NGT: What makes Alsatian wine unique?
RK: In Alsace there are about 65 miles (104 kilometers) of vineyards, where perhaps the most diverse selection of grapes in France are grown: Sylvaner, Pinot Blanc, Muscat d’Alsace, Gewürztraminer, Tokay-Pinot Gris, Riesling, and Pinot Noir. The possibilities that each grape type offers are dramatic and enable winemakers to create a great variety of wines.
NGT: Some of the grapes used to create Alsatian wine originated in Germany. What is a major distinguishing factor between German and Alsatian wine?
RK: There are great, great wines made in Germany. But in Alsace they tend to come in a slightly more full-bodied style with higher alcohol and a little bit more overall weight and power.
NGT: How should a really great Alsatian white taste and smell?
RK: Each grape type has a range of flavors depending upon when it’s harvested. Rieslings can range from austere, with a taste of mineral and lemon-lime, to the riper tastes of flowers and exotic fruits. Tokay-Pinot Gris often tastes like a combination of dried peaches and honey. Gewürztraminer is like wild flowers, peach, and orange.
NGT: What is the wine to try when visiting Alsace?
RK: There are so many. . .one fabulous wine is Riesling Altenberg d’Bergheim from Domaine Marcel Deiss. For people who are looking for wines that are a little bit more open, a little bit friendlier from the start, I think drinking great Tokay-Pinot Gris is the way to go. Even Gewürztraminer, which is often very opulent and heady and exotic, can be a lot of fun, especially in the warmer months.
NGT: What best enhances the flavor of an Alsatian wine?
RK: Alsatian wines are best enjoyed when you’re at the table. To truly enjoy wine is to cut into a beautiful Alsace-made sausage and drink a perfect Riesling or even Gewürztraminer, which is exotic, lush, and sexy. They’re two completely different wines, Riesling and Gewürztraminer, but they both work with the same foods. Alsatian wines, with their weight, depth, and style, go well with seafood, veal, roast chicken, pork, and leaner meats.
NGT: How do the wines’ flavors stay so pure?
RK: They’re done in bigger wooden containers, what we call foudres, rather than small oak barrels, so the wine stays fresher.
NGT: When is the best time to travel to Alsace for wine-related activities?
RK: Late May through the end of June, when it is usually cool; the vineyards start to flower in the middle of June. Plus, the winemakers are very hospitable and sometimes invite you to come in and taste. I’ve walked into places and seen ten travelers there, with the grower giving his lecture, explaining his wines, and making his wines available. (For listings of wine activities in Alsace, try www.tourisme-alsace.com or www.easternfrance.com.)
NGT: Are these activities for beginners or just connoisseurs?
RK: The only way you’re really going to learn anything about wine is to taste, so I think beginners can enjoy them.
NGT: In Alsace, where do you suggest travelers go for truly exceptional cuisine?
RK: There’s a restaurant in Colmar called Au Fer Rouge, which is great. In Illhaeusern, there’s Auberge de l’Ill, which is famous and a little bit snooty, but good. Aux Armes de France in Ammerschwihr is very good and in Riquewihr there’s one called Maximilien. In Strasbourg, I’d recommend Buerehiesel or Au Crocodile. There’s also a wine bar in Bergheim called Wistub du Sommelier, which serves very good local food. In general you eat very well in Alsace, whether you’re at a local wine bar or the most sophisticated Michelin-starred restaurant. (For a complete listing of restaurants in Alsace, try www.visit-alsace.com/restaurants.)
NGT: What about buying Alsatian wine in the U.S.?
RK: Some recommendations: Chicago: Sam’s Wines & Spirits, +1 312 664 4394, www.samswine.com;
Washington, D.C.: Addy Bassin’s MacArthur Liquor, +1 202 338 1433, www.bassins.com; or Schneider’s of Capitol Hill, +1 202 543 9300, www.cellar.com;
New York: Garnet Wines & Liquors, +1 212 772 3211, www.garnetwine.com;
Boston: Marty’s Liquor, +1 617 782 3250 (Harvard Avenue) or +1 617 332 1230 (Washington Street);
San Francisco: The Wine House, +1 415 495 8486; Westwood (Los Angeles suburb): Wally’s Liquor Store, +1 310 475 0606, www.wallywine.com.