Thursday, January 29, 2009
is it German? or is it French - let's split the difference and call it Alsatian
Alrighty! I am back on course to share with you all what I am going to -- from this point forward refer to as my "whine wisdom" you can take the h in wine how ever you see fit. *smirk*
Next stop on our Tour de France is Alsace. Wow, way to go Alsace in the area of local pride! I stand here (ok sit) slack jawed at the pride that's been cultivated over the years by the natives of this area. Thanks to all the conflicts of war - the peeps of Alsace, rather than aligning themselves French or German are 'repping for their Alsatian roots, and why is this? Well the area has been passed back and forth over the last 1000 years between Germany and France like a shuttle in a game of bloody badmitton. So is it German? or is it French? the end result (and by end I mean right now) well - both are reflected in the winemaking wisdom of the area.
These cats have it down! (well after 1000 years.. ) they speak their own language - Alsacein , which is a local dialect, not necessarily a mix of German and French, it's just their own jive. Much of their culture is a blend of the two, they get to take the best of each, language, art, culture -- and of course wine. Which is primarily French styled - meaning that it's dry, and meant to compliment foods, not be one of them wines that you can drink standing alone in a corner of a bar, talking to anyone who is drunk enough to listen, although many of the varietals have German origin. (There they go with that sharing thing again!)
To look around the region, you might expect Lancelot to come bounding through a small village with their timber cottages, stone churches and ruins of castles. Thankfully, although historic and beautiful they DO use modern method winemaking, but there is a respect to ancient tradition and like their melding of culture, there is melding of old and new in technique.
Here's your nickel tour history lesson from your's truely. Alsace was established as Frank teritory back in the 400 (AD) time period - back then, the Catholic Church (ya, they are still around!) called most of the winemaking shots- and well, hey they were some of the most educated - it was prolly a good thing. Now in the Mid 800's my pal Charlegmane lost part of his kingdom to Louis the German. I doubt it was a friendly game of cards he lost it over.. but needless to say - Alsace got handed over in the meantime to Germany. Now we time travel to the 17th century -- there is another war, it lasts around 30 years (or at least thats what they called it) and at the end France was once the owners of Alsace. (ping pong anyone?) Moving right along, it's the last 1800s and now Germany's back in control.
About this same time our friend Phylloxera sweeps through town and takes out all the nobel plantings. After Phylloxera's wipe out, the Germans decide to only replant the easy to farm flat land -- and I'm guessing they were worried "Phyll" might come back for another visit, they decided the safe route to take was planting a hardier variety that could be blended, and hopefully take the brunt and tolerate of any return infestations. 1918 rolled on in, and it came to the end of World War 1 and what of course happened then? Germany lost, and Alsace moved back to French control.. (are you lost yet? I think the score is 4-love)
This time France moved back into the winemaking area of Alsace with a vengence. Everything on the flats got ripped up, and so did everything on the hillside that had returned to wild - all were replanted with noble vinifera... and guess what? the wines were suddenly good again. (are you seeing a pattern here?)
Then World War 2 struck, and the Nazis took up residence in Alsace. Everything French was banned. (I wonder if weekly bathes were mandated? ok - kidding) Exporting was also forbidden (good bye outside revenue) to top it all off, everything made was shipped to Germany (they know a good thing apparently when the see it!)
Finally in 1945 - Alsace went back to France, quality returned and the '2nd cousin who lives in a trailer' variety of grapes were forebidden and after some practice and more procedure in 1962 - they were granted AOC status.
If it's one thing that I know about the French, it's they love them some Terrior. The Alsace area has (is it any surprise?) their own corner on the Terrior market. Floods, Faults, Freezes, Wars and Volcanos (and apparently French and Germans) have helped shape the landscape into many different soil formations (at least 20 - no I'm not naming them!)
Most of the wine (ok about 90% of it) is white. It's also the only AOC region that uses varietal naming. But because of this nifty difference, they didn't really have a use for classes of vineyards in Alsace either. Although (like with anything else) through the years, some people have felt their vineyards exceptional, and have pushed to showcase the top of the top vineyards (and why not? think of the marketing potential!)
Quick whine wisdom: the Noble varieties in Alsace: Riesling, Gerwertz, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir (yes it's red) Muscat, Pinot Blanc, Chasselas & Sylvaner (ok and a little Pinot Auxerrois to blend with the Pinot Blanc, and a few of the cutting edgers have planted Chardonnay, but it's totally not approved yet...)
Since the 80's regs have come into place - Only 4 of the nobel varieties (Riesling, Gerwerts, Pinot Gris and Muscat can be planted in the classified vineyards (aka fancy pants or um Grand Cru I think is the offical name) Got the right grape? now make it yield less than 4 tons to an acre - and by the way, when the wines done, you can't blend it - it's gotta be one varietal only - Now THAT'S pretty strict if you ask me.
If you've ever picked up a bottle of wine from Alsace, you might have thought it to be German. Well, it LOOKS like a German wine in that package design (bottle) but does it quack like German wine -- I mean is it sweet? cause you may have seen the bottle and just instantantiously thought it to be sweet - based on judging the bottle by it's shoulders and color (not unlike judging a book by it's cover) -- Don't think yourself bad - most of us think of German wine as sweet (they aren't all, but it's easy to see why we might think that thaks to the majority of German wines exported to the US being sweet) ... what's my line here? oh, yeah, next time you see a bottle from Alsace, take a look and reconsider if you haven't tried it - you might like it... and they are great companions for food - so perhaps invite them to your next party.
More Whine Wisdom(s)
Most Alsace wines are chapitalized, thanks to low sugar at harvest but of course - French Law forbids Acidification, not that they need any thanks to Mother Nature.
Many use natural yeast in the fermentations - and ML ferment is typically only used on the Pinot NOir to soften and stablize it. The Alsatian style uses mostly stainless steel or old oak because they don't want the flavors of the terroir to compete with the oak. (of course this makes the question, how do they get old oak? and what did they use it on when it was new? well - I'll leave that question up to you to ponder)
Final whine wisdom of the day - we all know that a varietal wine has that grape (primarily in it - and apparently in the case of the AOC and Grand Crus in Alsace, ONLY that grape in it - so I won't bother you with details, a Pinot Blanc, is a Pinot Blanc.. But there are a few other styles of wines made in Alsace that are blends and not necessarily so dry. A little 411 on a few of them
Cremant d' Alsace: A sparkler mostly Pinot Blanc sometimes with a little Pinot Noir (really! a red one!) and some Riesling.
Vendange Tardive: What we could call a late harvest - the words mean "late picked" This too can only be made from a single Vintage, and has to be one of the following A-OK varieties -- Riesling, Gewurtz, Muscat or Pinot Gris -- also they can't add sugar to these gems, it's gotta be au natural.
Selection de Grains Nobel (SGN) These little gems have the wonderful noble rot in them (which if you have ever seen this - it's not pretty to look at infact, it makes you ask -- really? I'm gonna drink something that came from... THAT?) These wines are rich, and sweet, and little sticky and viscious and delish.
and that my friends is your nickel tour of Alsace -- stay tuned. I'll be back for more.