot noir, auxerrois, and sylvaner. Some lower end wines are blends of any of these grapes, and the region's sparkling wine (crémant) is often a blend as well, but for the most part, top wines are made with a single variety. The soil in Alsace is a mosaic of limestone, clay, granite, schist, and more, and winemakers here really focus on bringing the nuances of each plot of land to life in their wines.

Many winemakers produce multiple kinds of wines each harvest: a Muscat d'Alsace, a Pinot Blanc, and depending on how well the harvest goes, one or more Rieslings, Gewurtztraminers, Pinot Gris, and then maybe an entry level blend and a crémant, not to mention that many are trying their hand at Pinot Noir. It's enough to make your head spin. But it's worth exploring: the wines coming out of Alsace right now are well-made treasures at extremely reasonable prices. Here are some of the best and best-priced bottles to start your journey.

Alsatian Bubbly to Seek Out

Willm Crémant d'Alsace Blanc de Noirs NV: This vibrant sparkling wine, made of 100% pinot noir grapes, smelled of stone, pear, and cider. Because of its crisp acidity, it is very pleasant to sip on alone, but its weightier body means that it goes equally well with food. Try it with hors d'oeuvres like a nutty cheese. (around $14)

Albert Mann, Crémant d'Alsace 2008: A blend of pinot blanc (60%) and auxerrois (40%), this golden bubbly is rich and complex. With a broad, rich texture and delicate mousse, hints of baking spice, pineapple, and hay shine on the palate, and a touch of quince lingers on the finish. (around $22)

Gustave Lorentz, Crémant d'Alsace Rosé NV: The rose petal and raspberry color of this 100% pinot noir sparkling wine carries through to its aromas. Medium-bodied but refreshing, the bright red fruits on the palate are balanced by a backbone of citrusy acidity. A great sipping wine for the holidays. (around $25)

Delicious Pinot Blanc

Hugel et Fils, Pinot Blanc "Cuvée Les Amours" 2009: The aroma of this wine doesn't give away too much, but one sip and you're overcome by its bright, fresh fruit, full of flavors of pears, green apples, and honeydew. (around $16)

Josmeyer, Pinot Blanc "Mise du Printemps" 2011: A very light wine that tastes of freshly cut apples tossed in lemon, its minerality balances a hint of sweetness. Try this easy-drinking wine with Asian dishes to bring out a lovely tart finish. (around $25)

Delightful Pinot Gris

René Muré, Pinot Gris Grand Cru Vorbourg Clos St Landelin 2009: Round and full, this pinot gris hints at ripe apple cider, with a saltiness and acidity that appear on the finish. (around $21)

Paul Blanck Pinot Gris Classique 2010: This wine is a bit of an oxymoron: rich and lean, oily and acidic, it showcases the hallmarks of the pinot gris variety in the winemaker's signature, austere style. With hints of white flowers and lemon cream, you expect the sweeter, fuller body, just not the acid that cuts through the finish. (around $23)

Rich and Racy Riesling

Joseph Cattin, Riesling Reserve 2011: With its clean, crisp aroma and hints of pear, green apple, and pepper, this well-priced wine offers a diversity of flavors. Very fresh with a medium body, the lemony acidity and dryness of this wine makes this a great entry point Alsatian riesling. (around $14)

Domaine Zind Humbrecht , Riesling "Terroir d'Alsace" 2010: This riesling is defined by its gorgeous minerality. Its zesty fragrance whets the palate for citrus fruit and bright, racy acidity. (around $30)

Domaine Bott Geyl, Riesling "Les Éléments" 2009: A bold and rich style of riesling, hints of lemon and musty eucalyptus dominate at first sip, but then it opens up to notes of papaya and almond dust. (around $18)

Hugel et Fils, Riesling "Hugel" 2011: If you're looking for a classic Alsatian riesling, you've found it. With its bright steely minerality, the bone-dry "Hugel" typifies the Alsatian style. Its purity allows for its primary characteristics to shine through: pear and lemon fruit flavors, backed by sharp acidity. Although it is slightly bracing on its own, it really shines with food, especially the clean, crisp flavors of Japanese cuisine. (around $21)

Domaine Gresser Riesling Kritt 2010: Produced from vines grown on gravel-based soil, this Riesling has a strong mineral backbone. It smells like pear, honeysuckle, and unripe white peach. Once you take a sip, you get hints of green apple at first, but let it sit in the glass for a bit, and more complex, smoky flavors and aromas appear. Great with white meats like pork, which soften the wine's acidity. (around $24)

Great Gewurtztraminer

Gustave Lorentz, Gewurtztraminer Reserve 2010: The perfume of this gewurtztraminer is astonishing, full of the fragrances of honey, lilies, and white pepper. Despite the rich nose, it's rather crisp on the palate, with a lingering but bright finish. (around $24)

Domaine Barmès Buecher, Gewurtztraminer "Herrenweg" 2008: The golden honey color of this wine foretells its rich, complex smells and tastes. The smells dance back and forth between honey and cantaloupe, herbal tea, and lychee. Once you take a sip, it seems bright and fresh at first, then sensation of nectar floats over the tongue, bringing flavors of dried apricots and baking spice that linger long after you've swallowed. (around $24)

Want to get a look around the vineyards and cellars of Alsace? Check out my snapshots (including one of the world's oldest barrel still in use) in the slideshow above.

Note: Sarah traveled to France on a press trip hosted by Wines of France and Sopexa. Recommended wines were selected from samples provided for review consideration.

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