Drinking Around Alsace, A French Wine Region With Dual Personalities

You think you know France. Beaux Arts architecture, rich sauces, red wine blends. But then you get off the train in Colmar, some 50 miles south of Strasbourg, and wonder how this fantastical corner of the country can be. Welcome to Alsace, a small wine-producing region tucked into France's northeastern corner that shares a border with Germany and Switzerland. Here they speak their own language — the Germanic dialect of Alsatian — and eat such Mitteleuropean-influenced dishes as choucroute, a hearty dish comprised of sausages, salted meats and sauerkraut. Homes are built in the traditional German timber-frame style and it's not wildly uncommon to find ones dating back to the 13th or 14th century. The wines include such high-acidity and aromatic whites as Riesling and Pinot Gris, as well as Gewürtraminer and Muscat. As the climate warms, a growing number of winemakers are now making Pinot Noir.

The region of Alsace is long and narrow, the vineyards hugging the foothills of the Vosges mountains. There are some, like the Rangen vineyard in the quaint town of Thann, so steep that to walk through the rows is a vertical hike. The soils are varied, ranging from limestone to clay to sandstone and volcanic soils. The climate is cool and dry, with Alsace enjoying one of the country's lowest levels of rainfall.

Colmar is the spiritual center of the region, a wonderland (wünderland?) of a town full of fairy tale houses, a romantic Venetian-style canal and local winstub, which translates literally as "wine room," a typical pub serving simple fare that you find in just about every Alsatian village. The people here are friendly, if reserved, having finally reconciled their dual nature: French to the core, even while living in a pretty slice of Mitteleuropa filled with German place and family names. Being at the heart of the region, Colmar is the perfect place from which to explore the local wine route.

Wine tourism is not as developed as, say, Napa. But, as in most French wine regions nowadays, you can visit a number of wineries if you call ahead. In addition to the grapes named above, several producers make a sparkling wine, called Crémant d'Alsace using popular Champagne grapes, like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The nearly 150-year-old Domaine Dirler-Cadé is one of them. Just 15 miles from Colmar, this biodynamic winery produces both a white and rosé bubbly, which together make up some 15% of its total production. The white Crémant Brut 2010 blends Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Pinot Auxerrois for a raspberry-scented floral sparkler, clean and mineral. Buy it at The San Francisco Wine Trading Company for $25.

Speaking of Auxerrois, it's a grape you don't see often. Said to be a relative of Chardonnay, you may want to see (and drink) it everyday after you try Domaine Valentin Zusslin Auxerrois Vielles Vignes 2010, a richly perfumed yet lean-bodied white made from old vines. It's characterized by a bright acidity and clean, mineral finish. Buy it at Astor Wines for $22.

One of the region's most lauded producers is Trimbach, dating back to 1626. That makes the bubbly Anne Trimbach, who looks after marketing for the brand, the 13th generation of this family-owned company. Located in the adorable village of Ribeauvillé (population: roughly 5,100), the winery sits across from an ancient conical-roofed building with a real stork's nest on top; storks nests are common to see and something of a symbol in Alsace. The winery offers a large range of wines, from an easy-drinking $10 Pinot Blanc to this splurge: Clos Ste-Hune Riesling 2006, a beautifully ripe wine full of stone fruit and a hint of marzipan that manages to retain its acidity and chalky minerality. Buy it at Crush Wine & Spirits for $170.

In the even smaller community of Dahlenheim (population: around 650), in the northern part of the region closer to Strasbourg, Mélanie Pfister spends her days working with her parents. Several years ago, she took over as the head winemaker in the family, but still collaborates closely with her dad. Her Pfister Pinot Blanc 2011 is pretty and fleshy with fruity, floral aromas and a hint of spice on the finish. Buy it at K&L Wine Merchants for $19.

The also 600-odd-person town of Mittelbergheim is home to the winery of Albert Seltz, known locally as the "king of Sylvaner." This energetic and eccentric winemaker rescued the humble grape from the realm of mediocrity. He fought to win the ancient variety, long deemed unremarkable, grand cru status, which has elevated its reputation – at least around these parts. Albert Seltz Sylvaner Grand Cru Zotzenberg 2005 is savory and spiced, with hints of ginger and quince. Buy it at Saratoga Wine Exchange for $42.

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