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Sowerby’s wine tips: 17/05/2011

Manchester wine man finds Alsace producers getting it right

Written by . Published on May 16th 2011.

Sowerby’s wine tips: 17/05/2011

ALSACE, as a wine region, always reminds me of a well-respected elderly relative rarely visited. Uncle Burgundy and Cousin Claret naturally get all the attention. Why, even the ‘moutons noirs’ down in the Rhone and the Languedoc seem more worthy of a detour.

It’s an identity thing, of course. Somehow this primarily white producing area, its fecund terroir warmed by the shelter of the Vosges mountains (more annual sunshine than Perpignan, I’m told), gets mixed up with Germany. Not surprising, really. It’s border territory that has changed hands many times. 

What adds to the confusion is the use of German style tall, slender bottles and labels bearing un-French names. Plus you are often unsure about the level of sweetness contained within. 

Alsace4.jpgEven apparently bone dry examples can possess a mineral richness with more than a hint of residual sugar. Much appreciated by the wine trade, but somehow a little aloof from the general drinker, prices reflecting this concentration on concentration. Such a shame to miss out on some real treats. 

Harvey Nichols’ wine shop (http://www.harveynichols.com/food-wine/categories/wines-spirits.html) seems to have examples of the lot, across a range of styles. Two wines at entry level (a very superior entry level at £16 apiece) were radically different. 

The Domaine Leon Boesch Riesling 2007 offered spicy, pineapple fruit, with a smooth mouthfeel but no substantial aftertaste. More of a food wine, it coped well with smoky chicken and sausage 

It comes from an estate that has been around for 350 years and now espouses biodynamic principles that are probably not dissimilar to methods used back in 1750. Biodynamism seems to be more prevalent in Alsace among the more quality-seeking young winemakers. Andre Ostertag, on the cusp of being fully biodynamic, arouses controversy by another innovation, the employment of used French oak barriques.

The Ostertag Pinot Blanc Barriques 2008, in a blind tasting, wouldn’t immediately have shouted Alsace, but the oak does enhance the pinot blanc which can be quite neutral. It’s limpid, lemony with more minerality than you’d expect. Refreshing acidity, too. Give it time and it should become even lovelier.

Gewurztraminer, often the token Alsace presence on supermarket shelves, divides opinion. Taste the great Grand Crus and wonder at the citrus and lychees, talcum powder and Turkish delight in the sensory package. A lesser example can  be flabby and wearing. OK, it can tackle Indian and Chinese food, but only in ahead to head battle.

Contrast Harvey Nicks’ restrained, balanced Josmeyer Gewurztraminer Les Folastries 2009 (£23 and again biodynamic from low yields). It smells of sweet honeysuckle, yet is quite dry on the palate, combining that distinctive lychee flavour with tingles of spice.  

Amazingly it was topped by a Gewurz, stocked just across the road. The Hanging Ditch (www.hangingditch.com) shop leans on Roly Gassman for their Alsace offering, but Ben and Mark there recently introduced me to Mittnacht Freres, also based in Hunawihr.  

The Freres these days are two cousins Christophe and Marc, who have run the holdings biodynamically since 1999 (is a pattern developing here?). At £27.50, their minerally, complex Mittnacht Osterberg Grand Cru Gewurztraminer is Gewurz heaven – from the rose petals on the note to the layers of fruit that just lingered and lingered. 

Cave de Turckheim Gewurztraminer Grand Cru Brand 2009 is a more affordable option – £18.75 from Reserve of West Didsbury (www.reservewines.co.uk). Brand is a choice site this top co-op shares with Jomeyer among others. This juicy pineapple, medium-dry example exhibits lovely finesse without the intensity of the previous pair. It certainly fulfilled the press for any Gewurz by accompanying a slice of Munster cheese to spicy perfection. 

I enjoyed, too, their good value £10 Pinot Blanc 2009 from the Cave at Hunawihr. Much paler in colour, with tangy citrus flavours and a good hint of apricot, it was surprisingly substantial.

But the best from Reserve was yet to come. Andrew Jefford, in his definitive wine book The New France, describes Bruno Sorg’s Muscat as ‘haunting’. A good example is currently haunting the shelves on Burton Road for £15.50.  

It would make a glorious introduction to what Alsace can do with a grape variety often destined for pudding wine production. This one’s dry, musky, smoky, almost light pinot gris like, but what carries you away is the pure grapiness. At just 12% ABV, it’s my choice for my aperitif of the summer so far. 

Our Harvey Nicks tasting closed with an Alsace red. Mike Spragg there is an aficionado of Spatburgunders (pinot noir) from across the German border in the Aar region, so he wanted me to try the Alsacien equivalent. Global warming is definitely helping red wine production in these parts. From Alsace I’ve encountered too many pale, unripe examples in the past. 

Would Hugel Pinot Noir Jubilee 2005, at £29.50 competing with good generic Burgundy win me over? 

Such a great vintage, from one of the region’s doyens, the wine matured for 10 months in small oak barriques... yes? Yes and no. I admired its deeper than normal crimson hue, its bright cherry fruit and saw potential for development in the obvious tannins (the oak was well-integrated, too). I would definitely drink it for pleasure but not if I was paying that price.

This celebration of Alsace wines was sparked by a recent trip to the charming region in the far east of France. My report (about more than wine) will be up soon on www.planetconfidential.co.uk, our travel-specific site.

I was fortunate, while in Alsace, to meet two of the great wine-making families, each again producing contrasting styles.

Alsace3.JPGDomaine Weinbach at Kientzheim – biodynamic, intense wines crafted by Collette Faller and her two daughters – is one of the world’s great domaines, so it was a privilege to have a private tasting there near the walled 13th century Clos des Capucins vineyard, in sight of the great Schlossberg Grand Cru site (www.domaineweinbach.com).

Ditto with father and son, Marc and Yann-Leon Beyer at Leon Beyer, a domaine in operation in picture-postcard Eguisheim (www.leonbeyer.fr) since 1580. While the Fallers pick late, sometimes even with botyritis (noble rot) affecting the grapes, and then ferment through to dry, producing powerful, alcoholic, though always elegant whites, the ultra-traditional Beyers concentrate on uncompromisingly bone-dry food-friendly wines, including some truly steely rieslings. 

You are more likely to find bottles from these two growers in fine restaurants in both France and the UK, but the Wine Society (www.thewinesociety.com) stock several Beyer wines and Justerini and Brooks in London (www.justerinis.com) have the largest range from Weinbach. 

One recommendation from each:  

Leon Beyer Pinot Gris 2005 (Wine Society, £12.50) is spicy, smoky with a richness tempered by its acidity. It’s hard to believe this grape related to pinot grigio. Another five years will round it out nicely.

The Domaine Weinbach Cuvee Sainte Catherine Rieslings are spectacular examples of the richness and elegance this under-rated grape can achieve. Justerini are currently doing en primeur offers from the 2008 vintage. Expect to pay before tax and shipping costs £190 for a case of six.

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RayMay 17th 2011.

Alsace Pinots are a curio, but terrible VFM. Josmeyer - fabulous! Btw, it's "Rolly Gassmann, not "Roly Gassman"

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