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Alsace Varieties Have Their Day
By Tina Caputo
Feb 19, 2008
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When it comes to wine festivals, it seems that red wines get all the glory.  There are events devoted to Zinfandel (ZAP), Pinot Noir (Pinot Days) and Merlot (Merlot in May), but where's the love for white varieties?

I know, I know: It's not 'cool' to like white wines.  I can't even count the number of times I've heard someone (usually a guy) proudly declare that he only drinks red wine, like it's some kind of macho badge of honor.

Luckily, the vintners in Anderson Valley, in California's Mendocino County, aren't hung up on wine color-gender issues.  For the last three years, they've hosted an annual event devoted to the white grape varieties of Alsace:  mainly Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc.  Not only does the festival feature all white wines, but some sweet ones, too.

As an unapologetic fan of white wines--and Riesling in particular--I happily tasted my way through the offerings at this year's International Alsace Varietals Festival, held last weekend in Boonville, Calif.  The event is a small one, but it seems to be catching on.  Three hundred people attended this year's fest--double the number from last year.  (And no, the men were not wearing dresses.)

A major reason for the jump in attendance is Riesling's recent rise to stardom.  Five years ago, Riesling was something people drank when the convenience store ran out of White Zinfandel; today, it's actually considered 'hip.'  In terms of sales, Riesling is now America's fastest-growing white wine.  German Rieslings are big sellers here, but there are some fantastic domestic wines coming out of New York's Finger Lakes, Northern Michigan, Washington state and California's Anderson Valley.  Some have a touch of sweetness, while others are crisp and dry, with a wonderful mineral character.

The same can be said of other Alsace varieties from the same cool-climate regions. 

Though these wines may never have a mass appeal of, say, Chardonnay, they're delicious--and food-friendly--alternatives to those everyday white wines.  As proof, I offer these recommendations from the 2007 International Alsace Varietals Festival:

Left Foot Charley 2006 Riesling ($17):  Though many people scoff at the idea of Michigan wine, the Germany-like winters in the northern part of the state seem to turn out more 'authentic' Rieslings than any amount of California sun.  Winemaker Bryan Ulbrich likes to leave a bit of residual sugar in his wines, but not to worry: There's also plenty of acidity to balance out the wine.  It has peachy-citrus aromas, with a touch of sweetness, followed by a crisp finish. 

Chateau Grand Traverse 2006 Dry Riesling ($11): Also located in Michigan's Old Mission Peninsula region, CGT makes five different Rieslings, ranging from dry to late harvest (a.k.a. sweet).  This one really is dry, with a pretty floral aroma accented with mineral character.  It has crisp and clean apple and pear flavors, with a slightly tart finish. 

Pey-Marin 2006 Riesling ($22):  Many regions in California are just too warm and sunny to produce good Riesling, but coastal Marin County is an exception.  Pey-Marin's vineyard is just 8 miles from the ice-cold (even in summer) Pacific Ocean, and is subject to much cooler weather than surrounding regions.  The resulting wine has a surprising mineral character not usually found (unfortunately) in California Rieslings.  Dry, with delicate citrus fruit and racy acidity. 

Robert Sinskey Vineyards 2006 Abraxas ($29):  Sinskey actually stopped making Chardonnay--some would call that crazy in the Napa Valley--to produce a more food-friendly white wine from aromatic grape varieties.  Abraxas is that wine, made from a blend of Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Riesling and Gewurztraminer.  It has a spicy, floral aroma, along with touches of orange, apple and citrus fruit.  Not heavy or sweet-tasting, this well-balanced wine would be a great match for Asian, Mexican or Indian food. 

Londer 2005 Gewurztraminer ($24): This Anderson Valley Gewurz has a spicy, floral aroma, with a hint of caramel from its time in French oak.  It's weighty and pleasantly sweet, with luscious lychee and honey flavors. 

Amity Vineyards 2006 Willamette Valley Pinot Blanc ($17): Oregon's Amity Vineyards has been making Pinot Blanc since 1995, and it's easy to see why.  This is a very pretty wine, with tropical fruit and mineral aromas, along with melon flavors.  It is round, balanced and easy to drink. 

For information about next year's Alsace wine fest, visit www.avwines.com