Making the case to try Alsace whites; Wines: Vivid fruit flavors and freshness make fine impression in recent tasting.


Persuading American wine drinkers to try the white wines of Alsace is a little like talking a 10-year-old into eating sushi. It's not impossible, but you have to be one heck of a salesman.

More accomplished wine writers than I tried, only to have their words vanish into the Chardonnay Zone. All you have to do to learn the score is to visit your neighborhood wine store and compare the number of bottles of Alsace wine to the number of California chardonnay. Or Chilean chardonnay. Or Italian pinot grigio.

So why bother to make the case again? Well, it's just that the wines are so darn good. Once you get around the total absence of oak, you begin to notice that the wines offer vivid fruit flavors that don't rely on sugar to deliver their message. Their versatility with food is almost unmatched among white wines. And with a few exceptions, they're usually not priced in the stratosphere.

Plus, it's spring. And Alsace whites are very springlike wines. There's a freshness and coolness to a fine Alsace riesling or pinot blanc that's reminiscent of a warm April evening. If it's a bit cooler, try gewurztraminer.

So what deters American wine drinkers? There're probably a few answers: German names, elongated bottles that fit awkwardly in the fridge, a fear of things French, the fact that most Alsace wines are seriously dry -- not fake dry, like many California chardonnays.

Alsace, probably France's most beautiful major wine region, lies between the Vosges Mountains and the Rhine along a narrow strip that France and Germany fought over for centuries. The language, the culture and the wines reflect both countries.

The best-known Alsace varietals, riesling and gewurztraminer, bear German names but are made in a style far different from their German counterparts.

Other Alsace varietals -- it is one of the few French wine regions to sell its wines by the name of the grape -- include pinot blanc, Tokay pinot gris, chasselas and muscat. The last is one of the few muscats in the world to be made in a bone-dry style.

Alsace wine prices are still relatively reasonable in terms of what you get for your dollar. There are a few producers whose wines routinely fetch more than $20 a bottle, but several highly reliable firms sell excellent wines for about $15. Among the ones to seek are Pierre Sparr, Lucien Albrecht, Hugel and Trimbach.

A recent tasting of 1997 and 1998 yielded many pleasant experiences and few disappointments. These were some of the best:

* 1997 Zind-Humbrecht Pinot d'Alsace ($22). The greatest white winemaker on the planet? You won't get much argument from me. This exceptional pinot blanc is downright cheap, considering the quality of the wine, which stacks up against $50-$60 white Burgundies. This full-bodied gem offers a rich mix of flavors: pear, peach, cherries, melon, tropical fruit, marzipan, hazelnuts, sweet corn and minerals. It pulls off the rare trick of a creamy texture and a racy finish. Wow!

* 1998 Martin Schaetzel Muscat Cuvee Reserve ($15). This fresh, elegant, slashing dry wine is a real live wire. Novices might not appreciate its exotic intensity and unusual flavors: grapefruit, lime peel, juniper, herbs, fresh table grapes. This vibrant wine should be drunk over the next year -- preferably with spicy food.

* 1997 Trimbach Pinot Gris Reserve ($18). This full-bodied, velvety wine gives the impression of a slight sweetness despite its basically dry character. Its complex flavor mix includes nuts, pears, melon, coconut, peach and mineral. This very sexy wine would go well with pate, salmon in cream sauce or roast turkey.

* 1998 Pierre Sparr Riesling Reserve ($16). This is a classic example of Alsace riesling: bone-dry and substantive, with hints of mineral and that curious (and not unpleasant) flavor the British call "petrol." (No, it doesn't smell or taste like gasoline.) For a riesling, this wine is unusually full-bodied, but still finishes true and clean.

* 1997 Trimbach Riesling ($15). This elegant, structured wine is slightly less opulent than the Sparr but still a wonderful example of bone-dry riesling. It should age brilliantly.

* 1997 Trimbach Gewurztraminer ($15). This dry, stylish wine will come as a revelation to those who have tasted only sweetish California gewurztraminers. It offers a classic mix of tropical spice, melon, pear and nut flavors.

* 1998 Lucien Albrecht Pinot Blanc ($14). There's nothing flashy here, just a good mix of peach, pear and mineral flavor in a medium-bodied style.

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