Food and Drink: Isn't this Germany?: Anthony Rose visits Alsace, in France, where the wines have a decidedly blurred identity
The view that Alsace wines are drunk by the wine trade but not the consumer has become a cliche - and a spurious argument for connoisseurship over public taste. The truth is that, while promising much, Alsace has delivered little since the fine vintages of 1989 and 1990. Imports of Alsace wines to the UK plummeted from a 1990 peak of 226,000 cases to fewer than 120,000 last year.
Could it be that the British don't understand Alsace wines? Or even that they don't enjoy them much? Part of Alsace's problem is undoubtedly its blurred identity: is it French or German? It was German; but although it doesn't have a very French feel, it has been part of France since the end of the First World War. It is cut off from 'mainland France' by the Vosges mountains and from Germany by the Rhine.
The locals refer to the French as the Francais de l'interieur, and anyone over 40 speaks an incomprehensible dialect. This isolationism provokes a certain prejudice in France. If they don't turn their noses up at Alsace wines, Parisians tend to think only of their expensive, rare sweet specialities. With more Michelin-starred restaurants per mile than almost anywhere, Alsace may be the self- appointed gastronomic centre of the universe. But the hearty regional cuisine is more Germanic than French.
The wines straddle France and Germany, too. Wine names are almost all German: Trimbach, Hugel, Schlumberger, Zind Humbrecht. Alsace uses the Germanic, flute- shaped bottle, and Alsace appellations are the only ones in France to name wines by their grape variety. Of the six main white varieties, three (riesling, gewurztraminer and sylvaner) are Germanic in origin, and the others (pinot blanc, pinot gris and muscat) are French.
Rare sweet speciality varieties apart, Alsace wines are basically dry and full-bodied and designed primarily for food. Or should be. A current bone of contention is a tendency to leave residual sugar, even in the so-called dry Alsace wines. It may win them medals, but, according to Marc Beyer, an exponent of the classic dry style, it makes them more difficult to match with food. 'With blind tasting competitions around the world, people are adding sugar to give an illusion of body and richness, but the palate soon tires of this false, late-harvest style.'
This is particularly true of the flowery, exotic gewurztraminer, a variety virtually synonymous with Alsace in the UK but less well regarded elsewhere. Except where the gewurztraminer is dry (a rare event), Alsace's less assertive varieties go much better with food, especially pinot blanc and the underappreciated riesling. Mr Trimbach says: 'The English don't like riesling because it's a little austere for their palates.'
But riesling partners food well because it tends to be drier, more complex and less alcoholic than the other varieties. Pinot blanc, when it's refreshingly dry, is a natural for seafood. Tokay pinot gris, a spicy halfway house between pinot blanc and gewurztraminer, is the variety most in vogue.
Apart from confusion of styles, Alsace wines have suffered from a notion that they no longer offer value for money. The appellation system allows Alsace, with its rich, chalky-clay soils, very high yields - even the relatively new Alsace Grand Cru appellation allows yields up to 65 hectolitres per hectare. Only by cutting yields can Alsace produce wines of a quality to justify their price.
Bernard Schoffitt, one of the most quality-conscious producers, says: 'Alsace averaged 87 hectolitres per hectare in 1993, which is too high. Other countries can do volume at low prices; we have to fight at the quality level. But historically the people who produce the most wine make the most money.'
WINES OF THE WEEK
1992 Pinot Blanc, Preiss- Zimmer, pounds 3.99, Morrisons. A delightfully fresh, dry summer white, with a hint of spice and a lively bite.
1992 Ch. Oberlin Pinot Blanc, pounds 4.69, Majestic. Pleasant and cool, with fermented, fresh ripe pears on the palate and a clean aftertaste.
1991 Rolly Gassmann Edelzwicker, pounds 5.99, Thresher Wine Shops, Bottoms Up, Wine Rack (from the first week of August). A delicately spicy aroma and racy, fresh, grapefruity palate.
1993 Schoffitt Pinot Blanc, Auxerrois, pounds 6.99, Oddbins. Exotic bouquet and opulently rich, pineapple and peach sweetness saved by refreshing spritzy acidity.
1992 Pinot Blanc, Schlumberger, around pounds 7.25, Lay & Wheeler in Colchester (0206 764446), Peter Green in Edinburgh (031-229 5925), and Selfridges. Excellent, fresh, full-bodied, concentrated fruit with dry, zippy finish.
1991 Hugel Gewurztraminer, pounds 8.29, Thresher Wine Shops, Bottoms Up, Wine Rack. A classically fragrant, rose-petal Alsace white with plenty of exotic, lychee spice.
1989 Blanck Riesling Grand Cru Schlossberg, Vieilles Vignes, pounds 10.99, Thresher Wine Shops, Wine Rack, Bottoms Up. A grand cru worthy of the name, this is a superbly crafted, delicate lemon-and- lime riesling with rich, concentrated fruit, and stylishly dry finish.
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