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Get ready for the 'new' white wines
Tired of Chardonnay? Alsace offers an alternative to the tyranny of oak.
April 22, 2005: 5:08 PM EDT
By Gordon T. Anderson, CNN/Money

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - I hope there's a sequel to "Sideways," the wine-soaked movie that's had a dramatic impact on American consumers.

Since lead character Miles gushed about Pinot Noir as "haunting and brilliant," U.S. sales of Pinot are up more than 30 percent. Meanwhile, Merlot -- which Miles scorned as imbecilic -- has slumped.

"Sideways" was the funniest Hollywood treatment of wine since Lucy Ricardo stomped grapes in Italy. But I don't want a sequel for artistic reasons.

I want Miles to come back and trash Chardonnay.

Just like Merlot, Chardonnay is a cliché, the wine they serve when anything will do.

It's the wine you drink without thinking, the one that goes with processed cheese and Town House crackers.

There are plenty of sophisticated, nuanced versions of Chardonnay, to be sure. But those are not the ones that have made it the nation's best-selling white wine.

America is awash in ordinary Chardonnay, and a backlash needs to emerge. "Sideways: Part Deux" would do the trick.

Opening up Alsace

A coworker likens Chardonnay to "a sledgehammer to my head." Another friend -- normally a bit of a lush -- becomes a picture of sobriety when it is her only choice.

What's so bad? In most cases, the culprit is oak. Winemakers use it in fermentation to add pleasing scents, tastes and textures, like smoky vanilla-butterscotch. When oak is overdone, however, the results are disastrous.

At the first sip of a cloying, overoaked Chardonnay, my friend will contort her face until puckered lips touch squinted eyes, then scream, "Blechhh!" Sometimes, spit is involved.

It's a real problem. But as the white wine season approaches, I may have found a solution in the wines of Alsace.

At a recent tasting lunch for journalists, the trade organization representing Alsatian and Rhone wines pulled out all the stops.

For one thing, they held it at Per Se, which is arguably the best restaurant in New York.

For another, they poured a succession of terrific wines, made mostly from Riesling, Pinot Blanc and Gewurztraminer grapes.

As in any region, Alsace offers up variety. Some of the wines we sampled were crisp and light, others full bodied and fruity.

Though diverse, Alsatian wines share a number of characteristics. They are extremely food friendly, for instance. They go well with seafood, spicy flavors and light meals.

At Per Se, they served things like 'Poached Quail Egg in Black Truffle Vinaigrette' and 'Squab Breast en Crëpinette.' But your lemon chicken will do fine, too.

Moreover, there isn't a sniff of oak in any of the wines -- and the Alsatians understand that is a selling point.

"The wines of Alsace are the perfect un-oaked alternative to Chardonnay," the trade group's brochures repeatedly emphasize.

Some labels to look for

Out of the 20 wines I tasted, here are just a few standouts:

Jean Becker. Cremant d'Alsace 2001. The only sparkling wine in the group, the Jean Becker is a delicate Pinot Blanc. Try it instead of Champagne, as a refined way to start a meal.

Paul Blanck et Fils. Pinot Blanc 2004. This clean, pale wine is the epitome of elegant simplicity. As its winemaker pointed out, "Simple does not mean banal." It's classy, not complicated, like a perfectly tailored white shirt.

Domaine Remy Gresser. Riesling 1997. Grand Cru Kastelberg. In the hierarchy of Alsatian grapes, Riesling is clearly tops. This one is fresh and fruity, but not too sweet, and with a brilliant bouquet. The vineyard is also a biodynamic, or organic, producer.

Léon Beyer. Tokay Pinot Gris 2000. Comtes d'Eguishem. The Léon Beyer is a rich, spicy interpretation of a grape whose Italian version, Pinot Grigio, is rising in popularity. It's dry and full of mineral flavors.

Dopff & Irion. Gewurztraminer 1998, Selection de Grains Nobles. A voluptuous sweet wine, this goes perfectly at the end of a meal. It's loaded with flavors of ripened fruit and a bit of ginger, but it's never unctuous as some dessert wines can be.


The Good Life is a weekly column that chronicles products, people and trends in luxury consumer goods, travel, and fine food and drink. Write to: goodlife@money.com.  Top of page

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