Has our search for new oddballs blinded us to oft-overlooked classics?
Fresh from the wine fair, my tasting book is full of new discoveries. I had my first Russian wine; entered the strange world of wines fermented and aged in amphorae from Georgia; and had a good nose round the Turkish stand at ExCeL.
A thirst for knowledge and an inquisitive palate are fine traits in the best buyers, however our quest for the latest (and often oddest) wines can lead us to overlook established riches. This trait was highlighted on my first trip to Alsace. I say that quietly, and slightly ashamed, as I’ve visited every other major wine-producing area in France (and plenty of lesser ones) on numerous occasions.
Fifteen years ago, Alsace was hot: producers were reinventing the style of wines that could be made, and it was allied to the boom in fashionable, Asian-influenced cuisine. It is still well represented in the likes of Nobu, Zuma, Hakkasan et al, but beyond these venues it’s a different story.
Odd, because from a restaurant’s point of view, the versatility and food-friendliness of Alsace wines make them a sommelier’s best friend. It is no accident that every esteemed Parisian bistro lists an Alsatian wine – in a casual dining environment, they are peerless in their ability to work with a range of dishes. Every self-respecting gastropub should be offering an Alsatian wine by the carafe and glass.
Every self-respecting gastropub should be
offering an Alsatian wine by the carafe and glass
Their second great advantage is that the grape variety appears on the label, so consumers with limited knowledge can make an informed choice.
The bad news, though, is that the bottle shape convinces many consumers the wines are German, and that the grapes are either too obscure (Sylvaner) or potentially sweet (Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Muscat).
Indeed, the biggest criticism over recent years has been the variable level of sugar in the wines. During the 1990s, the drive for opulence and ripeness led to higher alcohol and residual sugar. RS is still present in a number of wines (particularly Pinot Gris), but to combat confusion many labels now display a sweetness scale.
However, just as many Alsatians are now choosing to strive for elegance rather than opulence, as evidenced by the shockingly pure, vibrant wines of producers like Albert Boxler and Dirler-Cadé.
The greatest revelation came at Zind-Humbrecht – a stellar estate whose wines I have always had marked down as impressive, but rather hard to drink. Its 2010s were thrilling, with terroir definition to match anything Burgundy can offer.
The main lesson I learned? Before plunging into the far reaches of wine land, my lists should do justice to those closer to home.