Commonsense tells us that the horrors of war should never affect a peaceful undertaking such as wine making. And yet history has provided numerous instances where wine has co-existed with conflict.
Ancient traders of Phoenicia, Greece and Rome considered wine more valuable and potable than water. In modern times, the French and Italians valued their local wine enough to devise elaborate schemes to hide their cellars from the Nazis (see the entertaining film, "The Secret of Santa Vittoria").
Some years ago, Serge Hochar, the owner/winemaker of Chateau Musar in Lebanon, until his death in 2014, told me that he will never forget being in the winery in the Bekaa Valley, tending to the Musar red blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan and Cinsault, while artillery shells whistled overhead.
In Israel's Golan Heights, I remember standing with Shimshon Wollner, then manager/winemaker of Golan Heights Winery, on a hardscrabble view point, looking down across El Rom, into Syria. El Rom was the site of a fierce tank battle in the Six-Day War in 1967and Wollner was right in the middle of the conflict. He said that it took months to clear the battlefield of un-exploded shells and derelict tanks, before it was safe enough to plant a vineyard.
Examples of making wine amidst armed conflict are numerous, but no wine region in modern times has been in the cross hairs of warring nations more than Alsace. Located in eastern France, Alsace lies between the western Vosges mountains and the Rhine river in the east, which separates the unique French wine region from Germany.
In the 17th century, following years of German control, Alsace was annexed by France, then in 1871, the region went back under German control. The status remained that way until after WWI when Alsace returned to French rule. Some advances were made in Alsatian vineyards but a setback occurred when the Nazis overran Alsace during the second world war. Finally, after WWII, Alsace became a permanent part of France.
(And that reminds me...Wine alone is a good reason to visit Alsace. If you are a wanderer, though, and would like to see a bit of France as it once was, get yourself to Alsace. My wife and I did that and had a marvelous time wandering the narrow streets, lined with half-timbered houses. The heart of the region is just north and south of Colmar, with the small villages of Ribeauville, Hunawihr and Riquewihr, major wine towns.
At the crest of a hill In Hunawihr, surrounded by vineyards, is the historic Eglise Saint-Jacques le Majeur. Behind the church is a peaceful cemetery lined with burial plots predating WWI. Many are reflections of history, small personal stories of the village men who fought in both world wars. A number of granite stones held small enameled medallions with images of the interred, the inscriptions in French or German. It was a moving experience that I often think of when I think of Alsace.)
With the historic influences of France and Germany, it is not surprising that Alsace wines reflect the personality of both countries. Outwardly, Alsace wines look Germanic: tall slender flute bottles; areas of production that sound German; varietal names that are more associated with Germany than France, such as Gewurztraminer and Riesling.
The wines, however, show their Frenchness: reflections of terroir; dry or medium-dry styles; and the occasional wine fermented in oak, such as Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc. The latter, with its wood-aging, may taste remarkably like oaked Chardonnay.
More than 90% of all Alsace wine is white and most of that is made from Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris. Because of Alsace's northern location, the use of malolactic conversion (ML) is usually avoided, preferring instead the region's crisp natural acidity and fresh fruit flavors. Occasionally, a wine will accidentally go through malo.
Malo, as it is commonly called, is a winemaking process that converts sharper malic acid (such as in apples) to softer lactic acid (as in milk). Malo can also slightly lower total acidity, a desired effect by winemakers in cooler climates where acids can be high and sharp. Malo is used mainly with white wines, although Alsace winemakers find that the process works with Pinot Noir, to soften and stabilize the wine. The ML process is sometimes called "malolactic fermentation" although it is not a true fermentation.
Alsatians focus on eight white grapes, one red and a special white blend. Here is a brief look at the top three whites (Muscat is also included as one of the top white wines but is made in small quantities) and the lone red:
Riesling is the king of white grapes in Alsace. Unlike its German cousin, Alsace Riesling is dry and can be compared to German Trocken Riesling. Young Alsace Riesling is floral and fruity, but bottle maturity brings out mineral notes. Advocates of this austere style have kept the demand for Alsace Riesling going. Detractors, however, say that without a small measure of residual sweetness (such as in German Halbtrocken) Alsace Riesling is too sharp and citrusy.
Gewurztraminer often tastes sweet, but its natural low acidity just gives that impression. The take away for Gewurtz is its exotic sweet spice, jasmine and lychee aroma and flavor. There's also a tactile mouth feel that gives Gewurztraminer weight not found in other aromatic whites. Alsace Gewurtz is either dry or off-dry.
Pinot Gris is the bridge between the bracing acidity of Riesling and the exotic spice of Gewurztraminer. Pinot Gris was once labeled as Tokay d'Alsace or Tokay Pinot Gris, but "tokay" was dropped due to objections by Hungary. Alsace Pinot Gris ages well, taking on a more mellow buttered character, not unlike what happens with Australian Semillon.
Grape Confusion. There is no grape grown in Europe named Tokay. One of the world's great and storied dessert wines is Tokaji, from the Hungarian region of Tokaj, made primarily from the Furmint grape. Hungarian winemakers, understandably, objected to Alsace co-opting the name Tokay, so an agreement was met and after 2007, the Alsace wine is known as Pinot Gris. The Hungarians also didn't like the Australians calling their sweet wine Tokay, so the Aussies changed the name to Muscat or Topaque, the latter a name that could have come from a California marketer. Finally, until recently, the Italians had a white wine called Tocai Friulano, now renamed simply as Friulano.
Other Alsace white wines include Auxerrois, Chasselas, Muscat, Pinot Blanc and Sylvaner. There is also a "cheap and cheerful" blend called Edelzwicker, commonly a blend of two grapes such as Auxerrois, Chasselas and Pinot Blanc. A carafe of Edelzwicker can be found on tables in many Alsace restaurants.
Pinot Noir from Alsace was once non-starter. Today, a number of wineries have Pinot Noir in their portfolio. The popularity of Pinot Noir has helped lift the wine in Alsace while giving wineries a wine to sell that isn't white. Climate change has helped Alsatians to produce fuller and warmer pinots, many of them now seeing a measure of oak.
In 1975, the appellation Alsace Grand Cru was added to designate a Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris or Muscat, coming from a single vineyard and vintage. Presently, there are 51 wines allowed to use this appellation
Additionally, the four permitted varieties can be produced as Vendange Tardive, or late picked. The production of VT wines is carefully regulated as to sugar concentration and picking date. VT wines do not have to be botrytis affected and they may either be dry or sweet. Selection de Grains Nobles takes the VT concept a step further. SGN wines follow the same rules that govern the production of VT wines but are required to have higher sugar levels and are always sweet.
Next Blog: Tempranillo and Spanish Reds
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