Ask any wine merchant for his or her half-dozen favourite wine-growing regions and I guarantee that Alsace would be well up there with the best. Ask the same question of any wine drinker and
I doubt Alsace would even get a look in.
For some daft reason, the area’s wines have never really caught on, other than with those who import and sell them or with diehard devotees. You don’t even see them farther afield in France, other than in the brasseries Alsaciennes of Paris, such as the inestimable Bofinger (hard by La Place de la Bastille and well worth the trip).
When I was in the trade we’d drink buckets of the stuff but could we ever persuade our customers to buy it? We could not. I reckon it’s something to do with the Germanic-looking bottles.
But I’m baffled, for the best wines from this region of exquisite medieval villages and tip-top cuisine are among the finest in the world, varying from bone-dry rieslings to sumptuously rich and spicy, late-picked gewürztraminers; from refreshing méthode traditionelle sparklers to smoky, bitter-cherry pinot noirs.
All the wines of Alsace are remarkably food-friendly, and they’re punter-friendly, too, not only because they taste darn good but also because the relevant grape variety is always emblazoned on the label (unlike in most parts of France). You always know exactly what you’re getting.
I served some very simple pinot blanc from Hugel at supper the other night and it went down a storm. It was soft, creamy, gently spicy and aromatic, and perfect with my smoked eel and beetroot compote combo. It was a first-rate alternative to the southern French viognier and Kiwi sauvignon blanc that I had also had in mind to open. The party was unanimous, though; nobody could recall when they’d last bought or ordered a bottle of Alsace.
But then, nor did anyone remember having bought a wine similar to that which we had next, a big-boned syrah from Morocco. Again, this was given a resolute thumbs up all round and was perfect with my rather ineptly cooked game stew (I put too much juniper in, dammit, but we still managed to polish it off).
Having already gone a little off the beaten track, so to speak, I then cracked open some late-harvest Nectar from Chapel Down in Kent to serve with the crème brûlée. I’m happy to say this also really hit the mark. English sparklers have come on apace over recent years, as we all know, but I hadn’t realised there were such tasty sweet wines to be found on our doorstep, too.
The evening set me thinking that far too often I fall into the trap of sticking to old favourites from Champagne, Bordeaux, Burgundy, with the occasional splash of Marlborough sauvignon blanc or Aussie shiraz, when really I should be far more adventurous. There’s so much lovely vino out there, often from the most unexpected places, and I’ve decided to be much bolder.
I’m attempting to have three alcohol-free days a week at the moment and so far I’m succeeding. And I’ve also decided that on two out of the four days that I do drink, I will commit to something a little bit “off-piste”. I’ve had more than my share of duds but I’ve also had some belters.
The wonderful Wine Society has long championed Alsace, as it has other more exotic regions, such as Greece, Slovenia, Hungary and Turkey, and it was from the Society that I got the Moroccan red. I also had a superb Luxembourg riesling and a quirkily delicious white from Savoie in eastern France, near the Swiss border.
Other recent treats have included some Laurenz V Singing grüner veltliner from Austria, when otherwise I might have had a white burgundy; a richly flavoured and spicy 2010 heida from the Valais in Switzerland in lieu of some white bordeaux; and a cracking Domaine de Torraccia Rouge from Corsica, when I might have had a rhône.
There is so much to choose from beyond the major regions. Just a few short years ago, nobody dared drink any table wine from the Douro Valley in Portugal, for example, a region famed for its port. Heck, a few short years ago, nobody was making any. Today, though, they are mainstream and utterly delicious and, recently, I’ve enjoyed hugely the wines of Quinta do Crasto and Quinta do Vale Dona Maria.
Even the wines of Bulgaria have come in from the cold and, if you’re in any doubt about this, just try the 2007 Enira (£10 at Waitrose), a gorgeously smooth and supple bordeaux-style merlot/cabernet blend.
Only this morning I was sent some samples from China and, as soon as the takeaway arrives, I’ll be giving them a whirl, too.
‘Six of The Best’ to try