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The Unique Heritage of Alsace

Times Wine Writer

As a wine district dating back more than 1,100 years, Alsace would seem to have a marvelous heritage, a rich tapestry of tales and personalities and grand vin.

Instead, ravaged is the word that best describes this region that bears more battle scars than a winless boxer and its history is so ragged that the fact its wines are as magnificent as they are is true testament to the resilience of its people.

Wine has been part of the fabric of life in this northern French province since at least 870, and its failure to attain worldwide recognition during the ensuing centuries has more to do with social upheaval than wine making.

A glance at a map tells you that Alsace (named after the Ill River that was called Elsass by the German people) is adjacent to Germany. And the vineyards of Alsace share the same harsh climate that German vineyards suffer.

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Distinctive Wines

Yet years of military occupation as well as regional rivalry have kept the wines of Germany and Alsace distinctly different. Whereas Germany counts its greatest wines by the amount of sugar remaining in them, Alsatian wines are typically quite dry.

A reason for this, I contend, is that the Alsatians want to keep themselves and their wines unique, unlike those of Germany, as a matter of national pride. Nobody says it out loud, but Alsatians dislike Germans for the near-century of oppression.

The late Andre Simon, in his seminal 1962 work “Wines of the World,” wrote of the 77-year German occupation of the Alsace that ended only with the end of World War I:

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“The main purpose of the German authorities during that period was quite obviously to eradicate as much as possible everything that was French in order to Germanize Alsace and its people; wine was unfortunately one of its first victims.”

War Takes Toll on Wines

One odious German law during the occupation prohibited any Alsatian wine from being sold under the name of the region. Also, it was permissible to do all sorts of blending that eliminated specific characteristics that might be associated with Alsace. Moreover, the two premier grape varieties of Alsace, Riesling and Gewurztraminer (then called Traminer), were outlawed.

Simon noted that it wasn’t until 1919, after the war, that some of the prized varieties were restored to the ground. But Alsatian wines didn’t immediately inspire the rest of the world. It took years before they gained any respect in their own country, and even then the rest of the world still had no idea that Alsace made wine.

From 1940 through 1945, Alsace was again occupied by Germany, and the wines again suffered from neglect and restrictive laws.

This occupation was fierce, and lore has it that Hitler, who reportedly liked the wines of Alsace, personally assigned Himmler, his highest-ranking general and head of the Gestapo, to defend Alsace from the allied forces in the late stages of the war.

No one is sure why, but the battle to recapture Alsace was one of the bloodiest of the entire Second World War.

‘Independence of Spirit’

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In 1967, Simon wrote the fourth revision of his book and remarked that it would still take time for the Alsatian wine maker to achieve greatness in his wines.

Basil Woon, author of “The Big and Little Wines of France,” wrote that the many invasions of Alsace bred in the people “an independence of spirit that today is their enduring trait.”

The ravages of war haven’t been ignored by the current generation of Alsatians and, in fact, many of them take the whole history somewhat in stride, even with a bit of black humor.

“There are very few wars we have missed,” Etienne Hugel said the other day at a dinner honoring the 350th anniversary of Hugel et Fils, his family’s Alsatian wine-making house.

The remark was said with a wry smile, and moments later he referred to the region’s checkered past when he noted: “About 70% of all Alsatian wine exports go to Germany--but now they have to pay for them.”

And pay they are willing to do. Rapidly increasing demand for Alsatian wines in Germany in the last two years has shot prices up faster than anyone could have anticipated.

Yet the Alsatians remain humble and keep everything in perspective, a necessary condition to make and sell wine in a region that has had so little worldwide recognition until very recently.

The Hugel dinner, staged at Square One restaurant here, was a triumph for the wines and chef Joyce Goldstein. The eclectic flavors so typical of Square One matched handsomely with the Rieslings and Gewurztraminers.

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The fact that almost every wine produced in Alsace is white must not dissuade potential consumers because the flavors are strong enough to match with many foods. The Alsatian manner is to ferment wine dry and leave in the wine the essence of classic grape maturity. In such dry wines, it’s not unusual to see them change as they sit in the glass.

This was the case with the Hugel 1985 Riesling Reserve Personnelle ($25), which started out showing pine and light petroleum scents and then, after a few minutes, became marvelously floral and elegant.

Sweet Taste of Success

But the hits of the evening were wines designated Vendange Tardive, late-harvest wines that Hugel makes with a tad of residual sugar.

The sensational 1983 Riesling Vendange Tardive ($30) started out fresh and floral and then became more creamy with a honeysuckle tone to it.

The most impressive wine was the 1983 Gewurztraminer Vendange Tardive ($50), which had concentrated spice character to combine with amazingly crisp acidity, yet an almost sweet finish--a remarkable wine.

Hugel’s Vendange Tardive wines are late-harvest wines with a higher alcohol level (above 12% in most cases) and a trace of residual sugar (1% to 3%). They are rarer wines, made in tiny quantities. Until two years ago, these wines sold for less than half the prices they now command, but demand on the Continent has pushed prices up.

The Vendange Tardive wines are those for which Hugel is most famous. It was Hugel that helped write French government rules for late-harvest Alsatian wines in 1984.

Hugel noted that his wine-making house produces about 100,000 cases annually, but that only about 5,000 cases are Vendange Tardive wines, and the sweeter, rarer Selection des Grains Nobles (selection of noble grapes) wines are made in even smaller quantities.

He noted that Hugel has remained a family operation, complete with a multitude of Hugels (his uncles Jean, George and Andre took over when their father, Jean, died in 1980).

The anniversary celebration of Hugel coincides with the release of some of the 1983 and 1985 wines, both excellent vintages. The fact is that Alsace, as with any other northern-climate wine-growing region, suffers in a poor vintage year, and in such vintages the wines can offer little charm. They are austere, angular, hard and unforgiving.

In those vintages, it would be possible for the Alsatian people to leave a little residual sugar in their wines to ameliorate the high acidity. But they decline to do this because of their tradition.

Rare Red Wine

Interestingly, the most intriguing wine of the night turned out to be a red wine, 1985 Hugel Pinot Noir Reserve Personnelle ($25). It’s rare for an Alsatian producer to make any red wine because the climate is inhospitable to red grapes.

But this attractive, silky smooth, pale red wine has a spicy character like cloves and is a beautiful wine that would hold its own with some good French Burgundies.

Prices for these wines are, frankly, a bit too high for them to be recommended. Though they are very good wines, the prices seem to me out of line.

Another Alsatian producer with good distribution in this country is Trimbach. It is a name that carries as much weight in the world of Alsatian wine as any, and the Trimbach wines are widely respected for consistency.

The top wine in the line, designated Gewurztraminer Cuvee des Seigneurs de Ribeaupierre, is always excellent and the 1985 version ($20), produced from grapes of a special vineyard, offers spice, honeysuckle and pear flavors. But the 1983 Trimbach Vendange Tardive is about $50 too.

Trimbach’s marvelous regular Gewurztraminer sells for about $11, a great value in today’s market of escalating prices.

Other fine Alsatian producers whose wines often are found in the United States are Willm, Mure and Dopff & Irion.

Wine of the Week: 1985 Hugel Pinot Blanc “Cuvee Les Amours” ($8): For a glimpse into Alsace at a lower price, try this stylishly spicy wine with crisp acidity and a creamy aftertaste. Alsatian wines, unlike the wines of other French districts, carry the name of the grape variety and this one is a lovely, balanced effort that is dry enough to go with any main dish.


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