Alsace: snow whites

Alsace has a split personality. Tucked behind the Vosges mountains in north eastern France, this region has been fought over with bordering Germany for centuries. It now feels like somewhere between the two. Pastel coloured timber frame buildings line the streets, giving villages a slightly surreal fairytale air. The local Alsatian dialect has more in common with Swiss German than French, and the cuisine features lots of pork and choucroute (sauerkraut).

They even grow grape varieties that are more frequently associated with Germany: this is the only region in France where you’ll find the aromatic Riesling, one of the greatest of all white grape varieties. This is one of the easiest wine areas in France to understand as producers almost always state the grape variety used on the label, so you have a better idea of what flavours to expect. They also make some silky Pinot Gris, rose-scented Gewurztraminer, and grapey Muscat. Although the majority of production is white, they do make some red Pinot Noir, but it rarely gets the pulse racing. The whites however are some of the finest in the world.

Most of the wines, including the Rieslings and Muscats, are dry, and work well with food, particularly local pork, poultry and fish dishes; they also pair brilliantly with spicy Asian cuisine. Alsace, like many areas of France, has designated certain vineyards to be of exceptional quality, and these display the familiar term ‘grand cru’ on the label. At this level, some of the wines start taking on a touch of sweetness. Conscientious producers will point out any level of sweetness on the label, but don’t be afraid to ask – if it isn’t explicitly stated on the label, there is no other way of telling. But don’t let this put you off – a hint of sweetness can add charm in the right hands.

Trimbach, based in the beautiful village of Ribeauvillé is a reliable producer, whose wines are easy to find, and at the cheaper end make a good introduction to the classic styles. If you can, pay a visit to Domaine Weinbach in Kaysersberg; it was once a monastery, but is now privately owned, and managed by the glamorous Colette Faller. Some of the greatest wines are made by biodynamic producers Marcel Deiss and Domaine Zind Humbrecht. And with one of the best Christmas shops in France open all year round in Riquewihr, now is the perfect time to visit.

First published in Living France magazine.