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Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Wine-buying in France; Alsace

There are two things I particularly like when buying wine - firstly, getting a bargain and secondly, trying something local; whilst it's not always true that the locals keep the good stuff for themselves and export the dross, there is certainly some merit in buying wine close to where it is produced - and the smaller the quantities and more obscure the area, the truer this becomes.

Alsace has around 15,000 hectares of vineyards - just over a tenth of the amount in Bordeaux, for example. In practice, this means that there is just not a huge amount of Alsace wine to go around. So, whilst reliable, everyday (and often rather good) examples of Bordeaux can be found in almost any French supermarket, their Alsace selections tend to be more limited and somewhat disappointing. To get the best wines at the best prices from Alsace, a trip there is required.

Alsace is a somewhat curious area of eastern France - for many years a borderland fought over by the French and the Germans, it can be slightly disorienting for the visitor to be in this part of France with its Germanic local dialect, wine labelled by grape variety and sold in tall fluted bottles and distinctly Germanic cuisine - albeit transformed into something very delicious and decidedly French.

It is possible to get to Alsace from Cambridge within a day's driving if you catch an early Le Shuttle train from Folkestone, but it is much nicer to break the journey up with a stop-over in either Champagne or even the Belgian Ardennes for a spot of Trappist beer.

The main cities of Alsace are Strasbourg to the north and Colmar to the South, and both are lovely and well worth a visit; but the Route des Vins, or Alsace wine route, will take you away from the larger towns and through some of the prettiest villages I have ever seen - colourful, timber-framed, gabled houses bedecked with flowers, storks nesting, cobbled streets and views of vineyards, abandoned castles and the Vosges mountains in the background. The best way to explore the area is to stop at a few villages (Riquewhir and Eguisheim are both especially lovely) and also take in the odd vineyard walk as you follow the Route des Vins.

The Vosges are a range of low-lying mountains which form more of a natural border between France and Germany than the river Rhine, hence the region's turbulent past; rising to just over 1,400m at their highest, they provide a rain shadow for the vines growing lower down and allow relatively warm-climate varieties to be grown this far north. French gastronomy has dictated that Alsace wines, unlike their German counterparts across the river, be fermented into something full, dry and aromatic to match with the rich local food which includes tarte flambee, choucroute and coq au riesling.

The Hautes Vosges (Higher Vosges) to the south provide the greatest amount of shelter for the vines and it is here that the best, fullest wines can be found; the main grape varieties grown here are Riesling (totally different from, but equal in stature to Chardonnay as the great white wine grape), Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Muscat and Gewurztraminer. The labelling is relatively straightforward as there are no sub-regions of Alsace, merely (basic) AC Alsace and (superior) Grand Cru for still, dry wines. Alsace does, however, also produce both sparkling wine (Cremant d'Alsace) and sweet wines (Vendange Tardive and Selection de Grains Nobles).

Almost any wine village will have several wineries offering tastings and some are more famous than others. Any self-respecting wine guide should recommend Hugel, Trimbach, Zind-Humbrecht, Paul Blanck and Rolly Gassmann. However, as these are mostly available in Cambridge from either Waitrose or one of our various wine merchants, I wanted to try something not generally (if at all) available in the UK, and so we rolled into the Paul Schneider tasting room in Eguisheim.

In the days - not that long ago - when the pound was reasonably strong against the Euro, the wines here were ridiculously cheap for the quality - the standard range of wines started at €3.50 and maxed out at €6.00 - including a number of prize-winning wines. I sampled three rather excellent wines:

Paul Schneider Pinot Planc 2005 (Medaille d'Or Paris) - €4.50

Crisp, medium weight and delicious with flavours of apples and pears, good as an aperitif or at this age with light dishes, such as white fish or soft cheeses. However, with time, Alsace Pinot Blanc gains body and becomes a much fuller wine altogether.

Paul Schneider Riesling 2006 (Vielles Vignes) - €6.00

An excellent, full Riesling with crisp bite, good body and structure and nice, honeyed finish.

Paul Schneider Pinot Gris 2005 (Medaille d'Or Colmar) - €6.00

The ripest, fullest wine here, rich and fat, sumptuous and savoury, matches well with the local food including quiche and pork.

Sadly, as noted above, Paul Schneider wines are not available in the UK, but other Alsace producers are.

Alsace wines in general match particularly well with "modern international" cuisine - that is, well-seasoned, restaurant-style food with strong flavours and heavily reduced sauces.


Paul Schneider - http://www.vins-paul-schneider.fr/

Image credits

Image of Paul Schneider from the winery's website

Image of Eguisheim by Mschlindwein - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Mschlindwein

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