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Helfrich’s Versatile Alsatian White Wines

12 Jun

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.

 

RECOMMENDED  WINES

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.

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Sparkling and White Wines for Summer Sipping and Dining

29 Jun

by Sharon Kapnick

When I think of summer’s culinary joys, I think of steamed lobsters and fried clam rolls at the shore, clambakes at the beach, and sautéed softshell crabs wherever I can find them. I think too of mouth-watering barbecued and grilled foods–ribs, steak, chicken, burgers, hot dogs, salmon, pizza, portobello mushrooms and a bevy of other vegetables. Why, I can even smell their seductive barbecue aromas right now. Then my mind wanders to old-fashioned picnics: roast and fried chicken, cold-cut sandwiches, coleslaw, potato chips, potato salad, pasta salads, well, actually, all kinds of salads.

Summer offers up a wide array of food, which calls for a wide array of wines. Fortunately, there are plenty of wines that shout, “It’s summer  Drink me! ” Here’s an appealing assortment that includes many bargains perfect for parties, some white wines that complement barbecued ribs surprisingly well,  some wines to sip between meals and even, as a lagniappe, a liqueur. ( Also see the second part of this story, including rosés and red wines.)

Sparkling Wines

Although they’re generally very reasonably priced, Spain’s Cavas are made using the same expensive and time-consuming method Champagne makers use. The usual grapes, however–Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel-lo, native to Catalonia–are another story. While the taste is different, they’re still festive and celebratory.

When I want to serve Cava, I often turn to Jaume Serra Cristalino, which is made in four styles and four sizes. Cristalino is always singled out for terrific value by the print wine publications. It’s no wonder it’s the fastest-growing Cava brand in the U.S.

Jaume Serra Cristalino Brut Cava (SRP $10*): Toasty nose. Citrus, green apple and mineral flavors. Clean, crisp and lively. Complements just about any meal, especially hors d’oeuvres, seafood, sushi, caviar, quiche, fried food, tapas, dim sum and other Asian dishes. And it’s good all by itself.

Jaume Serra Cristalino Extra Dry Cava (SRP $10): Aromas and flavors of toast, pear, apple, citrus, peach and green apple. Refreshing, smooth, easy to drink, very slightly sweet and surprisingly elegant at this low price. Try it with barbecued ribs, fried foods, sushi and other Asian dishes, especially spicy ones.

Both white and pink sparkling Moscatos perfectly embody the breezy, carefree personality of summer. Over the past few years, a Moscato boom has been raging across the U.S.  If you’re curious to see what all the fuss is about, here are a couple of vivacious, lighthearted bargains to try on their own or with dessert.

Opera Prima Sparkling Moscato (SRP $8): Aromas and flavors of lychee, pear, tropical fruits and rose petal. Crisp and refreshing. From Spain’s La Mancha. With some 500,000 acres of vineyards, it’s the largest wine-making region in the world.

Opera Prima Pink Moscato Vino de la Tierra de Castilla (SRP $8; 97% Muscat, 3% Tempranillo): Aromas and flavors of fresh berries, cantaloupe and tropical fruits. Delicate bubbles. Crisp, effervescent personality. Quite sweet.

White Wines

Sauvignon Blanc complements fish and shellfish, grilled and tough-to-pair-with-wine vegetables like asparagus and artichokes, main-course and side salads and simply roasted or grilled meats; it’s a classic with goat cheese. And it’s flexible enough so that Danny Meyer, owner of several beloved, top-rated restaurants in New York City, including the barbecue joint Blue Smoke, recommends it with barbecue. “Go with any white wine that is high in citric acid, like Sauvignon Blanc or Sancerre,” he said, “particularly if you’re a lemonade-with-barbecue fan.”

Dashwood Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough 2011 (SRP $12): Vibrant aromas and flavors of citrus and tropical fruit. Has the zesty, zingy, lively acidity New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs are loved for.

