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France, Germany influence formation of Alsace wine
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The wine: J Pinot Gris 2012.
The grapes: 100 percent pinot gris.
The source: Northern California.
The verdict: Remember about 20 to 25 years ago when merlot became the hot wine in this country? I do. And I remember just about everybody began growing merlot grapes and selling merlot wine. Some of it good, some of it very good, some of it not very good. That’s what has happened in the past 10 years with pinot gris, aka pinot grigio. It’s the most popular white wine in the country and everybody’s selling some. Same results. This West Coast beauty is firmly in the “very good” category. J — yes, that’s all there is to the name — is a highly respected, longtime, Sonoma County-based winery. The fruit for this crisp offering is top-shelf and gets gentle handling, including 100 percent stainless steel aging, so the fruit really shines through. Subtle yet satisfying flavors and a truly nice mouth feel round it off. Great summer food wine. Chill a bottle and haul it to the picnic.
The price: About $16.

Where can you go to enjoy French wines with a German accent?

Simple, Alsace. That’s the tiny French region nestled against the German border that the two countries battle over every century. It is hoped the quaint little tradition will be tucked away in a drawer somewhere, given the benign relationship between the two nurtured by the European community.

But enough geopolitics. Let’s talk about Alsatian wines.

Wines coming from this region are almost exclusively white; I’ve never had a red Alsatian, but have read some respectable pinot noirs are produced. Those white grapes have French and German roots — pinot gris, pinot blanc, gewurztraminer and riesling dominate. In fact, Alsace is about the only place in France where the last three grapes get much attention at all.

Generally speaking, Alsatian wines tend to be crisper, drier with more linear structure and flavors than their New World cousins. They reflect the European tradition of more elegance and less fruit-forward impressions — the ones most Americans prefer.

Alsatian grapes thrive in the northeastern corner of the country because of a pair of climate influences: the Rhine River and the Vosges Mountains.

I was reminded of how good Alsatian wines can be with a note from a marketing company that handles many of them.

“Want to try some?” was the enticing question.

I replied along the lines of “Does a bear tinkle in the forest?”

At the top of my list is Alsatian gewurztraminer. This is a white wine grape with a tinge of pink on its skin. It was derived from the traminer grape in the 19th century. But this new grape offered a spicy bite, so winemakers tagged on the German prefix “gewurz,” which means “spicy.”

The producer Willm puts out a luscious reserve gewurztraminer. And the 2011 edition is superb.

From vineyards planted in 1896, Willm brings to market this stellar wine that, for gewurz geeks (I’m raising my hand here), is wonderful for sipping and equally good with food.

Pull the cork and you’ll get a burst of rose blossoms in your nose. In the mouth, you’ll pick up the spicy qualities of this grape.

What kind of food, you may wonder? Alsatian wines, especially gewurztraminers, are wonderful with Asian food and roasted pork. Gewurz is also a pleasure with light fruits and cheeses as a cocktail wine. Average price is about $19.

A bit less exotic but equally satisfying is the Cuvee Les Amours pinot blanc from the ancient producer Hugel. The firm dates back to the 17th century, and at present has a full line of Alsatian whites.

Pinot blanc is not as assertive and rich in character as its cousin gewurz. But it’s a lovely wine.

As is typical of virtually all Alsatian wines, this one stresses the natural flavors of the fruit. There’s no tell-tale oakiness to mask the crisp, dry flavors and textures. An information sheet with the wine compares it to “ ... an unoaked chardonnay, such as a Macon or Chablis.”

I’ll second that. Price is about $17.

Everybody knows about pinot gris, right? Just check out the Wine of the Month with this column.

But Alsatian pinot gris is a lot different from those from California and other West Coast regions. The climate, growing conditions and tradition give these uber-French examples backbone and elegance. No fruit cocktail wines here.

This one, Les Princes Abbes pinot gris 2010 from Schlumberger, the largest producer in the region, honors the church abbots of some 200 years earlier who pioneered wine production in the area known as Guebwiller. Just for giggles, to experience the stylistic differences between American and Alsatian wines, try to find bottles of the aforementioned J pinot gris from California and the Schlumberger. You should find the differences remarkable.

This wine has the style and body that makes it great with heavier seafood dishes and even chicken (so long as it’s not slathered with barbecue sauce). There’s a tad more acidity to the pinot gris, compared with the pinot blanc. Price is about $22.

If you really want to compare, throw this last wine into the mix. It’s the Domaine Zind Humbrecht pinot gris from the 2011 vintage. Like the Schlumberger, it is crisp and full of subtle flavors. The texture, too, is similar. But the finish, the last full sensation you get as you swallow the wine, is different. It lasts longer in the mouth. You’ll taste this wine for minutes after it’s gone down the hatch. That’s one mark of a solid, well-made wine and this is one. Price is about $26.

Alsatian wines are not like Yellow Tail wines from Australia that crowd the supermarket shelves. You may have to hunt a bit, checking out better wine shops, to find them. But what a fun and rewarding trip it will be.

Randall Murray is a Gainesville-area resident. Have a question about wine? He can be contacted at His column appears on the first Wednesday of the month and on