When I first became interested in wine, I was eager to expand my knowledge on the subject. After all, there are thousands of grape varieties and hundreds of regions where wine is made, providing endless opportunities for discovery. In my early explorations, I gravitated to France because I had already fallen in love with the cities and towns I had visited. The language was familiar to me, and I had developed a basic appreciation for French wine. And then, in a chance meeting at my first wine class, I was bewitched by the irresistably charming wines of Alsace.
When I learned that the French #Winophiles had chosen this region as their June topic, I was all in. I still recall being blown away by my first bottle of Alsatian Pinot Gris – the ethereal floral and mineral aromas that tempted me to take a sip. Then marveling at the interplay of ripe, juicy fruit and tangy, prickly acid on my tongue. It reminded me of a perfect spring day at the beach, where the cool breeze makes you shiver, but the warm hug of the sun melts your goosebumps away. Yeah, a pretty great feeling.
Our host this month is Jeff from FoodWineClick! To get a sense of why Alsace holds a special place in every wine lover’s heart, check out his invitation post and preview post for this month’s event. You’ll begin to understand what all the buzz is about!
Are you ready to learn even more about the magical wines of Alsace? If so, please join the #Winophiles on Twitter this Saturday, June 16th, at 11 am ET, where we will meet to share our discoveries from Alsace. It’s usually a lively chat where you’ll get travel tips, advice on food and wine pairings, and even a recipe or two. You can follow the conversation via #Winophiles and jump in with any comments or questions. Just remember to add #Winophiles to your tweets so we can welcome you.
For a preview of what the rest of the Winophiles have to say about Alsace Rocks, please scroll down to the bottom of the post.
Alsace Rocks – An Intro to the Special Terroir of Northeastern France
Our #Winophiles excursion to Alsace coincides with the #AlsaceRocks promotion happening in New York City during the month of June. It includes educational seminars and tasting events featuring the wines and producers of the region. For more details, check out the website here.
The name – Alsace Rocks – is a play on words. Yes, the wines of Alsace do in fact, rock. But it also refers to the unique geological history of the actual soil (rocks) underpinning most of the vineyards here. There are 13 distinct soil types deriving from eight “mother rocks” meaning that, from one plot to the next, the dirt is different. There is granite, schist, sandstone, limestone, and marl, along with volcanic soils, and every combination of the above.
And, as we know, different grape varieties require different conditions; for example, some do better when planted on porous limestone soils, while others thrive in clay. What’s unique about Alsace is its ability to accommodate a wide range of grapes on the plots where they grow best. After centuries of making wine, the vignerons of Alsace have learned which grapes to plant on which soils, enabling them to offer a stunning portfolio of wines in all styles, from dry table wines to late harvest dessert wines and traditional method sparkling wines.
And Now, the Wines!
Note: I received these wines as media samples. However, all thoughts presented in this post are mine alone.
The #Winophiles received sample bottles to taste for the event, courtesy of Teuwen Communications and the individual producers. To make it even more fun for us, the wines were grouped into three flights:
- Pinot! Pinot! Pinot! featuring Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Noir;
- Terroirs and Riesling featuring Grand Cru bottlings from four different terroirs;
- Food Pairing Challenge with a sparkling wine, Riesing, Pinot Gris, and Gewurztraminer.
I was delighted to participate in the first flight, featuring four bottles that I enjoyed immensely. And, although I wasn’t charged with creating pairings for each wine, I embraced the opportunity to shake up my cooking routine.
A few new cookbooks on my shelf tempted me to create dishes to accompany the wines. I’ve been off the cookbook thing for a while, not sure why, just haven’t been inspired by any lately. After seeing the beautiful platters put together by my fellow bloggers over the past year, though, I reconsidered. So for this month, I’ve jumped into the exciting world of Ottolenghi, a Mediterranean collaboration between chefs Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi. It’s not a new publication, but I’ve been impressed by the dishes I’ve read about, so why not?
Now in the hands of 14th generation winemaker Christan Beyer, this domaine boasts 43 acres of vineyards in Eguisheim, the birthplace of viticulture in Alsace. It is also the home town of Pope Saint Léon IX. Beginning in 2016, the domaine took its first steps toward biodynamic certification which is a real movement in Alsace. At present, 15% of all vineyards here are categorized as either organic, biodynamic, or both.
