You're safe with an Alsatian

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The Independent Culture
I KEEP waiting for the world to discover Alsace. This is, of course, just journalistic hyperbole: thousands of wine lovers rank Alsace among their favourite areas. But not enough! Several propositions claim plausibly to explain the neglect, and four, I think, play the lead roles.

Before waffling further, I must report that Alsace produces red wine, Pinot Noir, which can attain great deliciousness. For the purposes of this article, however, Alsace produces only white wine. Just so you know.

The relative "strangeness" of the greatest Alsace grapes - Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Blanc, Tokay/Pinot Gris and Muscat - is the most important reason for their place in the dog house. All have pronounced floral, exotic flavour profiles that do not find a place on the taste-bud maps of drinkers who think that "dry white wine" means heavily oaked Chardonnay from the Hunter Valley. I have fed bone-dry Alsace Gewurztraminers to friends only to have them say, in perplexed disappointment, that they "don't like sweet wine". All the wines in question can be sweet, but even when dry, their "rounded, fruity" character (the words are those of wine writer Rosemary George) can give an impression of sugariness.

The second reason is that Alsace does not love oak, while many of those Chardonnay-loving wine drinkers love it to pieces. Indeed, as I've said before, many people think the taste of oak is the taste of Chardonnay. Alsace wines rarely see the inside of a new barrel. They don't need it. The third reason is that most Alsace wines have few obvious partners for food and wine matching. Gewurztraminer with Asian or Indian food, yeah; we all know that one (and it's true). But today's range of cuisines - from Mediterranean to fish or meat and a few veg - throws up few dishes that make you think: "I've got the perfect Alsace Riesling to go with this."

As a result, Alsace wines are mostly viewed (and with some reason) as aperitifs. And most drinkers choose wine either because it's good to drink with food or because it's cheap and intoxicating. The fourth reason is complicated, even though it has to do with money, which is usually a very straightforward matter. Alsace wines are not cheap in absolute terms, starting off at about a fiver (usually for Pinot Blanc from a co-operative) and with the real base level established by Gewurztraminer (again from a co-op). There is no Alsace cheapo plonk.

The question of cost gets complicated when you taste what you're getting for your money, and see how consistently high the quality is. Six pounds will usually buy a hell of a lot more Alsace than Bordeaux or Burgundy, not to mention New Zealand or Californian. It may even prove better value than the Rhone and a lot of South America. What's more, the co-operatives that sell the cheapest wines are among the best of their kind in Europe. And not only that, but the higher you go in Alsace, the better the value for money.

All good reasons for drinking a lot more of the stuff, and next week I'll be sampling recent favourites from the bottom up. I'll also report from a fascinating vertical tasting of some of the region's best wines.

Meanwhile, reports from two locations. At M&S, while corporate travails seem to dominate the general picture, the wine department has been working fruitfully. Particularly impressive are a raft of low-priced Australians, both red and white, under the successful "Bin" sub-label. Chardonnay fans will like Bin 109 1998, South Eastern Australia, a pleasant lightweight number with pleasingly fresh, clean citrus flavours. Over on the red shelf, they've played a big role in developing Bin 252 Shiraz/ Malbec 1998, South Eastern Australia and Bin 312 Shiraz/Merlot/Ruby Cabernet 1998, South Eastern Australia.

The pairings are somewhat unusual but they're a great success - spice from the Shiraz in both cases, while juicy berries come through in the Merlot, with a bit more oomph in the Malbec. All these bottles cost pounds 4.99. They're worth it. If you're in a party mood, you owe yourself a trip to Somerfield before 23 March, where they're knocking pounds 1 off some of their best cheap wines: Gouts et Couleurs Syrah Mourvedre 1997, Vin de Pays d'Oc, a spicy little number exceedingly well made; Bright Bros Greganico Chardonnay 1998, a fresh modern-style native of Sicily that goes down well with food or on its own; Santa Catalina Verdejo Sauvignon Blanc 1998, Rueda, a great combination of grapes turned into a classy, grassy aperitif (or picnic wine, when the warm weather arrives). All are selling at pounds 2.99. All are a serious bargain at the sale price.

Waitrose Inner Cellar and Waitrose Direct have a trio of fine German Rieslings that take particularly well to cellaring. First and finest is Graacher Himmelreich Riesling Spatlese 1994, J J Prum (pounds 13.45). Second is Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Spatlese 1993, Dr Loosen (pounds 12.75). This superb aperitif is drinking well now, but it too has the potential for long ageing. Third: Riesling Kabinett 1996, Robert Weil, Rheingau (pounds 9.95), the driest of the group. With the classic petrol nose and fresh lime flavours of great German Rieslings, and their fruit highlighted by the most exuberant acidity, all three could keep easily for a decade.