Alsatian Wines Ride the Sugar Roller Coaster

Paul Blow

Alsatian wines seem off the radar these days. I don't often see them at restaurants; no one is talking about them in the media. It's a shame, as the whites from this beautiful region in northeastern France are lovely. Bright and fresh with lip-smacking acidity and wonderfully mineral textures, they are perhaps the perfect wines for spring and early summer.

One place where Alsatian wines have not gone out of style: The Modern in New York. Given that Chef Gabriel Kreuther is from Alsace Alsatian Wine Sipp Riesling (which as a region boasts an outsized number of Michelin-starred restaurants), and that Wine Director Belinda Chang is one of the most open-minded, talented sommeliers around, they've put together an Alsace-invoking menu and wine list that together capture the season beautifully. At dinner there recently—lobster, sturgeon, white asparagus, sauerkraut, squab—Chang and I talked about the wines of Alsace.

The major issue is sugar. Alsatian producers all make a number of white varieties—Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Blanc—but in wildly divergent styles. Some, like Trimbach or Kreydenweiss, make wines that are relentlessly dry. Other producers, like the immensely respected Zind-Humbrecht, make rich wines that are off-dry or even sweet. Some producers, like Marcel Deiss, swerve between the two styles from year to year, depending on the ripeness of the grapes. Unlike Austrian whites, which you can bet are going to be dry, or German Riesling, which is quite often off-dry, Alsatian wines seem like a crapshoot.

But, more than the sugar, what's really crucial is the concentration, the balance, and the acidity. "The amount of residual sugar obviously makes a difference to a sommelier," said Chang, "but the difference between dry and off-dry can often be small, and when you're pairing it with food, as the acid in Alsatian wines demands, you often don't even notice the difference."

Trying a dry Riesling and an off-dry Pinot Gris and a rather sweet Gewürztraminer with a number of savory dishes, we found that they all went rather well, but often the sweeter wines triumphed. The Gewürz from Dirler added magical spice to the cool, creamy white asparagus soup, while the off-dry Pinot Gris from Albert Boxler was terrific with a sturgeon and sauerkraut tart with bacon. The touch of residual sugar in the wines actually melded perfectly with the creaminess of both dishes. On the other hand, the bracingly dry Riesling from Sipp went well with leaner fare like the trumpet mushrooms with mussels. One thing that couldn't be ignored was the intense energy and tension in the wines, whose flavors persisted in the mouth even after the food's had faded.

The point is that the general flavor profile of Alsatian whites, which have vivid citrus, floral, vegetal, and spice notes, goes fantastically well with the things that are coming into markets right now: favas, asparagus, leeks, green garlic. Not to mention, these wines are good with fish and poultry and game birds—the lighter fare we start to eat as the days get longer and warmer.

I have to confess that I've been guilty of ignoring Alsatian wines for a few years now. But that's all over. I'm ready to embrace the season.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.