With distinction Alsace has long served as a buffer between France and Germany, having changed hands between the two countries many times. After the second world war, Alsace entered its renaissance, becoming a distinctive wine region and, in 1962, gaining appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC) status. It is the smallest of all AOC regions and is separated from the rest of France by the Vosges Mountains. The area has a dry climate and is the only region in the country that is permitted to label wines with the grape varietal. White wine grapes account for 90 per cent of the area's production and, surprisingly for such a small area, its output makes up about 18 per cent of French still wines.
Wines from Alsace show pure fruit with distinctive aromatics - flowers, spice and refreshing acidity and minerality. New oak is never a factor - in fact old barrels are treasured and used for decades.
The classic noble grapes of Alsace are:
Riesling The Alsace version is drier, with a higher alcohol content, than its German counterpart. This is the most widely planted grape in Alsace and the last to ripen.
Pinot gris Previously referred to as "Tokay d'Alsace" until the Hungarians took umbrage at the use of the word "Tokay".
Muscat Not sweet but fragrantly floral with a grapey aroma.
Gewurztraminer Perfumed, sweet spice aromas with Asian tropical fruit (I always smell lychee).
Other well-known grapes from Alsace include pinot blanc (also known as klevner); chasselas (also called gutedel); sylvaner; and pinot noir.
Edelzwicker ("noble mixture") wine is a blend. The name is used if there is no mention of grape varietals on the label and it can also be a non-vintage wine. A better designation for blends is "gentil", which requires a minimum 50 per cent of Alsace noble grapes, all of which must be vinified separately. Hugel, a family of Alsace winemakers now in their 13th generation, were the initiators of this style. The wine is soft, supple and fragrant, with lots of juicy fruit flavours. It is reasonably priced and immensely quaffable.
The top drops from Alsace are the grand crus, first proposed in 1975, but, with a few years of negotiations between winemakers and the governing wine authorities, it was not until 1983 that the first wines were labelled as such. Before that, Alsace winemakers followed German designations for wine classifications. Jean Hugel (nicknamed Johnny by the British wine press) toured Alsace with a geologist to examine the soils and determine where the grand cru boundaries should go. These limits have been expanded from what should have been 20 grand crus to more than 50. The Hugel family, along with the families of Trimbach and Leon Beyer, disagreed with the outcome and walked away from the classification system and, to this day, none of Hugel's wines are grand cru despite many of them deserving such status. What the Hugel family has done to manoeuvre themselves around this is to designate their best wines, such as Schoelhammer, as a single vineyard.
One of my first eye-opening moments with wine was a taste of Hugel's Gewurztraminer. Sadly, Etienne Hugel, a tireless ambassador for all things Alsace and who loved how well his wines paired with Asian cuisines, passed away suddenly in April. I will always treasure the gift of a pair of chopsticks with Hugel's name on them, which he generously gave out on his trips to Asia.
Nellie Ming Lee is a food stylist and part-time sommelier studying with the Court of Master Sommeliers.