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The Integrity of Artisan Wines

Integrity, at its noblest, is a highly revered trait. It manifests itself in uncompromising personal character and the values that come with it. Furthermore, it extends into the results of one’s actions and labor, no matter how seemingly trivial or monumental that labor might be. Whether it’s an artistic expression, public service, athletic performance or peeling potatoes in a basement of a corner diner in Brooklyn, integrity separates the common from the royal. It is that steadfast conviction in one’s beliefs and their expression in both words and actions without considering the outside influences that make integrity a rare gem. Does that sound familiar? No? If it doesn’t, it’s because there is very little integrity to go around in today’s world full of copy-cats, greedy, power-driven politicians and attention-seeking, vapid social media users.

Can integrity be applied to wine? Of course! All phases of winemaking, from farming practices, through all the stages of vinification, to slapping a price tag on a bottle of wine are results of human decision making. These decisions are made based on ethical and moral values. “Honest” wines come from “honest” grapes, grown in a healthy ecosystem and vinified through “natural” methods with minimal technological manipulation.

Alsace is one of my favorite wine regions. Located along France’s eastern border and separated from Germany by the Rhine River and from France by Vosges mountains, its “uncomfortable” geographic location combined with agricultural and industrial desirability, turned Alsace into an object of tug-of-war between Germany and France. Over the centuries, mainly due to warfare, the region was tossed back and forth between both countries, its borders redrawn, rendering it a mishmash of both cultures. Even though French is the official language here, German is almost as common, along with a few regional dialects.  

Alsace is divided into two sub-regions: The Bas-Rhin to the North near the capitol Strasbourg, and Haut-Rhin to the south, in the low slopes of the Vosges mountains. This is predominantly a white wine country with Pinot Noir being the only red grape of note here, but its quantities are meager and the quality decent at best. However, it comes in handy in the making of Rosè still and sparkling wines.

 The wine grapes cultivated here are definitely of Germanic origins; Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc (aka Auxerrois Blanc), Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Muscat, Sylvaner and Chasselas. These are all white grapes with strong German heritage made mainly into one varietal wine (no blending of different grapes). The style of the wines is distinctly different from their German counterparts. As a matter of fact, the Alsatian whites’ style is like no other wines from the same grapes made anywhere else in the world. These are wines of high density, often of a nearly oily texture, and decadent richness in aroma and flavors. The wines, aside from intentionally sweet dessert wines, are dry with moderate to high alcohol levels, often reaching 15 percent ABV (in contrast, German whites on average stay within 10-12 percent ABV range). In addition, Alsace has extremely varied soil types. Within a relatively small area, you find granite soil, limestone-rich clay, volcanic deposits and sandstone. This diversity renders stylistic differences.

Four of the grapes fall into the category of Grand Cru. These are Riesling, Muscat, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer. This is the highest classification of Alsatian wines, produced from 51 strictly designated vineyards of special microclimates and terroirs. These are true gems, usually delivering a superb wine experience with the sticker price that comes with it. Expect to spend anywhere from $35 to $80 a bottle. Only 4 percent of total wine production in Alsace carries Grand Cru label.

Crèmant is a French category of sparkling wines made by the Champagne method outside the region of Champagne. For a fraction of the price of a good bottle of Champagne, you can find Crèmants of comparable quality. Alsace has its own version of Crèmant. The Crèmant d’Alsace appellation constitutes 22 percent of the region’s production and is the fastest-growing AOC in the land. This is the only style of Alsatian wine that allows Chardonnay and all the classic, regional grapes and Pinot Noir for Rosès.

And then there are the legendary late harvest Alsatian wines; these fall into two categories; Vandage Tardive, which means “late harvest”, and Sèlection de Grains Noble, which means “selection of noble grapes”. VT wines can be either sweet or dry, and only the four Grand Cru grape varieties can be used in their making. The wines are made from grapes picked late in the harvest when the berries’ natural sugar is at the higher-than-usual level. SGN wines, on the other hand, are always sweet.  These grapes (also only the four Grand Cru varietals are allowed) require a specific microclimate where botrytis, a.k.a, noble rot, can occur. The grapes are allowed to hang on vines till late in the fall or even early winter when the rot shrivels the berries by dehydrating them and again concentrating the sugar content. Here, the grapes are handpicked to assure the highest quality. The production of both wines is labor and time-intensive. They are expensive, but they offer wines of enhanced intensity, complexity and remarkable length. 

In most historic European wine regions, wine and food cohabitate in symbiotic harmony. Traditional regional dishes pair well with local wines. Whether by human or divine intervention, that’s just the way it is. That harmony is at its best in Alsace. Alsatian cuisine is not for meek hearted or cholesterol cautious folk. In food, the German influence is dominant. Cabbage and specifically its fermented interpretation sauerkraut are ubiquitous. It is almost always accompanied by meat, pork products of all types, lamb, beef, goose, duck and venison. One of my favorite dishes of the region is Alsatian-style roast goose with foie gras and chestnuts.  And yes, it’s served with stewed red cabbage. Another quintessential offering from the region is Bacheofe; beef, pork, lamb and vegetable stew. You’d think that since it’s all meat, red wine would be the way to go. Not necessarily so. These rich, fat dripping dishes pair beautifully with the sumptuous, acid-driven, alcohol bold whites of the region. 

If you are not completely satiated after the savory dishes and have room for some dessert, rest assured you won’t be disappointed. All types of fruit tarts led by my favorite rhubarb, streusels, soufflés, biscuits and cookies of all sorts, small cakes called bredala, kougelhopf and German-inspired cheesecake. All these are packed with sugar, eggs and butter, and when you open one a bottle of SGN wine, you might just think you’re in heaven. 

Throughout its turbulent history, Alsace has been forcibly exposed to the influences of two different nations. Rather than capitulating and relinquishing its identity, it has adopted various components from each of the cultures and turned them into a culture of their own with a strong sense of integrity, a society uniquely Alsatian. Alsace is a great example of the human capability of tolerance and adaptability without complacency. It stands in stark contrast with many polarizing tendencies in today’s world, but it instills a much-needed sense of hope for the days ahead.

By: Cezar Kusik Wine Contributor Polo Lifestyles 2020


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