Eating & Drinking: Dreams of Gewurztraminer

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The Independent Culture
LAST WEEK I promised the results of some dedicated tastings of the white wines of Alsace. I deliver what I promise, but first, another matter. Please don't stop reading. Several weeks ago I ran a plea for Wine Relief, the wine industry's contribution to Comic Relief. My contribution, courtesy of Laurent-Perrier and caviar importers WG White, is a Champagne and caviar tasting for four people. There will be a dinner afterwards at Bank restaurant, London WC1, as part of the prize.

I want more bids. The top bid is now pounds 250. If that sounds expensive, bear in mind that a) the dinner alone is worth pounds 200, b) the Champagne and caviar are worth a goddamn fortune, and c) this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. All proceeds go to the charity. Send your bid (with telephone number) to Wine Relief Auction at the Independent on Sunday, One Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL. Or e-mail it to me at rehrlich@compuserve.com. The closing date for bids is 29 March.

OK, Alsace. When I said last week that pounds 6 could buy you more here than in many other wine-producing regions, I didn't mean it would buy everything the region has to offer. It wouldn't do that anywhere. But even at low prices, I didn't come across a single stinker in my recent tasting of high-street Alsace. My tasting reinforced a point made by nearly every Alsace observer: when you're buying these wines, buy the producer. Certain names simply will not let you waste your money, whether you're spending pounds 6 or pounds 60. Of those that appeared in my recent slurpings, Zind- Humbrecht stood out as a producer who could not make a bad wine. Trimbach and Hugel are big, old and consistent. Schlumberger is in the same league and Bott-Geyl, Schoffit and Kuentz-Bas are close behind.

It's important to emphasise the producer's name because Alsace has a number of grands crus, vineyards deemed to possess special merit. The idea makes sense, given the diversity of the area's geology; but the reality doesn't always live up to expectations. I tasted a couple of grands crus that were good, but nothing more. Find out who made the stuff; that's what counts.

For the purposes of matching with food, Gewurztraminer is the top choice - and also, of course, the grape with which most people identify the region. These wines can be wonderful, even if their high alcohol content (13 per cent is common, 14 per cent encountered) sometimes gets out of balance with flabby low acidity. In my samples, predictably, the benchmark for the basic AOC was Hugel Gewurztraminer 1996 (Wine Rack/Bottoms Up, pounds 8.99). It has all the lychee-and-mango lushness you expect, but goes that bit further in every desirable direction.

At the base price of pounds 5.99, though, there are still plenty of good things around - especially those that come from the Cave de Turckheim. That's where Safeway buys its 1997 Gewurztraminer, and so does Thresher/Wine Rack/Bottoms Up. All these wines show a very intense nose, pungency on the palate, good acidity and fine balance. If I had to choose one star buy it would be the Thresher etc version. A Turckheim wine in a category of its own is La Pagode, Alsace Reserve 1997 (Tesco, pounds 4.99), a blend of three grapes dominated by Gewurz. At the price, this is an extremely pleasant drink, with slight off-dryness to see it cruise happily through the spicy Asian dishes it's designed to accompany.

Away from Turckheim, look out for Preiss-Zimmer Gewurztraminer "Tradition" 1997 (Morrison, pounds 5.49, but pounds 5 until 18 April), very spicy and floral, if slightly flabby; good value at the sale price. And for Stentz Gewurztraminer 1997 (Booth, pounds 6.79), with musky notes in the gooseberry nose and light fragrant fruit. But the star of the show is Gewurztraminer Grand Cru Kessler 1994, Domaine Schlumberger (Majestic, pounds 13.99). This is magnificent, with full-throttle fruit and fine acidity. Absolutely delicious.

Next week (and below) I will give recommendations in Alsace Riesling and Pinots. Before leaving Gewurztraminer, though, something to dream about. When last in New York, I shelled out $70 for a bottle of Trimbach Gewurztraminer Vendange Tardive 1986. A minor monarch's ransom, I know. But this was a very special family meal featuring foie gras cooked by Dorothy Pace, the best cook I know, and the duo made a perfect match. "Late harvest" on an Alsace label does not necessarily denote sweetness: this wine had the classic spicy fragrance, but the profound ripeness of the grapes led to intensity of flavour, not to sweetness. If you ever see a bottle, buy it. At almost any price.

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