An Alsatian at the Table
Date: Wednesday, March 28 @ 04:51:31 MDT
Discover France through Alsace.
The word “Alsatian” can be either a noun – as in the dog – or an adjective; think “Alsatian wine.” This contrast may not seem worth mentioning, but this is actually a point of contention among wine geeks, some of whom argue that the phrase “Alsatian wine” is likely to be mistaken for “dog-now-commonly-called-a-German-Shepherd wine,” so one must use expressions like “the wines of Alsace” or “Alsace wine.”
If I start talking about my grandfather and his beagles’ birthdays, then understand I do indeed mean that there were dogs at the dining room table (much to my grandmother’s dismay); otherwise, I’m talking about wine.
That Alsatian wines are not more popular here in the U.S. baffles me. There’s no Byzantine system of appellations to learn, just “Alsace” and “Alsace Grand Cru.” It’s the only major French appellation to allow the grape varietals to be listed on the label, which Americans appreciate, since that’s how our own wines are marketed. The varietals themselves in the region are generally well-known: for example, Riesling, Pinot Gris, Muscat, and Gewurztraminer, to name what are called the “noble” grapes of the region (in Alsace, only the noble grapes can be labelled Grand Cru.).
My guess is that people are sometimes reluctant to order an Alsatian wine because they’re not sure if it will be dry or off-dry, especially as many German wines from the same grapes are made in an off-dry style. Alsace has changed hands between Germany and France a number of times throughout history, so today the region’s wines offer German varietals with French winemaking. German winemakers typically use a touch of sweetness to balance the extreme acidity that comes from growing grapes in such a cool climate.
In Alsace they prefer to chaptalize, which means adding sugar before fermentation that will be converted into alcohol, making a dry, but higher alcohol wine (it is illegal in France to chaptalize a wine and not ferment out all the sugar). German wines usually have much lower alcohol as the winemaker stops the fermentation while there’s still some sweetness left from the grapes; if you do come across an Alsatian wine with alcohol below 12% or so, it may be in an off-dry, “German” style, but the customary preference in the region is to vinify their wines dry.
Alsatian wines are also great companions in the dining room (whereas the dog is prone to begging). They are generally full enough to accompany white meats, but not so aggressive as to be unsuitable with more delicate fish dishes. This makes them especially useful in restaurants when a bottle is being shared alongside several different entrees. Gewurztraminer often gets a bad rap among wine drinkers for its rather over-the-top nose, but its gentle character in the mouth and flowery aromatics suit a number of dishes. Its classic companion is a Gruyere or Munster cheese, and with its characteristic lychee note it also does well the Asian dishes, soothing spiciness and often bringing out the brighter tones of a chutney, for example.
published september 2004