A French winemaker once told me his dearly departed grandmother had lived under four different governments during her life without ever moving out of the house in which she was born.
She was from Alsace, of course.
Alsace is a top-rated white wine region in northern France, located – to its frequent disadvantage – on the ever-shifting border between France and Germany.
The two countries have fought over the area for generations.
In 1871 Alsace was annexed by Germany after the Franco-Prussian War. In 1919, it was returned to France by the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I. In World War II it was reoccupied by Germany, and the French returned after the war in 1945.
Alsace’s population demonstrates the mixed history, with the occasional resident with a name like Jean-Paul Schultz or Pierre Weiss. Signs on streets and shops frequently use both languages.
The region’s wines also show that duality – wines with German names like riesling or gewürztraminer but made in the French style – drier, fuller in body, higher in alcohol.
This is because Germans tend to make their wines slightly sweet to make up for their higher acidity due to cool weather. They don’t ferment all the natural grape sugar into alcohol, and often make wines that are 11 percent alcohol or even less. Alsatians, using the same grapes but working with warmer weather and riper grapes, tend to ferment out all the sugar, making wines that are drier, with higher alcohol – often up to 13 percent.
Alsace is white wine country – sylvaner, pinot blanc, muscat, riesling, pinot gris, gewürztraminer – too far north for most red wines except for the occasional pinot noir.
Its riesling has powerful mineral (some say petrol) aromas and flavors that are at once spicy, delicately fruity and racy with acid. Many consider it the world’s most noble grape.
It’s often served with the region’s signature dish, choucroute garni, or sauerkraut with several kinds of sausages and other cuts of pork.
Alsatian whites are full-flavored enough to go with veal, roast chicken, pheasant, smoked fish, crab cakes. Its gewürztraminer is aromatic enough to go with spicy Asian food.
Alsace’s pinot gris is the same grape the Italians call pinot grigio (both translate as “gray pinot”). But the Italian version is crisp and light, while the Alsatian style is fuller and riper and spicier and more viscous.
The region’s pinot blanc is a white version of pinot noir. It’s often delicate and soft, with ripe-peach flavors and medium acid.
One Alsatian wine that’s exploding in popularity, today – making up one-quarter of the region’s white wine – is Cremant d’Alsace. It’s a sparkling wine, often a blend of pinot blanc, auxerrois, pinot gris, riesling and other white grapes.
It gets its bubbles by the same method used in France’s more-famous Champagne region, but those bubbles are bigger and under less pressure, giving the wine a creamy feel – in fact, that’s what cremant means. For this reason, it’s a popular, user-friendly aperitif wine.
Another benefit is price – often, as you can see in the tasting notes – under $20.
• 2010 Albert Mann Cremant d’Alsace Brut Spakling Wine, AOC Alsace (pinot blanc, auxerrois, pinot gris, riesling): big, active bubbles, aromas of yeast and toast, flavors of green apple, citrus and minerals; $22.
• 2011 Domaines Schlumberger Pinot Blanc “Les Princes Abbes,” AOC Alsace: golden hue, aromas of flowers and yeast, flavors of ripe apricots, crisp acids; $15.
• 2009 Domaine Zind Humbrecht Riesling, AOC Alsace: floral aroma, intense flavors of green apples, lemons and minerals, crisp acids; $25
• 2011 Willm Vineyard Pinot Gris Reserve, AOC Alsace: full-bodied and rich, lightly sweet, with aromas and flavors of peaches and honey; $14.
• 2009 Hugel & Fils Pinot Blanc “Cuvee les Amours,” AOC Alsace: pale straw hue, aromas of toast, citrus and melons, quite dry, crisp; $15.
• 2011 Paul Franck & Fils Pinot Blanc d’Alsace, AOC Alsace; floral aromas, flavors of ripe peaches and spice, crisp and dry; $15.