LITTLE did I expect to be taken to task when I was giving praise, but Alsace growers were a little irked when I categorised their wine as Germanic. It was only right, therefore, that I accept their offer to demonstrate how short that term sold them.
Its position, below the Vosges on France’s eastern border, can indeed make its wine distinct and varied. The perfumed and spicy gewürztraminer holds an almost unique position in the taste spectrum and has a clear affinity with oriental food. A good, relatively inexpensive example is 2009 Taste the Difference Alsace Gewürztraminer (£7.99, Sainsbury’s).
Less well known but similarly impressive is Alsace’s take on muscat – the grape behind much of the world’s dessert wine – but here it underpins that familiar floral nose with a dry, lemon, slightly peppery palate many consider ideal with the notoriously hard-to-match asparagus.
However, it was riesling that Foulques Aulagnon, who co-ordinates much of the region’s wine exports, wanted to put centre-stage. He assembled examples from the last four or five vintages along with several bottles from earlier years.
Considering several vintages and styles together sharpens judgment and provides answers to a few interesting questions. The first concerns which is the best recent vintage. The answer is 2008 because its wines have a vibrant youthfulness with pronounced fruit flavours and high acidity that all point to a lengthy, mellow, flavour-filled maturity. See for yourself with 2008 Kuentz-Bas Alsace Grand Cru Pfersigberg Riesling (£23, Wine Society).
Similar zest and freshness can be detected in the 2010 versions, but acidity levels vary more widely. Try the grapefruit-centred 2010 Grands Vins Kuehn Alsace Riesling (£9.20, from next month, www.slurp.co.uk).
2009 has less freshness and rather more restrained acidity. If subdued styles appeal, look out for the polished, structured, smooth, lime-based 2009 Edmond Rentz Alsace Riesling (£11.85 plus delivery, Philip Portal, 01243 377883).
Of older, yet still fresh, versions I enjoyed the long, slightly minty but balanced lime touches of 2005 Gustave Lorentz Alsace Grand Cru Altenberg de Bergheim Riesling (£22.98, Exel Wines, Perth, 01738 493535).
The second question that interested me was whether wine from the higher of the region’s two main appellations – Grand Cru – really was different. The answer is a definite yes. Alsace Grand Cru is restricted to 51 vineyards, and only one in 20 bottles qualifies. The 2010 Grand Cru wines did, though, have a clearer structure, more pronounced minerality and a lime-centred consistency on the palate. By contrast, most vin d’Alsace seemed more straightforward, with more flavour variation.
The third issue was the importance of terroir and comparative tasting is good at bringing out differences. Although the answer is less obvious in these young vintages, I was struck by the correlation between a discernible softness in the fruit and grapes that had grown on limestone and sandstone.
Finally, do older vintages really make the step change in complexity and elegance that many claim? Again the evidence gives the contention strong support. Indeed, many of these mature wines were sensational. The youngest, a 2001, had complex herbal lime flavours and high levels of residual sugar. The 1993 also had touches of sweetness but with grapefruit-based acidity. The 1983 had similar acidity-driven freshness but the stunner for me was from 1971. Although the deep colour gave its age away, this complex, long and substantial wine was astonishingly fresh and vibrant for a 40-plus-year-old bottle.
So, Alsace growers, your point has been made – and taken. Many of your wines are unique and distinctive and sweeping them into one broad north-European heading, however journalistically convenient, would indeed be a travesty.
2010 Finest Vinho Verde Portugal 11.5 per cent This is the year of the vinho verde comeback as it exorcises the ghost of its old-style, bland past. This version, for example, has all the gentle freshness, aromas and lightness of a modern, drink-anytime white. £5.50 (down from £7.29 until Tuesday), Tesco
2008 Le Coquille D’Oc Red Languedoc, France, 14.5 per cent A lovely syrah-based red from a domaine run by a Scots couple in southern France. It has excellent bramble fruit and an appealing, spicy chocolate finish. £6.50 (down from £8.50 while stocks last), Vino, Edinburgh, or get an extra 10 per cent off Monday to Wednesday until the end of the month