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Alsace is a most interesting of areas from not just a wine perspective but food, language, culture and the umbrella over it all, historical point of view.  For centuries, the region has been traded between French and German hands with never-ending influence of traditions from both countries.  Today one will find an in-between of French and German language called “Alsacian” in French but “Elsassich” in German, similar to Swiss German, I believe and difficult for Germans to understand… But my brother-in-law is Swiss and he says it’s difficult for him to understand also… so hmm…  The cuisine is primarily German. Thank you Alsace, for the stink that is münster cheese (that wasn’t sarcasm), Foie Gras (kind of… ), and plates of choucroute where I anticipate thinly sliced modest servings of meat but instead encounter mounds of sausage and potato that seem to be straight from the butcher’s room.  The primary varietals are more German than French, but the wine style more French.  Confused? Just know this: Alsace wine world began a patchwork when it comes to everything: soil types, food types, language and more.  The whole evolved to be better than the sum of its parts; Alsace truly stands out as its own.  I find the wines to be incredibly distinctive, the terroir is bold, its wines are telling.  I can’t tell the grand crus apart blind, but do recognize the Alsatianaromas in a wine; a true marriage of varietal markers and strength of place.


Alsace is located in the northeastern portion of France, west of the Vosges Mountain range, one of the sunniest and driest regions of the country.  It is similar to eastern Washington in that it is protected by the rain shadow effect of its westerly mountains.  It is the smallest region in all of France with the Bas-Rhin being in the north (“bas” referring to the lower elevation of the mountain range as compared to the south) and Haut-Rhin being in the south where the Vosges are a bit taller.  The climate is semi-continental, the land is rolling and the best vineyard sites are on slopes facing south, east, or somewhere in between.

2009 was a “safe vintage” according to Olivier Humbrecht of the more than renowned Zind Humbrecht winery.  One will not find many bad wines from this vintage.  ’07 and ’08 gave a bit more tension, minerality and tightness in character; ’09 seems a bit looser.

The bottle is a “flute” or “wine of the Rhine” bottle with a long and thin neck, slender body.

Now on to the varietals that are deemed noble, those we shall taste:

Riesling:  Wonderful to drink with the mound of choucroute, pork-based dishes, fish and shellfish.  I love Riesling.  It is so much of everything: fat weight yet screaming acidity resulting in a silkiness on my palate; old things, earth and mustiness yet fresh fruit, citrus zest and crispness.  While researching Alsace I came across my new favorite word: ampelography: the field of botany concerned with the study of grapevines.  This website is more than fantastic, I gathered much of my information regarding this topic from there, including more than you probably care to know regarding the ampelography of all the varietals of Alsace.  Example: the leaves of Riesling from Alsace are orbicular and thick with medium serrated edges.  The berries have thick skin, are small, golden to light green with reddish freckles when mature.  I could go on, but I won’t because I want not that you stop reading.  Onto what it tastes like: lemon, grapefruit, peach, pear, white flowers, citronella (I like that), lime, salty, iodine (this is a major terroir thing that I get in other varietals too, not just Riesling), cumin, fennel, mineral, flint, petrol.  Zippy, racy, “rapier-like” acidity compounded by a round opulence.  Whether vinified dry or sweet, I find it oh-so-pleasing and feeling like no other varietal.

Pinot Gris: this is an aromatically complex wine that develops most notably, into a smokiness.  It’s originally from Burgundy and in Alsace has been called “Grauer Tokayer” then “Tokay Gris” then “Tokay d’Alsace” then “Tokay Pinot Gris” then finally just “Pinot Gris” as of 2007.  Whew.  It’s not as intense as Riesling, generally but is incredibly complex.  What it tastes like: dried fruits, apricot, honey¸ beeswax, gingerbread, mushroom, forest floor, burnt greens.  It feels more round with inherently less acidity than Riesling, has great substance and “lively roundness”, a slightly sweet opulence.  One way that I recognize Pinot Gris is by its color in the glass – it has a slight pinkish tone to it because its skins are grayish pink or sometimes grayish blue.

Muscat: also known as Muscat “a petits grains” or Muscat d’Alsace, this is most notably, amongst the hundreds of wine-producing grape varietals in the world, the one that smells grapey.  Wines from Muscat are straw in color with frequent hints of silver.  The nose is intense and with the grapey-ness you may smell some subtle floral notes.  It can be vinified sweet or dry, if it’s dry, it has a mouthfeel that’s like… a grape.  It often has some muskiness in there too.  Do you want to know the ampelography??  The grapes are round, medium in size with an amber-yellow color.  Muscat is one of the few wines that pairs well with asparagus.

