It’s tempting to think sommeliers and wine writers relish seeking out the most obscure little wines and teeny winemaking regions simply to feed their superiority complex, and while that may be true of some I’d like to point out that we’re not all like that. I’ll make my case with the region of Alsace, France. It’s a place that everyone who’s into wine knows about and almost no one who isn’t into wine notices. It sits on the eastern edge of the map of France sharing a border with Germany and Switzerland and has been quietly producing great wine through all the shifts from German to French rule. That wine has recently become a wine media darling and is often cited as the perfect accompaniment to a Thanksgiving feast.
If you’re rolling your eyes, I understand. French? German? C’mon! Can you get any more esoteric?
Fear not- while I can, I won’t.
Alsace is possibly France’s easiest region to understand.
First, the approachability level is boosted by the fact that it’s wine is almost always varietally labeled, meaning it’s named after the grape it’s made from. Riesling is riesling and gewürztraminer is gewürztraminer.
More than 90% of the wine is white and the only red is pinot noir.
Alsace is pronounces Al’s (as in Al Bundy’s) - zass, with the emphasis on the last syllable. If something is from Alsace it’s called Alsatian (al-SAY-shun; rhymes with Dalmatian).
There are not 101 Alsatians to remember, but there are a few white varietals to make note of, most important being:
Riesling. You must set aside all memory of mass-produced sweet German plonk from the ‘80‘s and know that riesling from Alsace is almost exclusively done-dry. The style of food in this part of the world is rib-sticking Franco-German fare which benefits from a straight-forward, fruity yet dry wine. Mashed potatoes and gravy, anyone?
Gewürztraminer. Slightly less dry, this grape has low acidity and beautiful fruit-forwardness with a bit of a topical floral bouquet. Think jasmine scented lychees. When made poorly it might remind you of big, billowy pirate shirts on the cover of Harlequin romance novels; just too much. But when made well, it is a definite crowd pleaser and fabulous with all things Thanksgiving.
Pinot gris: The grey pinot, so named for it’s pinkish skin, makes a more acidic white wine than gewürztraminer with spicy stone fruit flavors. It’s sort of a middle road between the dry riesling and fruity gewurz (which is what wine dorks like to call gewürztraminer- connoting a friendly familiarity- like calling a Ronald Ron or a Julie Jules- which is not recommended).
Muscat: With a name synonymous with sweet fruity wine, muscat from Alsace is often misunderstood, just like riesling. It is actually dry here, low in acidity, and actually tastes like fresh grapes, an ironic rarity in wine. It’ll be great with the ginger cranberry compote.
Sylvaner: A make now/drink now kind of wine, sylvaner reminds one of flowery citrusy perfume. It’s got decent acidity and a little bitterness which will make it a perfect pair for cornbread stuffings.
Pinot blanc: The white pinot could be better known as the quaffer. It is lean and acidic without much of the Alsatian perfume and spice, making it an unobtrusive accompaniment to many flavors. I’d use this in place of water for the holidays, but that’s just me.
Auxerrois and chasselas: You don’t see these grapes on many labels, but it is often blended into pinot blanc to add some spice and fruitiness. They are also part of the region’s cheep date called Edelzwicker which means “noble blend,” and as its name implies, it is a blend. Nobility is in the eye of the beholder so I’ll let you be the judge if you happen upon a bottle.
One of the greatest things you will discover in Alsace are the cremants- these are the sparkling wines. Good sparklers made anywhere in France other than Champagne are called cremant de (insert region here). The cremant d’Alsace wines are made in the same way Champagne is made, with a second fermentation in the bottle, and it is known for a fine mousse. As opposed to Champagne, Alsace producers rely heavily on the local workhorse pinot blanc, blending in any of the grapes I’ve mentioned above. The rosé cremant d’Alsace mush be made entirely from pinot noir. Usually produced dry, my favorite is a white cremant from a producer called Meyer-Fonne which is usually around $19-23.
So the next time a wine nerd like myself goes on and on about Alsace, be sure to correct their pronunciation, call gewürztraminer “gewurz” (because you guys go way back) and note how brilliantly the region’s wines complimented your Thanksgiving feast, because honestly, they will.