by Heidi Turzyn
Gotham Wine Director
Long resisting the temptation to sell to large conglomerates, the winemakers of Alsace regard their viniculture as a precious heirloom to be passed down from generation to generation.
One of France’s smallest wine regions, Alsace is tucked away on the west bank of the Upper Rhine on the northeastern border with Germany. The climate is sunny, semicontinental, and influenced by the low, verdant Vosges Mountains to the west and the rhine river to the east. Caught in the political crossfire between France in Germany over the centuries, Alsace and its wine are a reflection of the two countries’ mixed heritage. The only region of France that follows the German tradition of naming their wines after varietals—such as Riesling, Gewurztraminer, and Pinot Gris— the wines themselves reflect the French preference for dry wine.
It was Alsace that first opened up my eyes to the deep power of wine and drew me into the profession. Love at first sip, I still find the wines irresistible, and this past June I had the great pleasure of visiting the region. Like their wines, the people of Alsace are incredibly friendly, approachable, and decidedly honest. They let their grapes speak for themselves, resulting in a product that is more simple, direct, and less adulterated than many wines today.
Here are a few of my favorite discoveries that now hold places on Gotham’s current wine list.
One of the finest examples of Alsatian Riesling is the Trimbach Clos Ste. Hune. It’s made from 40-year-old vines passed down from Jean Trimbach, who founded the winery in 1626; his descendants bernard and Hubert Trimbach make the wine today. Consistently considered one of the finest examples of Alsatian Riesling, the 2004 is a vintage I particularly like. It is elegant wine with white peach and apple notes among flint and honey.
The Hugel & Fils family has been involved in every aspect of their business from winemaking to sales since 1639. Still growing strong, their 2007 Jubilee Riesling is another great example of a pure Riesling from Alsace. This Riesling is leaner and has a tartness that reminds me of green apples and pear with a racy acidity, making it a great wine with food.
The even older Domaine Weinbach was established in 1612 by Capuchin monks and later purchased by the Faller brothers in 1898. The women who run it today are direct descendants and carry on the reputation of being one of the great domaines in Alsace. Their 2011 Altenbourg Cuvee Laurence Pinot Gris is a full-bodied white with honey and floral notes, ripe stone fruits of apricot and peach, and a hint of smoke. It’s a bit decadent but with its backbone of acidity, the wine is quite balanced and lovely.
Domaine Zind-Humbrecht’s tradition of passing down vines began in the 1620s. Current owner Olivier Humbrecht not only is the winemaker and proprietor but also happens to be a certified Master of Wine. His Gewürztraminer Turckheim Herrenweg Vieilles Vignes 2008 is highly aromatic with floral notes of rose petal, ginger spice, and lychee. This slightly sweet wine is a great option for foods with a spicy element.
While white wines are the most prevalent wine in Alsace, making up 90 percent of its wines, there are interesting reds as well, though the only nationally sanctioned grape varietal is Pinot Noir. One fine example is the Sang du dragon Pinto Noir by Francois Baur, a ninth-generation wine producer. This wine, named for an ancient legend, is a lush medium-bodied wine with hints of red cherry and raspberry and a light earthiness.
Whether ephemeral wine or eternal jewels, from a remote ancestor’s relic to a beloved grandparent’s souvenir, beauty is often greatly enhanced by history. every time you savor a wine from Alsace, I hope you also enjoy soaking in the centuries of care that make its wines so beloved.
Sylvaner Vieilles Vignes Grand Cru “Sotzenberg” Albert Seltz 2005
Riesling “Jubilee” Hugel 2007
Riesling “Clos Ste. Hune” Trimbach 2004
Riesling “Clos Ste. Hune” Trimbach 2005
Riesling “Turckheim” Zind-Humbrecht 2010
Riesling Grand Cru “Schlossberg-Cuvée St. Catherine” Domaine Weinbach 2010
Pinot Gris “Altenburg” Domaine Weinbach 2011
Pinot Noir “Obere Hund” Domaine Bechtold 2010
Pinot Noir “Sang du Dragen” Francois Baur 2009
Tokay Pinot Gris Vendanges Tardives “Altenbourg” Weinbach 2000