Tuesday, July 07, 2009

I Have Seen the Future of Wine--And It's Alsace

As someone who focuses on wine values, I've always got my eye out for wine regions that produce excellent wines at affordable prices. Sometimes they're up-and-coming new wine regions. Sometimes, however, I "discover" a wine region that is steeped in tradition but which, for some reason, seems to be flying under the radar of press and consumers. In both cases I feel like I've seen a glimpse of the future, and that it's only a matter of time before more people catch on and start seeking out the region's wines.

I recently caught just such a glimpse of the future when I was invited to taste wines from the northern Alsace made under the Helfrich label. That's Frederic Helfrich to the right, who works with winemaker Benoit Pattin to craft wines that are true to the region's style and aren't manipulated to taste like wines from somewhere else.

As "discoveries" go, this qualifies as one that was just sitting under my nose. They've been growing grapes--mainly white wine grapes--in the Alsace for at least two thousand years along a stretch of French countryside between the Vosges Mountains and the Rhine River that has swapped allegiances a number of times. In some areas, German is spoken. In other areas, French is the native tongue. What this means is that Alsace wines blend tradition, innovation, and diversity. They also taste great, and are extremely affordable given the quality of what's produced.

I am a huge fan of Riesling and Gewürztraminer, which makes up about 40% of the grapes grown in the Alsace. Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Noir are also well-represented, and thrive in the region's soil and climate. The region has three AOCs (Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée): Alsace, Alsace Grand Cru and Crémant d'Alsace. Well known winemakers from the region include Trimbach, Hugel & Fils, and Domaine Zind-Humbrecht.

But it's worth seeking out wines made by less familiar names. The region is home to hundreds of producers who are making wines with plenty of personality that have an attractive price tag. Helfrich's wines, for example, come in two price tiers: an entry level wine that is $14.99 (and drinks like a $30 wine) and a Grand Cru series that retails for $24.99 (while tasting like a $50 wine).

Here were a few standouts from my tasting. Alsatian wines are perfect for summer--refreshing, aromatic, and flavorful--but I can imagine many other occasions when they would be great to have on hand, such as Thanksgiving, Easter, with clam chowder in January, and with the first picnic in April to name just a few.

2007 Helfrich Riesling (AOC Alsace, $14.99; available for $9-$17). As this crisp wine opens in the glass, it reveals aromas of apple and then peach. These continue on into the flavors, where they remain barely 0ff-dry with plenty of stony, mineral notes to keep the fruit in check. Rich withough being heavy, this is one of the nicest Rieslings I've had at this price point. Excellent QPR.

2007 Helfrich Pinot Gris (AOC Alsace, $14.99; available for $9-$17) Much richer than the Riesling, this Pinot Gris has aromas and flavors of smoke, grass, and apple with a mineral inflection in the finish. It will stand up to rich, fatty foods like foie gras and lobster. Another wine with unusual complexity and personality given its price. Excellent QPR.

2005 Helfrich Gewürztraminer Grand Cru (AOC Alsace Grand Cru, $24.99; available for $14-$23) This stunning, age-worthy wine comes from the Steinklotz Vineyard. It's honey and rose aromas lead you into a wine with lychee and apple flavors and a deliciously spicy aftertaste that is true to the grape and seldom in evidence in modern Gewürztraminers. Excellent QPR on a Grand Cru wine with real style and class. (And if you get a crack at the 2008 vintage, buy it. It is very young now but it will be stunning when it settles down.)

Get to know the Alsace and its wine. They're the future.

9 comments:

wineywhites said...

Deb, this is also one of my favorite wine regions. The whites all seem to have this fabulous minerality to them which I find completely irresistible. I also think there are tons of good values, particularly if you have a chance to visit the region and taste some of the smaller producer's wines. There is so much pride in the product they're producing, and the welcome we received was warm and generous. In addition, it's a beautiful region to visit with lots of smaller guest houses, particularly Colmar and the little touristy village of Riquewehr. I hope your readers get a chance to try these great wines and explore what the area has to offer.

Candid Wines said...

Deb,

Happy to have found you via Twitter...The diversity within Alsace has been one of my favorite and most useful "discoveries" of the past few years. There are so many food friendly wines that pair in ways people do not expect. Think rich, spicy Pinot Gris with Duck breast and Curried Sweet Potato hash browns...

I represent a producer in Alsace here in Chicago who is terrific, but have videos with English speaking producers Olivier Humbrecht (Domaine ZH) and Christophe Erharht (Josmeyer) here: http://askawinemaker.blogspot.com/search/label/Alsace
Hope these are of interest and help to educate a bit more on this great area.

Cheers,

Damien

Kevin Kossowan said...

Shhhhhhhhh. Don't tell everyone!!!

Claire said...

I really enjoy Alsace Pinot Gris, & I've come across many Alsatian Rieslings that I like, too. Sadly, neither are things that I find in front of me often enough. Perhaps I need to remedy that...but then, some would say that I drink enough! =P

David said...

Thanks for the tips. I've only occasionally had Alsatian wines, will keep an eye out for this one!

Andrea said...

Wow, reasonably priced Alsatian wine and the owner is dishy? Count me in, times two!

Dr. Debs said...

Thanks for the great comments and recommendations. And yes, Andrea, he is dishy...

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Danielle said...

I'm excited to learn about some of the Alsatian wines you've enjoyed that aren't from the list of usual suspects from this region. I'm head over heals in love with Rieslings and have been falling for the crisp Alsatian style, but mostly have been drinking those made by the major producers. Will definitely search for Helfrich Riesling. Thanks for sharing your hidden finds!