Good value, diverse, and no longer sweet, Alsace wines deserve a try
- Credit: Frantisek Zvardon/Conseil Vins d'Alsace.
Wine communication can all too easily become over complicated, even off-putting. Endless discussion of tiny differences in soil or vineyard exposition, or levels of barrel toasting are way beyond what many people want to hear.
Sometimes, though, such subtleties contribute in a big way to why a wine region is special. Alsace is a case in point, a place whose very fine wines are still too little appreciated here.
"We have all the soils in the world," one vigneron told me recently. "The complexity of our geology is unique, extraordinary," added another. These differences have long been recognised – the best vine sites were identified in the ninth century. Today, 51 of these have grand cru status, while all around are vineyards well suited for more everyday wines and the celebratory crémant fizz.
But you don't need to understand geology to enjoy the wines. As I made my way – virtually – from stand to stand at the impressive Millésimes Alsace 2021 online wine fair, I tasted close to 50 wines. There wasn't a single disappointment.
Most came from small family businesses, plenty with their roots stretching back five, 10 even 20 generations. But wines from bigger operations, notably several co-operatives, were similarly tempting. Everyone I met was friendly and welcoming, with justifiable enthusiasm for their products – nice people, I find so often, make the happiest wines.
From all the main grape varieties, riesling, gewurztraminer, pinot gris and pinot blanc (exceptionally for French appellation wines, their names are prominent on the bottles), a distinct rich and aromatic Alsace character sings out. Pinot noir reds, while light in style, are ripe and concentrated.
At all levels, there is elegant fruit and freshness, with appetising minerality, sometimes even a hint of salinity, showing especially in the grand cru wines. Just one small warning: labelling still doesn't always make clear the level of sweetness. But emphasis now is on fully dry wines instead of the once-common off-dry style.
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And throughout this hilly, picturesque but sometimes climatically challenging region, there's huge support for organic and biodynamic growing. Such green practice covers a fifth of the vineyard area and producers agree their effort brings life back to the soil, enhances the quality of the grapes and protects the region's future.
Perhaps, if you don't know Alsace wines, price might be a concern. Not so. These wines are remarkable value, with plenty of grand cru examples under £30, sometimes £20, and many choices below that. They're not hard to find, but for a good introduction to wine styles and producers go to https://www.thewinesociety.com/
Six Wines To Buy In September
In the hope that there will be sunshine in September, and moments to enjoy cool white wines, here are some suggestions for early-autumn pleasure. For flexibility, consider bag-in-box – that's no longer for boring basics alone, as an increasing number of decent wines appear in a format that can sit in the fridge for several weeks.
One is La Belle Angèle sauvignon blanc 2020 (Majestic, £25 2.25 litres, £20 in a mix-six BIB selection, or £10/£7 a 75cl bottle), gently scented and with crisp green fruit, only 11.5 percent and a textbook demonstration of Vin de France flexibility.
Or go for the original Torres Viña Sol 2020 (Tesco, £18 2.25 litres, £7.50 a bottle), another wine light in alcohol (12 percent) yet packing plenty of fresh, easy-drinking flavour.
Only in conventional bottles, but tempting and excellent value is Conchylia Picpoul de Pinet 2020 (Marks & Spencer, £9), as sunny as its Mediterranean locus – while it's perfect with the classic pairing of oysters, the fresh herbal/lemon character and minerality work well with many light dishes.
There needs to be time for treats, and these are very well priced indeed for their quality. One Kiwi sauvignon blanc that has much impressed me is Pyramid Valley 2019 (winedirect.co.uk, haywines.co.uk, £19), so much more elegantly French in style than New Zealand's more emphatic norm. Concentration, restrained yet enticing flavours, balance, texture, with organically-grown grapes a green bonus – this is a real delight.
As is Louis Latour Montagny Premier Cru La Grande Roche 2019 (thedrinkshop.com, £22.50), fresh layers of tropical fruit, delicately oaked, deserving of serious fish or white meat partners. It hails from one of Burgundy's less fashionable areas, the Côte Chalonnaise, hence the sensible price.
Finally, great new world bubbles – pink this time – in Jansz Premium Rosé (winedirect.co.uk, slurp.co.uk, £16-£18). Tasmania's cool climate plus skilled winemaking make this stylish, summery bottle-fermented fizz a challenger to much more expensive bottles.