Like the Sphinx, the Alsace region of France possesses a few riddles. Foremost among them is this: Americans fall in love with the wines when they visit the area, enjoying them in restaurants and while touring estates. When they return home, however, their newfound appreciation too often becomes a distant memory.
Part of the problem is that 90 percent of Alsace wine is white, and the United States, like many other places, retains a red wine culture. When most of your peer group drinks full-bodied reds, your perspective changes. And for Americans who haven’t spent time in Alsace, it’s difficult to recreate the magic.
As a border region between France and Germany, Alsace has belonged to both countries at various times. The wines bear some similarities to those made in Germany, although the Alsatian versions exhibit higher alcohol levels and are mostly fermented fully dry. At the top of the quality scale sit the four noble varieties: Riesling, Pinot Gris, Muscat, and Gewürztraminer, all of which make for excellent sipping in the summer. To experience the best of Alsace, seek out the following producers.
Domaine Zind-Humbrecht: ZH represents the shining jewel in the Alsace crown. The Humbrecht family boasts a viticultural history dating back to 1620. The current domain was established in 1959 with the marriage of Léonard Humbrecht to Geneviève Zind; Léonard’s son, Olivier, leads the charge today. Year in and year out, they turn out stunning wines from the grand cru vineyards of Rangen, Brand, Hengst, Goldert, and Clos Windsbuhl. Single vineyard selections retail in the $60-$80 range.
Maison Trimbach: Pierre Trimbach, the twelfth generation in a legacy dating back to 1626, oversees winemaking at this family estate. Try the Riesling Cuvée Frédéric Emile ($68) or the Pinot Gris Réserve Personnelle ($48). First among equals is Riesling Clos Sainte Hune ($215), a beauty capable of aging for decades under the right storage conditions.
Domaines Schlumberger: Winegrowers since 1810, the Schlumberger family controls one of the largest holdings of grand cru vineyards in the region. Its Les Princes Abbés range represents excellent value at the $20-$25 price point. Among the grand crus, they’re known for Rieslings from Spiegel ($30), Saering ($35), and Kitterlé ($45) as well as their Gewürztraminer Sélection de Grains Nobles Cuvée Anne ($90).
Domaine Paul Blanck: Frédérick and Philippe Blanck took over from their father in 1984 and now meticulously farm 86 acres of vineyards in a sustainable and chemical-free fashion. Their wines span from the Classique series for everyday drinking ($20-$25) to the grand cru Rieslings of Furstentum ($30) and Schlossberg ($35).
Hugel: Alsace is famous for dessert wines, and this is where Hugel excels. When conditions permit, Hugel makes a Vendange Tardive (late harvest) Gewürztraminer ($80) and Riesling ($110), as well as an extremely sweet Sélection de Grains Nobles from Gewürztraminer ($180).
Pierre Sparr: Yet another historic estate (this one dates to 1680), Pierre Sparr produces a reliable line of entry-level wines, several regional sparklers (a Crémant d’Alsace Brut Reserve and Brut Rosé), and both Pinot Gris ($30) and Gewürztraminer ($45) from grand cru Mambourg.
Domaine Weinbach: Catherine Faller and her two sons currently run this estate, which Capuchin monks founded in 1612. The vines are farmed biodynamically from four grand cru sites and two historic vineyards. Weinbach is most noted for its Riesling Schlossberg Cuvée Sainte Catherine ($70), Gewürztraminer Cuvée Laurence ($45), and Riesling Clos des Capucins Cuvée Theo ($40).