Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk
July 9, 2009
If you read last week’s column, opened a bottle of Ros and watched the opening stages of the Tour de France, then good for you.No need to say merc, I just hope you enjoyed the ride.In a vine-filled opening week the riders traversed the countryside of Provence, passing from one vineyard to the next as they skirted the banks of the Rhne river south of Avignon, cut through the Languedoc and headed back to the coast above Perpignan before crossing into Spain, Andorra and the challenges of the Pyrenees.By the end of this week the competitors will find themselves once again flanked by vineyards, this time on the other side of France in one of the most beautiful, most important and, to many American wine drinkers, least known great wine regions of the country, Alsace. Friday’s stage begins in Vittel, a town famed for its waters. From there the Tour travels up through the Vosges mountains over three moderate mountain passes and down into the valley to Colmar, the picturesque capital of the Alsace region, on a 200-kilometer ride.Alsace is beloved for its spectacular white wines as well as for its renowned hospitality as a wine tourism destination. To the east of Colmar is the Rhine River and beyond, Germany. To the west are the aforementioned Vosges Mountains. The combination of these two geographic features, the mighty river and the mountain soils, make Alsace the perfect place to grow Pinot Blanc, Gewurztraminer, Riesling and Sylvaner, all varietals that have traditionally been more closely associated with Germany than France.Ah, but there is the rub. Perhaps no region of Europe has been subjected to such a historical tug of war as Alsace. In just the last 138 years, the region has changed from French to German control four times, the last at the close of the Second World War in 1944. As a result, Alsace has taken the very best winemaking traditions from both nations and married them to make wines that are unique, special and very much Alsatian.There are a number of styles that make up the wines of Alsace but one can generalize that they are best known for being food friendly. From the stony, minerally, clear Rieslings that reflect the rocky mountains to the west, to the sweet, late-harvest vendanges tardives (VT’s) and selections de grains nobles (SGN’s) dessert wines that are liquid sugar in a glass, the wines of the Alsace make just about any meal better.If you plan on following the Tour by drinking wines from the vineyards that you are watching on the nightly rebroadcast, then look for wines from some of the top producers in Alsace. Some wines can be extremely pricey, especially the collectable dessert wines, which can run into the hundreds of dollars for half bottles, but you should be able to find some terrific Rieslings, Gewurztraminers and Pinot Gris for $30 or less. My go-to winery in the region is always Zind-Humbrecht. One of the great wine estates in all the world, Zind-Humbrecht is located in Turckheim, just a few kilometers west in the hills above Colmar. Olivier Humbrecht, the second-generation winemaker on the property, was the first Frenchman to qualify as a Master of Wine. A fervent believer in biodynamic farming, Olivier produces a number of memorable single-vineyard wines, many in Grand Cru vineyards. Look for the 2007 Zind-Humbrecht Riesling Alsace as an entry point to his wines for under $30. While made from grapes grown in a variety of vineyards, this wine is great representation of the rich style that Olivier aspires to. This wine will be dry – that is less sweet – but Zind-Humbrecht has created a labeling device that lets a buyer gauge the sweetness of their wines on a 1-5 indices scale with 1 representing a classically dry Alsatian wine style and 5 indicating a sweet wine. Other makers to look for include an Alsace institution, Hugel & Fils, which lost its patriarch Jean “Jonny” Hugel this June, Trimbach and, for value, Helfrich. All produce wines worthy of a yellow jersey.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and a black Lab named Vino. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.