Le Jaja de Jau Sauvignon Blanc Cotes de Gascogne 2010 (SRP $10): This wine benefits from an explanation of its front label, which is found on its back label: Jaja is old French slang for a glass of wine, an everyday wine. Jau is a wine estate in southern France. Ben is the artist who penned the label. Now, on to the wine: Aromas and flavors of grapefruit, lemon and lime. Ideal as an aperitif and for fish and other seafood. Crisp, with good acidity. Lovely wine, distinctive label, great price.

(also see my November post “White Wine Lovers Flock in Droves to New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc” for more recommendations)

Albariño is considered by many to be the most prestigious Spanish white wine. It’s certainly my favorite Spanish white. It hales from Rías Baixas on the Atlantic coast, where the natives drink it morning, noon and night. It’s perfect with the seafood caught in the region and just as perfect with the seafood served here. And it’s another one of those whites that shines with barbecued ribs. Vince Friend, president of importer CIV USA, attended a Food & Wine Magazine Classic tasting in Aspen, Colorado, some years ago and reported that when six wines were paired with barbecued ribs, everyone expected the Merlot and the Sangiovese to stand out. Surprisingly, the favorites were the Champagne and the Albariño.

Condes de Albarei Albariño Rias Baixas 2011 (SRP $12): Aromas and flavors of tropical fruit, citrus and melons. Vibrant, juicy. From a cooperative of 362 grower/owners. Consistently well rated year after year. An excellent value.

Mar de Frades Albariño Val do Salnes Rías Baixas 2010 (SRP $25): Aromas and flavors of pear, melon and citrus. Crisp and fresh. When the wine is chilled to the right serving temperature (50-52 degrees F), a blue ship appears on the back label. It disappears when the wine becomes too warm for optimum pleasure.

The island of Santorini in the Aegean Sea is renowned for its white Assyrtiko wines. And Domaine Sigalas crafts some of the best in some of the driest, hottest, sunniest (i.e., desert-like) and windiest vineyards in the world. (Great wines come from vines that suffer.) In the summer, evening fog provides the only water of the season to the grapes. Influential wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr. has called Sigalas one of Greece’s best white wine producers and “a master with this grape.”

Domaine Sigalas  Santorini Assyrtiko 2011 (SRP $25): Aromas and flavors of citrus fruits and minerals. An elegant, crisp, fruity, well-balanced wine that currently tastes much better on the second day (as quite a few wines do) and should be even better in 2013. High acidity. The average vine age is more than 50 years old. Try it with spreads and dips (hummus, tzatziki, guacamole, baba ghannoush, fava bean puree), olives, vegetables (greens and tomatoes), seafood (octopus, oysters, sushi) and fatty fish.

While Pinot Grigio is wildly popular, I prefer something with a little more oomph. Pinot Gris from California and Alsace are the somewhat heftier versions from the same grape. It’s more like Chardonnay in weight and texture. While Pinot Gris has the acidity of a white wine, it’s fuller bodied than most and can often take the place of a red.

Chateau Ste Michelle Pinot Gris Columbia Valley 2010 (SRP $13): Aromas and flavors of pear, melon, citrus and spice. A small amount of Viognier (3%) adds texture and floral character. Good acidity. Serve with scallops and other shellfish, halibut and other seafood, cheese and fruit. From one of the most reliable producers in the U.S.

Lagniappe: Limoncello

If the trees give you lemons, well, you can make lemonade. Better yet, you can make Limoncello. That’s exactly what Italy, the world’s largest producer of lemons, has done. While Limoncello is a specialty of Southern Italy, it’s quite popular throughout the country–and with U.S. tourists.

Villa Massa Limoncello Liqueur (SRP $15): Villa Massa’s Limoncello has been made in Sorrento since 1890 following an old family recipe that uses only four all natural ingredients: fresh Sorrento Oval Lemon peels (rich in essential oils), sugar, water, and pure alcohol. Traditionally an after-dinner digestivo, it also serves well as an aperitif (ice cold from the freezer), in cocktails, in Champagne, or over ice cream, fruit salad and other desserts.

*Wines can usually be found for less–sometimes considerably less–than the SRP (suggested retail price). Check out wine-searcher.com to get an idea of actual prices.

I requested samples of some of these wines and was sent samples of some others.