The “Tradition” wines produced by Émile Beyer represent true varietal character: grapes come from younger vines and are intended to showcase what is special about each variety. This Pinot Blanc is actually a blend, with a bit of Auxerrois thrown into the mix. Soils are a composite of chalky marl, sandstone, and clay.
Christian Beyer expresses his winemaking philosophy this way:
“Giving happiness with elegant wines, this is what I take pride in.”
Who am I to argue with that?
I thoroughly enjoyed this Pinot Blanc with its heady aromas of ripe apple and pear, a hint of honey, framed by more austere notes of wet rocks and chalk. On the palate it showed more tart fruit, not nearly as ripe as the nose. Apple and pear mingled with flavors of lemon zest and white grapefruit. Overall the wine had medium acidity, medium body, and medium finish. A perfect summer sipper and an excellent partner with mild cheeses.
When René Dopff took the reins at Dopff et Irion in 1945, his goal was to modernize the way wine was made there and to pay respect to the unique terroirs of the vineyards. His first act was to split the larger Chateau de Riquewihr plot into four smaller estates: Les Murailles, Les Sorcières, Les Maquisands, and Les Amandiers.
This wine, which is 100% Pinot Gris from marl and limestone soils, was made from grapes specially selected from approved local growers. It spent four weeks aging on fine lees, and another four months in tank before bottling.
To be honest, I wasn’t paying much attention when I opened this bottle and failed to take note of the vintage. But once I swirled, sniffed, and sipped, I ran across the room to take another look at the label. 2012!
I was in love with the first taste of this wine. Dried fruit – think apple and pear – but with a sweeter, more concentrated intensity. There was also ginger spice, a touch of orange peel, and an almost tropical lime aroma. Underneath the fruit lay earthier scents – maybe some mushroom and forest floor. So much going on in the glass!
On the palate, the wine came across as barely off-dry. I say that because the wine’s overall impression was not sweet but there was a discernible sweet note on the finish that was in complete balance with the acidity. I tasted ripe melon, stewed pears, and more of the spice notes from the nose.
My cheese plate included a few standout pairings with this wine. Here are notes from my tasting book: Stilton – a winner! A slice of Spanish Garrotxa with a dollop of cranberry-clementine preserves? Hell yeah! Smoky Idiazábal and a sip of Pinot Gris – a tasty match. And the wine was no slouch when paired with a kale and fresh apricot salad.
But I really wanted something richer, a dish that would highlight all the lovely fruit and earthy notes of the wine without overwhelming them. A sense memory tugged at my brain: this wine was summoning a special evening from the back of my mind, an exotic dish from years past. And then it hit me: Poached Lobster with Ginger, Lime, and Sauternes, the signature dish of Gérard Pangaud who, at 28, became the youngest chef ever awarded two Michelin stars. (To read what Washingtonian Magazine had to say about the dish, click here.)
Pangaud’s Washington, DC restaurant was a place my ex and I frequented often, in what now feels like a lifetime ago. And the lobster dish was my favorite thing on the menu. Lobster meat removed from the shell and poached in a Sauternes sauce, then reassembled and topped with diced mango, red pepper, avocado, and drizzled with ginger-butter sauce. Can´t you almost taste it?
The restaurant has long since closed, but the memory of that lobster has lingered with me all these years. Probably just waiting for me to taste the perfect wine to accompany it. Note to self: you’ve found it.
Founded in 1580, Léon Beyer is one of the oldest winemaking enterprises in Alsace. Marc Beyer represents the 13th generation to manage the 173 acres of sustainably farmed vineyards. The Pinot Noir grapes for this wine come from 25-30 year-old vines perched upon south- or southeastern-facing slopes, the most favorable aspect for full ripening here in the Vosges Mountains. The wine was fermented in glass-lined concrete tanks and, to my best guess, saw no oak treatment (if it did, it was in neutral barrels.)
In creating a pairing for this wine, I leafed through the Ottolenghi cookbook, searching for something that would bring out the delicate fruit and earthiness of cool-climate Pinot Noir. Puy Lentils with Sour Cherries, Bacon, and Gorgonzola hit the mark.
The flavors of the dish were an almost perfect reflection of the wine’s profile. This Pinot was pale ruby in the glass, with a delicate nose of just-ripe raspberry and tart cherry, a hint of smoke. On the palate it was restrained but beautiful, with tangy red fruit – more strawberry than raspberry – and a crunchy, mineral texture. Medium-bodied, with medium+ acidity and a medium finish. As pairings go, this wine and my dish got on like the proverbial house on fire.
