Alsace aficionados like a good challenge


Maybe it's time American wine writers stopped bugging their readers to drink more Alsace wine. We've been doing it for years and it just hasn't worked.

The wines of Alsace -- that once-German, now-French sliver of land tucked between the Vosges Mountains and the Rhine River -- usually lack the obvious, in-your-face charms of California chardonnay and other popular white wines. The flavors tend to be subtle, sometimes a bit too subtle for their own good.

And if you drink a wine only occasionally -- maybe when you go out to a good restaurant -- you might not want to be challenged. You might just want a wine you can enjoy without having to figure it out. That attitude makes a lot of sense.

But for those of us who like to ponder nuances as we sip, Alsace offers some of the joys a tough, clever crossword brings to a puzzle fanatic. You don't just drink Alsace wine, you try to solve it.

Unfortunately, in too many cases the solution is as disappointing as the contrived ending of a bad mystery novel. As my recent tastings made clear, there are plenty of heavy, formless, flavorless wines being made in Alsace, in spite of three great vintages in 1988, 1989 and 1990. And where Alsace wines used to be so inexpensive you could shrug off a bad bottle, prices have swelled to where a poor choice stings. There are some bargains left, but they get fewer every year.

Still, there's something about these wines that keeps drawing BTC me back. The best Alsace wines bring something special to the table. These are wines that need to be matched with food, not as a submissive helpmate but as an equal partner.

The key factor in Alsace wine, like most types of wine, is the producer. Many Alsace wine-making houses are represented in Maryland, though some of the best either aren't shipped here or are available in only a few stores. Among those well-represented are Trimbach (very reliable, with good availability); Domaine Weinbach (expensive but often exquisite); Ostertag (brilliant but erratic); Hugel (unusually hard to find these days); Pierre Sparr (fine values). The greatest of all, Zind-Humbrecht, is in only a few Maryland stores, notably Mills in Annapolis and State Line in Elkton.

There are seven main varieties planted in Alsace. Two, sylvaner and pinot noir, are generally inconsequential in character. A third, muscat, can be great but is seldom encountered. But gewurztraminer, pinot gris, pinot blanc and riesling are all widely available and worth exploring:

*Gewurztraminer: At first taste, gewurztraminer may not seem subtle at all. It comes on with a burst of spice: nutmeg, clove, allspice and others. But when you get a good one, you find there's a lot more to it.

Flavors flicker in and out and leave you wondering: Did I really taste that? It seems as if it should be sweet, but it's actually bone-dry. With its low acidity, it seems as if it should be drunk up young, but the best will age for a decade.

Alsace gewurztraminer pair up better than most wines with spicyOriental cuisines, but too often its delicate nuances are obliterated by Sichuan peppers or a hot curry. They do go beautifully with pate, however.

Recommended: 1989 Hugel Gewurztraminer ($18.49); 1989 Trimbach Gewurztraminer ($14.99); 1990 Pierre Sparr Gewurztraminer "Carte d'Or" ($11.99).

Disappointing: 1989 Willm Gewurztraminer ($13.99).

*Pinot blanc: Alsace pinot blancs still rank among the best white wine values in the world, even though the weak dollar has pushed many of them over $10.

The best of them are astonishing in their complexity, with a dramatic interplay of lush tropical fruit, pear, peach and spice flavors. There's a very rare and expensive wine made in the Rhone called Condrieu, which usually sells for $30 or more. When they are at their best, pinot blancs can be dead ringers of this wine, for one-third the price.

Unike the other top four Alsace varieties, pinot blanc gains little from aging.

Recommended: Domaine Weinbach Pinot Reserve ($15.99); 1989 Trimbach Pinot Blanc ($11.99); 1990 Pierre Sparr "Diamant d'Alsace" Pinot Blanc ($8.99).

Avoid: 1988 Adam Pinot Blanc Reserve; 1989 Ostertag & Meyer Pinot Blanc ($10.89).

*Pinot Gris: You could make a case that pinot gris is Alsace's greatest varietal. Being a riesling man, I wouldn't agree, but pinot gris is a legitimate contender.

At its best, pinot gris has the majesty of the greatest white Burgundy, but without the oak. A great pinot gris reserve bottling can be stunning after 30 years.

In youth, pinot gris can often be heavy and oafish. You get nuances of peach, pear and mineral, but there's often more body than flavor. Still, there's something enticing about the caressing texture of the wine that promises more to come, and it does.

With time, maybe five to seven years for a good vintage, the flavors come together and you find nuances of honey, spices and exotic fruit. The loose elements knit together, and the result is a classic.

Pinot gris and salmon have a natural affinity that cannot be denied, and it is one of the finest wines you can serve with a turkey dinner.

Recommended: 1990 Pierre Sparr Pinot Gris ($11.49).

*Riesling: More than any other grape varietal, riesling captures the flavors of the earth and conveys them to the palate. And never do those flavors come through more dramatically than in Alsace, where riesling is made bone-dry.

(There are some sweet Alsace rieslings, but they are so expensive that the issue is moot for most consumers.)

To me, Alsace rieslings are feminist wines. They are feminine but not delicate. There is steel in their backbones; they don't pander in order to be liked. In youth they can be abrasive, but with age they gain perspective without losing principle. The best are not only beautiful, they are fascinating in a way a more compliant wine can never be.

I don't know what kind of tree Katharine Hepburn would be, but I think I know what kind of wine.

Strongly recommended: 1989 Zind-Humbrecht 'Wintzenheim' Riesling (about $15, if you can find it).

Recommended: 1989 Ostertag "Vignoble d'Epfig" Riesling ($15.75); 1990 Gustave Lorentz Riesling ($11.99); 1988 Marcel Deiss Riesling "Bennwihr" ($11.99, difficult to find).

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