Gewürztramier: the Grandma grape.  It smells like perfume, roses, popurri, gingerbread, soap… aka, Grandma.  It’s ferociously intense, very distinctive.  Gewurz is a particular selection (so what I gather from that, a clone) of what was once known as Traminer or Traminer Rose.  The word literally translates to “spicy traminer” which makes sense because you can oft pick up, amongst all the perfume and soap etc, a spiciness in the form of clove, maybe pepper.  The notes of Gewurz are a mile long, here’s a few more: orange peel, peppermint honey, lychee, passionfruit, mango, flowers, liquorice.  It is exuberant, full-bodied and round with generally, not a lot of acidity.  You taste everything you smell and more.  It’s funky fullness can be delectable with spicy dishes and strong cheese.  It too, can be vinified sweet or dry.

‘Das it for now.


“I like rice-ling.” “No, actually… it’s ‘reece-ling’, like a reeces peanut butter cup.  But better.”  The finest white grape varietal in the world, some say, and I can understand why.  Nothing seems to nakedly express terroir like riesling does. Taste a riesling that comes from a field of stones and you’ll think you have a wet pebbles in your mouth, in the most pleasing way possible.  Try one from say, a southeastern facing slope of reeces pb cups and it’ll taste like chocolate sunshine but still maintain its varietal markers.

So what are the varietal markers, say you?
For starters, naturally high levels of tartaric acid.  Like, lots of it.  Also, powerful, rapier-like (thank you Jancis Robinson, for that description) aromas that can be flowery, lemony-limey, steely, honeyed and of course, whatever mineral it is grown in.  We can’t forget the horisoprenoid hydrocarbon 1, 1, 6-trimethyl-1, 2-dihydronaphthalene…. Petrol.  In small & integrated amounts, it’s delicious and intriguing.  In exorbitant amounts, it’s gross.  I heard Olivier Humbrecht (Master of Wine, oopmteenth generation vigneron in Alsace and world champion for Biodynamics) speak on the topic a couple of weeks ago and his perspective is smart and simple: if it’s there and it’s unpleasant to you, um, don’t drink it.  If it’s there and you want it in your mouth, then it’s good, go for it.  He broke it down further in an interview with Dr. Vino:  The aroma can signal several different things:
1. the grapes were harvested underripe
2. machine-harvesting can cause off-aromas like it
3. reduction (in stainless steel, poor use of sulfur, bad use of time on the lees)
Further, Mr. Humbrecht prefers to describe the aroma as wet stone, sea air or iodine.  Not something you power your lawn mower with.  I also asked importer, Ewald Mosler what the thought and he was in the same boat.  In fact, he was quite put off by my use of the word “petrol” at all.  He said, “It’s not petrol, it’s mineral. “  Oh… okay.  I was very sad to have offended the happiest German on the planet. 😦

We are talking about Riesling here. And Germany, so there’s more.  Much more…

Knowing some German wine terms is essential to even understand what you might be purchasing when buying German Riesling.  Here’s the DL:

Prädikat: literally means distinction.  Rieslings are labelled by distinction of oechsle (ook-shla), another really fun word.  It is the measure of grape ripeness / must weight.  So if grapes are picked really not ripe, then they have a low level of oechsle, if they’re really ripe, then more oechsle.  Got it?  Good… The different prädikats are:

Kabinett: lowest oechsle. What’s with the name?  Sounds like “cabinet.”  It is; previous to German wine laws established in 1971, wines were often labeled with the English word, “cabinet” suggesting that the wine was of high enough quality that it was worthy to be stored in the producer’s cabinet, or cellar.  So some wines could be labeled for instance: Auslese Cabinet = that it was of the Auslese ripeness level and of high quality.  No longer.  Kabinett is now its own thing, the least ripe at harvest, so generally the lightest body but can be vinified totally dry or not.

Spätlese: means “late harvest” but is not like late harvest wines from Washington, for instance.  Heavier must weight than Kabinett, but can be vinified dry or sweetish.

Auslese: sometimes botrytized, usually some RS, requires ageing.

Beerenauslese: beeren means “berries” and the word as a whole usually refers to grapes that have been affected by botrytis.

Eiswein: grapes frozen on the vine which concentrates the sugar and the acidity to make a rockin’ dessert style wine.  They freeze them on the vine though… not in the fridgidaire.

Trockenbeerenauslese: fully “dried” (trocken) on the vine by botrytis.

More terms that may appear on the label:

Landwein: kind of like Vin des Pays.

Feinherb: unofficial term for medium dry.

Halbrocken: medium dry

Erzengerabfüllung or Gutsabfüllung: estate bottled.

Weingut: wine estate.

Some specifics on German regions where Rieslings are produced:

Mosel-Saar-Ruwer (or just Mosel): The largest and most renowned.  Really, really steep cliffs that are famous for astounding vineyards.  Some fabulous producers here include but are not limited to Dr. Loosen, Selbach-Oster, J.J. Prüm & J.J. Christoffel

Rheingau: Slightly warmer than the Mosel producers great richness but dry styles can be found here also.  Some producers to know: Schloss Johannisberg, Johannes Leitz & Robert Weil.

Nahe: Again, you may find a variety of styles here but generally, wines from here are kind of between the highly aromatic Mosels and the rounder Rheingaus.  A producer to know: Dönnhoff.

So that’s about, mmmm, 1% of what there is to know about German Riesling.

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