By Celia Strong
Our quest to learn about great wines from around the world takes us to the Alsace region of France, a unique area with an interesting history that even has its own language, food and wines.
Alsace is located on the eastern border of France, along the western banks of the Rhine River. Looking at a map of France, you find it squeezed into its corner, sort of jutting more into Germany than looking like it’s really in France. The history of this region is closely tied to its location. By 1500 BC, Celtic people had started to settle in Alsace. The Romans, by 58 BC, had invaded and established forts and viticulture here. In fact, the forts were as much to protect the highly valued wine industry as for any thing else.
When the Roman Empire collapsed, Alsace was taken over by the Germanic Allemanni. These were agricultural people and their language became the base for northern German. The Franks defeated the Allemanni in the 5th century AD, and Alsace became part of the Kingdom of Austria. The Frankish realm was dissolved in 843. Then, the grandsons of Charlemagne divided the realm into three parts; Alsace was part of Middle Francia, and was ruled by the youngest grandson, Lothar. When Lothar died, his third of the original realm was divided into three again. The part known as Lotharingia, or Lorraine, was given to his son. The Kingdom of Lotharingia did not last long.
During the 12th and 13th centuries, Alsace experienced great prosperity. It was set up as a sort of province, looked over by a civil servant for Frederick I. Harsh winters, bad harvests and the Black Death brought the good days to an end at the close of the 14th century.
The residents of Strasbourg were prosperous again, by the time of the Protestant Reformation, and accepted Protestantism in 1523. The Roman Catholic Habsburgs, though, also had influence in Alsace. Consequently, Alsace became a mixture of Protestant and Catholic territories.
Through the 16th and 17th centuries, the tugs of war for pieces of Alsace continued. As France and Germany became unified countries, elements from each laid claim to Alsace. Treaties were written with Alsace being sometimes French and sometimes German. It’s only since the end of World War II, in 1945, that Alsace has become permanently a part of France.
When it comes to Alsatian wine, close to 90 percent are white. Many of the grape varieties used are more often thought of as German. Wines are labeled for their grape variety, the only one of 27 French AC wine regions, though it is the norm in Germany. There are only three AC appellations for Alsatian wines — Alsace AC for still white, red and rosé wines; Alsace Grand Cru for white wines grown in classified vineyards; and, Crémant d’Alsace for sparkling wines.
White wines are very dry or sweet. All Alsatian wines must be bottled in tall, thin, green bottles; the usual “Rhine” bottle. Interestingly, in Germany, there is no legal requirement to use this bottle.
Riesling is the main, and greatest, white variety grown in Alsace, it accounts for about 22 percent of all the grapes grown. Gewurztraminer comes in second at about 19 percent of the total. These are both German varieties of grapes. Pinot Gris, a French grape, is third at 15 percent. Others, in order of more grown to less grown, are Auxerrois blanc, Pinot Noir, Sylvaner, Pinot Blanc, Muscat varieties, Chasselas, and small bits of a few more. Whatever grape is named on a label, the wine must be 100 percent that variety. About 25 percent of all Alsatian wines are exported to their largest markets in Belgium, The Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, and the United States.
Our grape this week is Pinot Blanc, a genetic mutation of Pinot Noir. In 2000, there were about 3,200 acres of Pinot Blanc planted in France. Almost all of them in Alsace. It’s confusing, and despite the AC wine labeling laws for Alsace, some “Pinot Blanc” labeled wines are not all Pinot Blanc. Sometimes, it is just a catch-phrase for “A blend of whatever Pinot grapes.” Sometimes, a splash of Chardonnay may be added. Not legal, but not really watched for either. Fuller-bodied Pinot Blanc wines often are pumped up with Auxerrois.
The thing is, a good Pinot Blanc wine is delicious! The flavors and aromas of Pinot Blanc include apple, citrus fruits and floral notes. Beside Alsace, Pinot Blanc is grown in Germany, Austria, northern Italy, the U.S., South Africa, Canada, Argentina and Australia.
Our wine this week is from the Pierre Sparr winery, which was founded in 1680 by Jean Sparr. Over the next 300 years, nine generations of the family worked in their vineyards and winery. Pierre Sparr took over the winery in the early 1900’s, at the age of 20. His motto was “invest, progress and maintain,” a motto that is still used today. The Sparr vineyards were mostly destroyed in World War II, but Pierre and his sons replanted them and expanded their trade with Europe and abroad. Just like before the war, the Sparr property once again became one of the most beautiful in Alsace.
Our 2011 Pierre Sparr Pinot Blanc is 100 percent Pinot Blanc — no wiggling around laws with the Sparrs. The soil where these grapes grow is granite, limestone, gneiss and chalky clay. There is no irrigation for the trellised vines and the grapes are hand harvested. The vines are 5 to 15 years old. The harvest for the 2011 grapes was September 10 to 25. Almost always in Alsace, harvest is 100 days after the flowering of the vines in the spring. Fermentation for this wine was temperature controlled, with no skin contact and no malolactic fermentation. This wine is a soft yellow color with hints of green. It has aromas of pears, sweet hay, lemon peel, delicate fruits, coriander and minerals; pear and quince flavors pop in the dynamic acidity of the wine.
What kind of food pairs well with the Pierre Sparr Pinot Blanc? Well, even though we have some German grapes, German-style labels, German bottles, Alsatian foods are a bit more French in style. And, lucky us, their wines go with all kinds of cuisines including creamy sauces, on fish especially; choucroute (cabbage, sausage, potatoes all stewed together); Asian flavors of all types — sushi, wasabi, soy sauce, fish sauce, dim sum, curries, onion tarts (like Quiche Lorraine); ham and cheese; sausages; pork; seafood and shellfish; lobster; goat cheeses; smoked cheeses; smoked meats; game birds; and foods with citrus flavors. Almost everything except tomato sauce.
Really, wines from Alsace seem to be really well suited to most foods. With all the ups and downs in their history, it makes sense. So, let’s make a point of drinking these wines more often. This week’s wine can be found at Bill’s Liquor on Lady’s Island for $14.99. Enjoy.