By Sharon Kapnick
Alsace is a region with a rich winemaking history. Alsatians have been making wine for millenniums. In 56 B.C. Caesar called Alsace “optimus totius Galliae,” the best of all Gaul. By 900 A.D. 160 villages in the region were making wine.
The sunny, hot, dry days, cool nights and long growing season offer ideal conditions for growing wine grapes. They contribute to the high quality of the wines, which at their best have beautiful aromas and flavors, great structure, complexity, lively acidity, distinctive minerality and the ability to age.
I recently had the opportunity to try the wines of Helfrich with Anne-Laure Helfrich and winemaker Nicolas Haeffelin. The Helfrich family has been prominent in the wine and spirits business for three generations, but its importance extends beyond its years. In 1979 owner Joseph Helfrich founded Les Grand Chais de France, a leading wine and spirits company.
Haeffelin’s family has been steeped in winemaking for centuries. They’ve had a winemaker in every generation since 1560, a rare occurrence even in Alsace. At 14, Haeffelin spent most of his free time and school holidays helping out at Domaine Viticole, where his father worked. Today, at 31, he’s in charge of winemaking at the Helfrich and Arthur Metz wineries and Domaine Viticole.
Authenticity is very important to Helfrich. They believe in minimal intervention, so that the truest flavors of the grapes and the splendid Alsatian terroir take center stage. Their wines are full of flavor and brimming with character, all at very reasonable prices.
Crémant d’Alsace (SRP $20; 100% Pinot Blanc): Fresh, fruity bouquet and delicate fruit flavors. Crisp and refreshing. Light and lovely. This sparkling wine serves well as an aperitif, for celebrations and to accompany all kinds of food.*
Noble Varieties (SRP $15): The grapes hail from the Couronne d’Or (Golden Crown), an association of local vineyards and winemakers that runs through the middle of Alsace. The Noble line uses screw caps. Helfrich likes them because they reserve the aromatic potential of the wines. I like them–rather, I love them–for most wines because they’re easy to open, easy to store and more convenient than corks. They also eliminate the chance of wine spoiled by cork taint.
2012 Pinot Blanc: Fresh and fruity. Serve with cold buffets, asparagus, salads, vegetables, fish and Asian food. Because of its accessibility, this wine serves well as a house wine.
2112 Pinot Gris: Aromas and flavors of white fruits and apricots. Very flavorful. A hint of spice. Rich, full, opulent and round. Serve with foie gras, grilled pork tenderloin, mussels and crab.
2012 Gewurztraminer: Aromas of citrus and tropical fruit, including lychees and passion fruit. Fragrant and fresh. Full bodied. Serve with spicy Asian cuisine, Chilean sea bass, smoked oysters, quiche Lorraine, roast chicken or turkey.
Grand Crus (SRP $20): There are 51 Grand Cru sites in Alsace. Helfrich’s Grand Crus all come from the Steinklotz Vineyard, one of the oldest documented vineyards in Alsace. It allegedly belonged to the Merovingian King Childebert II in 589 A.D.
2011 Pinot Gris Steinklotz Grand Cru: Appealing complex aromas. Smoky notes. Round and rich. Well-balanced acidity. Serve with fish and shellfish, quiche, chicken, veal and pork.
2009 Gewurztraminer Steinklotz Grand Cru: Aromas of candied apricot and clementine. Opulent, lush and fragrant. Serve with lobster, scallops, spicy Asian cuisine and soft cheese.
*The food recommendations above are those of Helfrich.
THE GRAPES: Pinot Blanc, sometimes called the poor man’s Chardonnay, is a light, crisp, fresh, lively, delicate, versatile, all-purpose wine. Pinot Gris is similar to Chardonnay in weight and texture. It’s dry, rich, round, opulent, powerful, complex, sometimes smoky, with lots of fruit flavors. While it has the acidity of a white wine, it is full bodied and can often take the place of a red. Gewurztraminer is extremely expressive and exotic, highly aromatic, with scents of lychees, rose petals and honeysuckle. It’s full bodied and sometimes slightly sweet.
ALSATIAN WINES AND FOOD: Alsace’s food friendly, aromatic white wines pair well with many dishes. Their fruity flavors and (generally) high acidity cool the palate and complement flavorful, spicy and sweet dishes. Their lack of oak is also a plus. As Mary Ewing-Mulligan and Ed McCarthy wrote in Wine Styles, “[Aromatic] white wines excel particularly with cuisines that are challenging for other wines,” especially those with some sweetness or hot spiciness. “Alsace wines in general are great choices when the meal has you wondering what wines could possibly work.” Pinot Gris is an excellent choice with very flavorful dishes. Gewurztraminer is often recommended with spicy cuisines.