As Tom was winding up his travels, he sent me a very picturesque email about what it was like in Alsace. I lived in Paris in the early 90’s and for awhile was dating someone who lived in Stuttgart, Germany. So I spent many hours (mostly speeding through northeastern France on the Paris – Strasbourg TGV) admiring the landscapes and townscapes he talks about :
” I wanted to give you a little flavor of what things are like. The Southern Rhone Valley is in many ways like going to vineyards in Napa or Sonoma: the wineries are right there on the edge of the vineyards and spaced far apart. Things here in Alsace are different.
Picture a mountain range that goes from SSW to NNE in direction, the Vosges mountains. The high peaks are about 750-800 meters, and form the border between Lorraine to the west and Alsace to the east. As you travel east from the peaks into Alsace, the mountains thin out to form valleys oriented east-west, and the wine villages are in those valleys. The vineyards are along the sides of those mountains, generally on the sides that face south. Of course, they’re not sheer south-facing slopes, they meander in folds, so some are facing east or west as well as south.
Instead of being on the slopes or even in the vineyards, the wineries in these towns are right in the villages themselves. They’re practically one right after another on the main street (which makes for easy tasting if you want to stay in one village). From the outside, they look like old timber-frame homes (and I mean old – like 1600s-1700s old) with what look like moderately-sized shed-style sliding garage doors that open into courtyards where the grapes
get brought in. The tanks are either in buildings behind or underneath the courtyard, in very old cellars that are barely over six feet tall. Many of the vineyards have huge barrels that are at least 150 years old, some are still in use for fermentation. But most of the fermentation takes place in steel vats these days.
Everyday wines in Alsace are called “traditional,” where the grapes are grown pretty much in the valleys themselves (including some parts that face north). Grapes for the Grand Crus are grown on the steep slopes, the best grapes are grown on the slopes that face south, southwest, and west. The Late Harvest (or Vendange Tardive) wines are from the Grand Cru grapes that are left on the vines a little longer, and they contain some noble rot (botrytis) on some of the grapes, which gives them a shriveled look, but also concentrates the juice and gives it just a bit of a mustiness if you taste the grape itself. But the juice from those grapes is amazingly sweet and rich. Depending on which valley the winery is in, they can also have another designation of Grand Cru that is named for the valley, or even a particular slope (some of them are named, too).
All of the vineyards own parcels of land in both the valley and on the slopes, the better ones have more land on the slopes and so have more Grand Cru selections. The Grand Cru wines are usually a little sweeter than the traditional wines, but not necessarily sweet – the residual sugar just gives you more of an impression of fullness. Even the traditional wines vary in sweetness from absolutely bone dry. The thing about these wines that’s amazing is that even the sweetest late harvest wines have enough acidity at the finish to carry through.
More after I get back – but the other thing that’s different than the Rhone Valley is that every one of these vineyards produces at least a dozen different wines, so when you visit you’re there for hours trying them all. There’s traditional Sylvaner, Pinot Blanc, Riesling, Pinot Gris (the same grape as Pinot Grigio, but much better wine!), Muscat, Gewurztraminer, and Pinot Noir. They also usually produce one traditional wine that’s a blend of the white grapes, and a Cremant d’Alsace, a white sparkling wine that sometimes also includes Chardonnay. Then they have a Grand Cru Riesling and Gewurztraminer, sometimes more than one, and usually a late harvest
Riesling, Gewurztraminer, and Pinot Blanc. Then they may even have a Vin Glace or ice wine – but even the ice wine will still have a little acidity at the end, not just heavy sweetness. I’ve learned a lot here, it has been fun. Off to Freiburg, Germany tomorrow to try the German counterparts.
Sounds great, doesn’t it? And apparently he was so impressed with so many of the wines he tried he’s bringing the “finalists” back for us to try before making the final decision about which ones to bring over. Maybe I didn’t get to go on the trip, but I’m pretty happy about the consolation prize!
I mentioned earlier about having spent a lot of time on trains traveling through northeastern France. These trips mostly just began in Paris and ended in Stuttgart (then visa versa) however, I did manage to spend many happy days “en route” in the city of Strasbourg. Strasbourg is the ultimate European city. It has flavors of both France and Germany, and sits right on the border of the two countries. Its picturesque “La Petite France” neighborhood looks like something straight out of a fairy tale book, a riverfront neighborhood with timbered buildings accented by colorful flower boxes.
The recipe this week is for a classic Strasbourg onion tart. YES, it’s rich, but you really only need a sliver. Serve it with aperitifs, warm or at room temperature and cut into thin slices. Although we don’t yet have any of the classic Alsatian wines to pair with it, there are quite a few of our beloved versatile Rhones that would pair wonderfully well. I’d recommend a fuller bodied white wine – for example our Cave TerraVentoux La Cavée White (on SALE for $14). It smells like exotic fruits and citrus with a bit of flowers and vanilla, with a little bit of spice at the finish and goes quite well with most cream based dishes.
STRASBOURG ONION TART
1 7/8 c. all purpose flour
9 tbsp. cold unsalted butter
3 tbsp. cold vegetable shortening
3/8 tsp. salt
1 1/2 lbs. onions
3/4 stick (6 tbsp.) butter
1/2 lb. sliced bacon
1 1/2 c. heavy cream
3 egg yolks
1 whole egg
1/2 tsp. salt
½ tsp grated nutmeg
Pepper to taste
In a large bowl blend the flour, butter, vegetable shortening and salt until mixture resembles meal. Add 4 1/2 tablespoons ice water, toss mixture until the water is incorporated, and form the dough into a ball. Knead the dough lightly with the heel of the hand against a smooth surface for a few seconds to distribute the fat evenly and reform it into a ball. Dust the dough with flour and chill it, wrapped in wax paper, for 1 hour.
On floured board roll the dough into a circle 15 inches in diameter. Lift the dough over a rolling pin into a 12 inch French shallow false bottomed flan pan with a removable fluted ring and press dough firmly into the pan. Cut off any excess dough with a floured rolling pin. Prick the bottom of the shell with a fork and chill it for 1 hour. Line the shell with wax paper, cover the paper with foil, and fill the foil with raw rice or beans. Bake the shell in the bottom third of a preheated hot oven (400 degrees) for 10-15 minutes, or until it begins to set. Carefully remove the shell from the pan and let it cool on a wire rack.
In a skillet cook the onions, very thinly sliced in the butter over moderately low heat until they are very soft and lightly colored. Drain the onions through a sieve and reserve them. In the skillet lightly saute the bacon, cut into 1/2 inch pieces, until it is crisp. Remove the bacon bits with a slotted spoon, drain them on paper towel and reserve them.
Return the shell to the pan and fill it with the reserved onions and bacon bits. In a bowl combine the cream, egg yolks, the whole egg, nutmeg and salt and add pepper to taste. Pour the custard over the filling and bake the tart in the top third of a preheated moderately hot oven (375 degrees) for 30 minutes, or until it is lightly browned. Remove the tart from the pan and let it cool on a wire rack for 5 minutes.