Sipping trip to Alsace and Bordeaux

April 30, 2009 by · 4 Comments 

“Alsace has the best white wines in the world — full stop,” Master of Wine James Cluer tells our Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) Level 3 class.

To prove this, he started us with a Pinot Gris face-off. The grape goes by Pinot Grigio in Italy and the styles of wine from the two regions are very different.

First we tried the 2007 Pinot Grigio from Santa Margherita from Valdadige, Italy ($20). It’s not a very intense wine, but you’re able to get some citrus, pear, green apple and maybe a mineral note. A dry wine with fairly high acidity, I’d like to try it with a chicken caesar salad on a summer afternoon.

The Italian PG got blown out of the water by the Alsatian. In our second glass was a 2004 Grand Cru Steinert Pinot Gris from Pfaffenheim from Alsace, France ($32). It was off-dry with just enough acid to make you salivate. Since it has a few years in the bottle, it had more developing notes on the nose: purfume, baked apple, and honey in addition to the citrus notes.

Overall, the Pfaffenheim was more intense, had more richness, was better balanced and delivered a long finish. Love that ripe fruit!

In addition to Pinot Gris, Alsace is known for growing Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Muscat (and to a lesser extent, Sylvaner). Our next stop on the Alsatian oenological tour was a delicious 2002 Pierre Sparr Grand Cru Altenbourg Riesling ($40).

I love Riesling. This one, having aged for seven years, had that wonderful petrol/mineral/honey/nutty thing going on. It was dry (not all Rieslings are sweet!) with lots of acidity (which Riesling is also known for) and was beautifully balanced.

Cluer called Alsatian producer Zind Humbrecht one of the top 100 best wine producers in the world.  We tried its 2004 Turckheim Gewurztraminer ($70). Gewurz is a highly aromatic wine, and this one definitely smelled like it was going to pack a punch! There was lots of exotic fruit, baked apple, spice, flowers, mineral — lots of descriptors means a complex wine. It was off-dry with medium acid and fat, rich flavours came through on the palate. Our only complaint was that the alcohol was a bit high and threw the wine slightly off balance.

All Aboard for Bordeaux

Our first Bordeaulais challenge was to taste the Cru Bourgeois Médoc (a higher classification) versus a AC Bordeaux supérieur (although superior, it’s a lesser classification. Supérieur in Bordeaux wines means it has a higher level of alcohol).

The first wine we tried was pretty crisp, and in later discussion Cluer pointed to unripe grapes as the culprit. It burned a bit hot with alcohol and wasn’t altogether well balanced. There were a few layers of  aroma and flavour: black fruit, sweet spice, licorice … but there was a definite sharpness to it.

This was Chateau d’Argadens Bordeaux 2005 ($21.99), the AC Bordeaux supérieur. “It’s not good — is it, really?” Cluer rhetorically asked the class. But he guaranteed it was the best wine on the store’s shelf at this price point (despite it being crap). Lesson? Don’t buy Bordeaux unless you have deep pockets. This wine was thin, acidic and you could find a lot of easier drinking alternatives around the world for your $20.

We compared it to a 2000 Chateau Maurac Cru Bourgeois, Haut Médoc (in Bordeaux)  ($34.80). The extra 13 bucks bought us smoother, more harmonious tannins and a  complex wine. After sitting for nine years in the bottle, this wine was taking on aromas and flavours of developing reds: forest floor, mushroom, earth, tobacco, and leather, in addition to some black fruit notes.

“Anything but a Napa Valley fruit bomb,” Cluer laughed. This wine is hovering around its drinking peak, but since there’s still some fruit left it will likely hold on and drink well for another four or five years.

Left Bank Vs Right Bank

When you’re in Bordeaux, you’ll hear these terms tossed around all the time. Left bank means all the wineries to the left (West) of the Gironde river. Right bank refers to the ones on the other side, further from the Atlantic ocean. The left uses more Cabernet Sauvignon in their red blends, while the right favours Merlot. The choices have to do with the soil conditions, because the two grapes have different needs.

We started on the right bank with a 1998 Chateau Grant Pontet Grand Cru, from Saint Emilion ($70). After 11 years, this wine is gorgeous. Smooth tannins and plummy, earthy, leathery, spicy notes. Give me some beef with this one!

We crossed the river to Chateau Kirwan, a third growth from Margaux ($99). 2005 was a benchmark year in Bordeaux, but it’s still pretty early to be drinking it. Bordeaux wines are made for the patient consumer. The tannins were still pretty tight, but over the next 10-20, even 30 years this wine will come into its own. The aromas are elegant — no “jerk your head back I’m an Australian Shiraz” brashness here.

Gimme some Suga

Both Alsace and Bordeaux are known for sweet wines, and I have to admit I’m a fan. If only they weren’t so expensive…

Domaine Ostertag Grand Cru Muenchberg, Alsace 2004 ($100). A stewed apricot, honeysuckle, minerally delight! Made with Riesling, this wine has enough acidity to balance the sweetness. We thought it could be a bit sweeter on the finish, as it was a bit dry, but overall excellent quality. But still a hundred bucks!

Sauternes isn’t for everyone, the grapes here are encouraged to be infected with ‘noble’ rot. That’s right: rotton grapes make this very expensive, sweet wine. But I like it. We tried Chateau Filhot Grand Cru Sauternes 1999 ($36.48, 375 ml). There are tropical fruit notes, tinned pineapple perhaps and the noble rot gives hints of nail varnish or glue that some people take a while to warm to. Don’t knock it til you’ve tried it!

Is France worth the wait?

The thing about Bordeaulais wine is that they are made in a different style than New World wines. You’re not getting that ready-to-drink, fruit-forward, big hitting wine that can be delivered from California, Australia or Argentina. These wines are elegant and most need a long time on the shelf before they drink at their best. And most of the ones worth drinking are expensive. But if you have the time and money, you can be rewarded with some really special wines.

Sylvaner from Alsace

November 7, 2008 by · 3 Comments 

2007 Vin de Alsace, Sylvaner, France, 12%, €15.90 (in a Paris corner shop). (That’s about C$24.)

My Mom is a white wine lover and I picked up this bottle to share with her on our last night in Paris. It was just the very thing for the occasion. Refreshing with just a hint of sweet that allowed it to be enjoyed without any food.

In case you’ve never heard of Sylvaner, it’s a cool climate grape known best in Alsace (an important French wine-producing region, but not one we visited on this trip) and in Germany. It does best in cool climates, but is not as well known as other cool-climate white grapes such as Riesling, Pinot Gris, Muscat, or Gewurztraminer.

A Sylvaner fact for you: in 2006 a vineyard called Zotzenberg stepped up and was recognized by the French appellation authority (a very stern bunch of bureaucrats) as a grand cru (meaning first growth: a snobby French way of designating top vineyards). Before 2006 only the other four aforementioned cool-climate white grapes were authorized to be called grand crus.

If you want to try out the grape a little closer to home, pick up a bottle of 2007 Domaine de Chaberton, Madeleine Sylvaner. It’s a crisp, dry and on the acidic side which would make it a great dinner pairing with creamy pastas or lemony fish. It’s from the Fraser Valley, 100-mile diet approved for Vancouverites and will only run you $12.99 at Village Wines.

For more ideas about French wines, read over the France by the Glass wine list.