Benjamin Mitrofan-Norris on June 15, 2016 0 Comments There are a few times and places in history and in the world where cultures and ideas come together, and something truly special happens. Jazz, abstract art, British Indian cuisine — all are examples of this. Sometimes it happens by glorious accident, sometimes the cultures are brought together through necessity, sometimes it just happens by being in the right place at the right time. The world of wine — particularly in Europe — can be oddly conservative at times, with archaic laws and strict regulations keeping each region distinct and separate. There is one particular region, however, which benefited enormously from two distinct oenological cultures coming together, those of Germany and France. This joining of forces was borne from the complexities and turbulences of borders shifting, and countries redefining themselves over the centuries, and thus saw two great wine producing nations blend together, with spectacular results. We are talking about Alsace, of course, that corner of Eastern France, between the historic cities of Strasbourg and Stuttgart. Alsace is today a French wine producing region of enormous importance and success, but it has been considered German soil many times over the centuries, and was fought over extensively throughout the first and second world wars. Distinctive and Unique Despite its history of nationalism and violence, Alsace is quintessential wine country. Sleepy villages of distinctly Teutonic architecture litter the gently sloping valleys, dense, dark forests cover the hills, and the vineyards stretch on for as far as the eye can see. Wine of exceptional character has been produced on these hills for centuries, and while empires rose and fell, and borders were redrawn time and again by kings, presidents and dictators, the winemakers of this special and unique region honed their craft regardless, combining generations of expertise with reverence for their grapes. Alsace wines are among the most distinctive and easily recognizable of all France’s produce. Presented in tall, slender bottles — a hint to their German parentage — they are typified by their steely, flinty flavors, their sharp freshness, and exceptional aromatic qualities. While some red wines are produced in Alsace (notably some excellent Pinot Noirs), it is in essence a land of Germanic white grapes, French savoir faire and a cross-cultural love of refinement and precision in winemaking. Here are the wines to look out for, if you want to discover Alsace for yourself. Riesling No article about Alsatian wines could pass without mention of this noble grape varietal. Grown mostly in the hilly, southern vineyards of the region, Riesling wines from Alsace are what this part of Europe’s reputation was built upon. Steely, austere and serious when young, these wines are incredibly refreshing and sharp, and are fantastic at carrying all the best features of their remarkable terroir. However, Alsatian Rieslings really come into their own when aged. Many of the most sought after bottles are aged for up to ten years, and their boisterous, stony nature mellows into something astonishingly rounded, soft, and bursting with fresh, fruity flavors. Gewurztraminer Another signifier to the German influence on Alsace is the prevalence of this grape varietal in the region. Gewurztraminer in Germany and Austria is often an off-dry, even semi-sweet wine type, as the sugars are generally left in the bottle. In Alsace, the Gewurztraminer wines are considerably drier than their Germanic counterparts, and this allows a more exciting character to come forward. They are oily, fat and full-bodied white wines, packed full of floral, rose and lychee flavors. Their unique floral aromatic nature makes them one of the few wines to pair beautifully with far-eastern foods like Thai curries and Japanese dishes. Pinot Gris Another great grape varietal strongly associated with Alsace is Pinot Gris. The wines made with this grape used to be called Tokay d’Alsace, after the great, royal vineyards of Tokaji in Hungary, once the toast of Europe and at the height of 18th century fashion. However, the Hungarians ended up taking exception to the use of the name in French wine production, and it was eventually ruled an unlawful use of the place name they were keen to protect. Pinot Gris wines from Alsace differ greatly from their more famous Italian cousins, as they are more full-bodied, drier, and fantastic for pairing with gamey meats such as venison. Indeed, Alsatian Pinot Gris really is a unique and exotic example of what the grape varietal can become when handled with care and grown on exceptional terroir – Alsatian Pinot Gris wines are exotic, smokey numbers, with a real sense of place and character. Pinot Blanc Despite being less renowned than the Alsatian Rieslings or other varietals, Pinot Blanc is one of the most widely grown grapes in Alsace. It ends up in wines which are really the bread and butter of the region, sold in restaurants and taverns, drank by locals and the winemakers themselves more than any other. As any visitor to France will tell you, often the best wines you drink in that wine-obsessed nation will be table wines, served in tall decanters at bistros, and drunk gleefully with wonderful, Gallic food. Pinot Blanc is just that — and it is generally bought for bargain prices, if you can find it outside of France. The wines are lighter in body than the other varietals listed here, but are wonderfully drinkable, and packed full of those distinctly Alsatian perfumes and that delightful smokiness typical of the region. Cremant d’Alsace Most regions of France have a signature sparkling wine, and Alsace is no exception. Cremant d’Alsace is made using the methode champenoise, using a blend of Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris. It was once the most popular sparkling wine in Europe, before Champagne began its domination of the world of fizzy wine, and is notable for its freshness and strong flavors of white fruit. Today, it is a fantastic and affordable alternative to Champagne, full of the same sense of fun and celebration, and again, that aromatic quality the region has spent centuries finessing and calling its own.