A White Christmas
You are at a local wine store stocking up for the season when a familiar green bottle – tall, slender at the top, with a gentle slope to the shoulders – catches your eye. The silhouette almost looks like a Christmas tree.“Sweet and sticky,” you think. “Perhaps for dessert.”
Think again. Alsatian flutes, much like Christmas trees, contain many delightful surprises beneath their corks.
The wines of Alsace, grown in a small yet strategically important northeast corner of France, are often misunderstood and mistaken for their German cousins. Understandably. For centuries, the contested region has flipped back and forth between the two countries. Today, Alsace wines are named after seven noble grapes, a mix of French and German varietals, and always bottled in classic flutes (Germanic legacies). Yet the viticulture traditions create wines, primarily white, that are stylistically dry, full-bodied and refreshing (French ethos).
“People see the tall flute and they think that the wines are all going to be sweet, like German Rieslings,” says DJ Kearney, an esteemed Vancouver-based wine educator, judge and classically trained chef. On the contrary, she notes. That signature green bottle represents “some of the most expressive and important food wines in the world.”
Alsace’s gift to cuisine goes back to its coveted countryside, which winds through softly rolling hills, verdant green valleys and picturesque villages where half-timbered houses are draped with bright flower boxes.
The viticulture zone, located on the eastern slopes of the Vosges Mountains, has a highly unusual climate. The natural shelter of the mountains creates a suntrap that is the driest pocket in all of France. The vineyards are exceptionally hot during the day yet cool at night, allowing the grapes to ripen long and slowly while concentrating acidity. (The conjunction of richness and ripeness with well-balanced acids being the key ingredients for food-friendly wines.)
In addition to weather, Alsace has complex geology on its side. The vineyards are planted in an incredibly diverse range of soils built from prehistoric ocean beds, carved out by glaciers and eroded through time. From granitic sand and compressed clay to grainy limestone and silty loam, each geological layer has its own special characteristics that bring out the best aspects in the region’s rich variety of grapes.
AOC Alsace, a strict regulatory body created in 1962 to uphold varietal purity, has identified 13 terroirs (a combination of soil type and microclimate) that have proven historically preferential for specific wines. The precisely stipulated parcels of land (communes) and even smaller site-specific plots within vineyards (lieux-dits) crisscross the countryside like an intricate mosaic.
“I always liken Alsace to Burgundy,” says Kearney. “There are so many tiny, intimate patches of land, and co-operatives with thousands of individual growers.”
Similar to Burgundy, Alsace has a well-entrenched organic and biodynamic movement. But unlike its more popular sibling –or Bordeaux, for that matter – Alsace wines don’t command nearly the same exorbitant prices.
“There are grand cru wines from Alsace that have every bit the gravitas and complexity of
a great white Burgundy,” notes Kearney.
“But you can’t get grand cru white Burgundy for $40.”
Michel Jacob, the Alsatian-trained executive chef and owner of Vancouver’s Le Crocodile, laments the lack of appreciation for the elegant wines from his French birthplace.
“It’s better now than 15 years ago, especially here in British Columbia, because there are many wineries in the Okanagan Valley making dry Riesling and Gewurztraminer. My customers say, “Oh, you have one from Alsace, where they have 400 years of knowledge. Maybe I’ll try a real one now.
“But the people who spend a lot of money who usually order Chablis or high-end Burgundy, they’re not going to go with an Alsace wine.”
It’s ironic, he adds, given that there are more Michelin-starred restaurants in Alsace than any other region of France. In the old days, when he apprenticed in Strasbourg, he and his peers could go to Paris, Lyon or wherever they chose, and find jobs in any of the best restaurants.
“If you were a cook from Alsace, they hired you right away,” he says, attributing the region’s reputation to its high culinary standards and production of expensive ingredients – most notably, fattened goose liver.
“Smell,” he instructs, wafting a glass of Gewurztraminer under the nose. “It’s so perfumed, you could dab it behind your ears.”
Yes, one could pair it with dessert, he says. “But it was made to drink with foie gras.”
Foie Gras Pâté
Intensely aromatic Gewurztraminer is smooth and full-bodied, with a powerful bouquet of tropical fruit and roses. Creamy, voluptuous foie gras pâté makes a ravishing tango partner, dancing those heady aromas to life on the palate, while the wine’s poised acidity holds the fat in a tight embrace.
Although delicately aromatic and elegantly dry, Riesling has a zesty acidity that cuts through greasy pork sausages, fatty belly and other traditional Alsatian charcuterie with sharp precision. Tangy cures and funky ferments enhance the wine’s
various mineral aromas.
Round and velvety, with typical smoky notes and warm aromas of dried apricot and beeswax, pinot gris is a full-bodied white wine that can easily stand in for red. Its weight matches the richness of veal and other roasted meats, while superb acidic structure lends
balance to cream.
Vivacious and fruity, yet distinctly dry and crisp (as opposed to the sweet Muscats produced further south), this pale lemon palate-cleanser makes a mouth-watering apéritif. It works well with most vegetables – tricky asparagus, in particular, as both have a hint of bitterness.
Fine bubbles and fruity freshness make this energetic sparkling wine a fine companion for almost any type of dish, but it also has enough muscle to handle a little bit of richness. The perfect sparring partner for these thin-crusted savoury tarts topped with crème fraîche, sliced onions and smoky lardon.
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