This week’s wine sure is nice

By Celia Strong

This week’s new wine will take us on a trip to the Alsace, France, region. A very interesting and, in many ways, unique area that is located in northeastern France, right next to their border with Germany. This location has had a huge influence on the area — its history, its culture, its food, its wines, and even its language. Almost all the wines from Alsace are white, 90 percent of them. Many of them are made from aromatic varieties, including Riesling and Gewurztraminer. These are the only AC wines in France that are labeled for their grape variety. And, Alsace wine laws ensure they are 100 percent of the named variety.

Alsace lies between the Vosges Mountains and the German border along the Rhine River. It is a long, thin region (about 115 miles from north to south and 25 miles from east to west). Almost all the vineyards are situated on the east and southeast facing slopes, on the lower hillsides. This is a colder region, but the mountains serve to protect the vines from the rough north winds blowing in from the west. In addition, these same mountains keep too much rain from falling on the vines. The soils in the hillside vineyards have sandstone, granite and volcanic rocks while clay-rich limestone and marlstone soils are in the plains vineyards.

The history of Alsace is partly French and partly Germanic. In Roman times, the area was the border between the Roman Empire and Prima Germania. Close to the year 0, Emperor Augustus decided to build a city on the site of an ancient Celtic settlement, today’s Strasbourg. This city was strategically located where the roads and rivers met. The Roman legions needed their wine, and by the third century, forests had been cleared and vineyards planted on a fairly large scale.

In 357 AD, Germanic people, known as the Alemanni, fought with the Romans. Initially, they lost but 10 years later, when the Empire was beginning to weaken everywhere, they won. In the beginning of the 5th century, the Alemanni were established in Alsace and much of what is now Switzerland. The Francs invaded Alsace in 496 AD. The 843 AD treaty of Versailles, created by Charles the Great, established separate parts of what was the Empire. The western part became France, the eastern part became the German-Roman Empire, and the middle became the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxenbourg, Alsace and Lorraine. From this point on, until the Versailles treaty of 1919, at the end of World War I, Alsace “bounced” back and forth between being part of France and part of Germany. This bouncing, though, created the Alsace we know today. Food, wine, architecture, religion, language — all are now a blend of the two.

One more thing to for this week’s wine is the category it falls into. Yes, Alsatian wines are labeled for their grape variety. Except when they are a blend. And that category is known as Edelzwicker. “Zwicker” means “blend,” and the added “Edel” means “noble.” (The best pronunciation guide I have for this is “idol-svicker.”  A “w” in German is done as a “v.”) This term designates any blended wine that is AC Alsace. They are made from white grapes, with no indication of which ones or percentages. The different grapes can be vinified (made into wine) separately, or together. And, vintage dating on the bottle is optional. Historically, the blended grapes came from one parcel of vineyard land. Wines designated “Gentil” are also an AC Alsace blend, of superior quality. These wines must be a minimum of 50 percent Riesling, Muscat and/or Gewurztraminer (the three “better” Alsatian varieties), with Sylvaner, Chasselas and/or Pinot Blanc making up the rest. Each of the grapes here must be vinified separately, and each of them must be AC Alsace wine on its own. “Gentil” wines are subject to quality control certification before they can be sold. In French, “gentil” means nice. Nice for us also, they’re good wines.

Our winery for this week’s wine is Hugel. Yep, a German name. The Hugel family can trace its history in Alsace back to the 15th century. In the 17th century, Hans Ulrich Hugel settled in Riwuewihr and, in 1639, he was made a freeman of the city. Hans took charge of the Corporation of Winegrowers, a very powerful organization. In 1672, his son built a fine house with the family crest over the doorway. That crest is still their winery’s logo. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the Hugel reputation for wine-growing skills and meticulous vineyard cultivation was established. In 1902, Frédéric Emile Hugel built new premises for the family business, in the center of Riquewihr, where they are still located. Through the generations, over 370 years and 12 generations, the Hugels maintained their reputation and leadership in Alsace’s wine industry and the production of their quality wines.

And, an interesting tidbit?  The Hugel company was the instigator of a “Grand Cru” rating system in Alsace. This is a vineyard rating where the best land grows the best grapes. Over half of the land Hugel owns is rated Grand Cru. But?  Today, Hugel prefers not to use the Grand Cru classification on any of their wines. Why?  Because recent expansions of some of the boundaries of some Grand Cru vineyards and the addition of some not-quite-as-good vineyards makes it mean less. So, they let their wines speak for themselves. Nice!

Our wine is the Hugel Gentil. The grapes for this “edelswicker” come from both Hugel owned vineyards and growers with whom they have long-term contracts, all located around the village of Riquewihr.

After fermentation, the wines are allowed to settle, a natural clarification process, over the winter, and, then, they are fined and gently filtered before bottling. The exact blend of Hugel Gentil varies a bit from year to year. The advantage being it tastes close to the same every time, every bottle.

Beginning with the 2009 vintage, all Hugel bottles have the DIAM closure — no way you can get a bad cork that way. (Just so you know, these are made from real cork, but more processed, including cleaning.)

These wines show fresh aromas of fruit and flowers. They are dry, refreshing and very pleasant. Delicious on their own, their pair superbly with Asian flavors such as soy sauce, ginger, lemongrass, curry and Chinese Five Spice. And they go well with a lot of food especially shellfish, white fish, poultry and salads.

Most of us drink way more red blends than white blends. Now, we have a white blend that is unique and delicious and only $12.99. Nice!  Enjoy.

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