From the Vineyard: Alsatian varieties get their day in California’s remote Anderson Valley

Cool Anderson Valley—a long, isolated, scenic and even quirky region near the Mendocino Coast in Northern California—produces some of the best, most-Burgundian Pinot Noir wines in America, but it’s also proud of its wine made from traditional varieties popular in Alsace in France.

It sponsors the low-key Alsatian Varietal Festival every year to promote them.  It also has a Pinot Noir Festival.

Alsace is different from the rest of France.  It has whipsawed back and forth between France and German, and both German language, cuisine and grape varieties are common there, but the wines can be distinctive.

Alsace is in cool northeast France, but the Vosge Mountain Range blocks cold winds from the region and grapes tend to grow on slopes that provide them with good sun exposure.  It’s also relatively dry with warm days and cool nights, perfect for growing wine grapes.

Still, it’s not red-wine territory.  Expert speakers at the festival agreed on that.

The white wines are another matter.  Alsace (and Anderson Valley) produce excellent Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris wines.  The Alsatian Pinot Gris is a more “serious” wine than the wine from the same grape grown in Northeastern Italy and labeled “Pinot Grigio,” generally a light and undemanding quaff.  Alsatian wineries also make dry Muscat and grow some Chardonnay.

Alsace also grows Sylvaner and Auxerrois, a cousin of Pinot Gris, but that’s pretty rate elsewhere.  Oddly, an Alsatian “Pinot Blanc” can be all or part Auxerrois, but not the other way around.  Neither is particularly impressive.

“Grape Goddess” Catherine Fallis of Planet Grape gave an introduction to Alsace, concentrating on Crémant d’Alsace, the most popular sparkling wines in France after Champagne.

In general, Alsatian wines are fresh, fruity and aromatic, never tainted by oak.  Almost all the wines are dry, so you don’t need to watch out as you do for German Rieslings.

The still wines are rarely above 14 percent alcohol.  They can also be great bargains.

The wines tasted, which cost about $20 to $30, are made using the traditional method of Champagne with a second fermentation in the bottle to produce the bubbles, are made from Alsatian varieties, with the rosé made wholly from Pinot Noir.  Others—brut (very dry) and extra dry (a tad sweet)—can use a variety of grapes.  They typically don’t have vintage dates.

The sparkling rosé was especially tasty, and speaker (and Master of Wine, PhD and winemaker) Liz Thach noted that it reflected two of the hottest trends in wine:  rosés and bubbles.

The Sauvignon Blancs of New Zealand reinvigorated the whole variety’s popularity, but we also tasted fairly rare dry Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris from there.  All were excellent, as might be expected from the cool climate region with a excellent winemaking reputation.

The third group of wines tasted was a surprise—they were from the Leelanau and Old Mission Peninsulas of Michigan.  There, the influence of Lake Michigan and some smaller lakes moderates the climate, allowing them to grow cool-climate Vinifera (European wine) grapes and make excellent wines.

A warming climate, consumer demand and better viticulture have allowed local growers to largely replace the hybrids and natives they once grew, though some customers maintain a preference for sweet wines so most wineries make those too.

Michigan had 14 wineries in 1991 and has 119 now, some in the southwest along the lake and in the northwest.  The Leelanau-Old Mission area has about 40 wineries, with five on the way.

The Riesling wines tasted were certainly comparable to fine wines from Alsace and Germany, and an older one (2010) even had a bit of the aroma indelicately called “petrol” and savored by some connoisseurs (not me).  The producer said it was fading, however.

Naturally, the Anderson Valley Wine Association, which organized the festival, also had a grand tasting that did include its members’ wines, too.  That demonstrated how well-suited the area is for these varieties.

One of the food options they offered was a spicy Thai dish, a good match for the aromatic wines, though my favorite was a sort of Alsatian white pizza called tart flamme or flammekueche with onions, bacon and a combination of crème fraiche and fromage blanc.

If you find yourself in San Francisco, Anderson Valley is about three hours north, most of the last hour on a picturesque but winding road.  Options to eat and sleep are limited there, but about 45 minutes away on the coast is Mendocino, the most romantic town in America.

Same Time Next Year was filmed there, though so were The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming and Murder She Wrote.  There are plenty of inns and top restaurants there.

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