I think it’s worth noting that lovers of full-throttled Pinot Noir, with its ebullient aromas of ripe black fruit might look past a wine like this. That would be a mistake. I found it to be elegant in its restraint, allowing the food to participate in the taste experience. For my money, I’d take this wine any day over the other kind. And FYI, I plan to stalk this wine, taking possession of as many bottles as I can find. It’s definitely my kind of Pinot!
I am a sucker for Brut Rosé sparkling wine, and this one from Domaine Zinck is no exception. It’s 100% Pinot Noir from 50 acres of vines farmed organically since 2011. The wine itself is a blend of grapes from three vintages, and spends 12 months aging on the fine lees before bottling.
Phillipe Zinck, who has overseen operations for the last 15 years, says the key to making the best wine from each batch of grapes is accurately targeting the perfect harvest time. In his view, the weather directly influences the pure fruit character of the juice which, in turn, affects the balance of the finished wine.
Grapes are hand-picked, enabling the selection of perfectly ripe bunches, and allowing for multiple passes through the vineyards, if necessary. It also minimizes the risk of bruised fruit and protects the grapes from crushing before pressing.
The color on this wine is gorgeous – medium salmon, almost copper. It reminds me of the red-fleshed peaches that grew in my grandmother’s yard. On the nose, there are bright aromas of cherry and red raspberry, with hints of lemon zest, wet rocks, and what smells to me like white toast with no crusts.
A sip gives up ripe raspberry flavors, some black currant, and homemade biscuits – again reminding me of my grandmother and her strawberry shortcake. Medium+ acidity, medium body, medium+ finish. A really enjoyable wine that would partner well with many dishes.
For my pairing, I returned to Ottolenghi, this time for Caramelized Endive with Serrano Ham, a fairly simple dish that combines endive with a topping of fresh breadcrumbs, thyme, and parmesan cheese. A slice of Serrano ham over the top is the final touch.
The ingredients in this dish might give one pause when headed to the wine cellar for an accompaniment: bitter endive, sweet caramel, and salty, umami-laden ham might challenge the savviest sommelier. But with the refreshing, tart fruit and bracing acidity of the Crémant, there’s no problem. The only issue I had was that I wanted another bottle!
Alsace and the French Winophiles
Here’s what the gang has in store for this Saturday’s Alsace Rocks event:
- Robin at Crushed Grape Chronicles shares “A Palette of Pinots – The Hues of Alsace”
- Martin at Enofylz Wine Blog shares “Pinot d’Alsace…Yes Please!”
- Rupal at Syrah Queen shares “Rockin Alsace With Pinots”
- Julia at Julia Coney shares “Alsace – Where Pinot Rocks!“
- Wendy at A Day in the Life on the Farm shares “Alsace Rocks the Summer Grilling Scene”
- Jeff at Food Wine Click! shares “Alsace Wines in the American Kitchen”
- Jane at Always Ravenous shares “Tips and Recipes for Alsace Pairings”
- Camilla at Culinary Adventures with Camilla shares “Alsace Pairing Challenge? Accepted!”
- Olivier at In Taste Buds We Trust shares “Taking Gewürztraminer to a Higher Level”
- Michelle at Rockin Red Blog shares “Getting Dirty with Alsace Riesling“
- Payal at Keep the Peas shares “Alsace: A Geologist’s Dream”
- Jill at L’Occasion shares “A Riesling Experience: Nuanced Terroirs of Alsace”
- Liz at What’s in that Bottle shares “All in for Alsace Riesling”
- David at Cooking Chat shares “Pork and Cabbage Skillet with Riesling from Alsace”
- Gwen at Wine Predator shares “Alsace Rocks 4 Riesling With Fondue!”
I hope you’ve enjoyed our excursion to Alsace and that it’s inspired you to seek out these amazingly food-friendly wines. There really isn’t anyplace on earth that turns out wines as delightful as the ones from this sunny pocket in northeastern France. If you’re a foodie who’s looking for perfect pairings for your signature dishes, then look no further – here you go!
If you’re interested in joining the Winophiles on their July adventure, stay tuned. Yours truly, The Swirling Dervish, will host next month’s event, which features Rosé from France. And let me tell you, there’s more to that subject than Provence! My invitation post with all the details will be out in the next week or so; as always, we’ll gather on the third Saturday of the month at 11 am ET. Until then, au revoir!