The wines of Alsace go in and out of fashion, but they remain some of the world’s finest. Fans of German Riesling will find much to love here, and Gewürztraminer reaches its peak in Alsace. The region’s one red, Pinot Noir, also deserves attention. Alsace’s Pinots have become richer and more deeply colored over the years. In contrast to the almost voluptuous Pinots coming out of Oregon these days and the earthy, serious wines produced by Burgundy, Alsace’s Pinots tend to be brighter and more minerally.
The wines of Alsace go in and out of fashion. Either way, they are some of the world's finest.
I certainly recommend visiting a winery or three while in the region. Seeing the vineyards and tasting the wine where it’s made gives you a deeper connection to it, one that’s hard to achieve any other way. But it’s also great fun to learn about Alsatian wines in a wine bar, where it’s possible to compare bottlings from different producers.
While in the delightful small city of Colmar, I visited three wine bars. A fourth, Japadeunon (24 Rue Stanislas), was inexplicably closed, and I didn’t have a chance to try it.
My favorite wine bar in Colmar, Le Cercle des Arômes, is quite compact, with a handful of tables inside and a small patio fronting a quiet pedestrianized street. But it has some 180 wines by the glass, including 86 options from Alsace alone, if I counted correctly. The friendly and knowledgeable Antoine took time to chat with me about what sorts of wines I wanted to try, and together we came up with a selection of hard-to-find aged bottlings.
First was an elegant 2003 Valentin Zusslin Riesling Pfingstberg Grand Cru, which had a lush mouthfeel, dark acids, slow-moving spiciness and some minerality at the end, a grande dame of a Riesling. I also enjoyed a subtle 2004 Sipp Mack Pinot Gris Osterberg Grand Cru, with rich pear fruit and quiet orangy acids. Most surprising was a 2009 René Muré Gewürztraminer Grand Cru Clos Saint Landelin. Gewürztraminer is not known for its aging potential, but this fragrant wine had still-sharp acidity and exotic pink-peppercorn spice balancing out flavors of honeyed white peach. Gorgeous. This bar also has a small menu of light nibbles — cheese, charcuterie, tartines — to pair with its wines.
Le Cercle des Arômes
3 Rue Schongauer. Tel. (33) 9-87-40-47-08
A block from Colmar’s Petite Venise quarter, this inexpensive restaurant and wine bar draws at least as many tourists as locals. With seven Alsatian bottlings by the glass offered in three different pour sizes, L’Épicurien is a casual spot that offers a good introduction to the delights of Alsatian wine.
A Kirrenbourg Roche Granitique Riesling from Kaysersberg had excellent balance, with a full body, refined spiciness and a mineral finish. As the waiter promised, it worked very well with a salad of mixed greens, crunchy sunflower seeds and a big quenelle of salmon tartare, shredded tuna and sweet crab. It also paired nicely with some seared scallops with carrots, ginger and celery root purée.
To accompany a dessert of cantaloupe, strawberry and lemon verbena sorbet, I couldn’t turn down a glass of 1990 Marc de Gewürztraminer Vendanges Tardives (late harvest). This white brandy smelled of raisins and roses, and 30 years on, it still had some sharp elbows. L’Épicurien does not offer the height of gastronomy, but it’s casual, friendly, convenient and inexpensive.
11 Rue Wickram. Tel. (33) 3-89-41-14-50
The license of this wine shop and bar requires it to serve food with a glass of wine — it can’t serve alcohol unaccompanied. This odd situation sounded like some holdover from Prohibition, not the result of a law in wine-soaked France. In any case, it’s worth ordering a plate of cheese or charcuterie at L’un des Sens in order to try some of the unusual wines on the by-the-glass list, including some “natural” selections (meaning wines made with minimal intervention). It was too beautiful an evening to contemplate drinking in the bar’s cozy interior; I opted for a table on the attractive, shady patio, adjacent to a mostly car-free cobbled street.
The by-the-glass list doesn’t have the extraordinary breadth of Le Cercle des Arômes’, but the 10 or so local options are carefully chosen. This time, I decided to try two blends, since so many Alsatian wines are varietals. (And I ordered the vegetarian tapas to go with them.)
The 2016 Domaine Geschickt Pinô, an unfiltered blend of Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris (among other varieties), might not be to everyone’s taste. It had a burnt-rubber aroma, and its acids were reminiscent of sour apple. But the garlicky tapenade brought out an additional savory note in the wine, making for an excellent pairing, and with the hummus, it was almost as good. I also ended up quite enjoying the 2016 Audrey et Christian Binner Hinterberg "Pinots," a similar blend but made with skin contact. The resulting turbid, watermelon-hued wine had fresh strawberry notes, sour acidity and slow-building spiciness. It didn’t work well with the tapenade or hummus, but it was a smashing match with some artichoke spread.
These wines were food wines. I wouldn’t have enjoyed them on their own. The rule that we had to order something to eat with our glasses irked me at first, but after trying these surprisingly successful pairings — tapenade, hummus and artichoke spread aren’t the easiest dishes to match — I was glad of it.
L’un des Sens
18 Rue Berthe Molly. Tel. (33) 3-89-24-04-37