Friday, November 22, 2013

Unit 2 - Day 1: Alsace - France

The Intensive Sommelier Training at the International Culinary Center in Campbell California consists of 8 units. Each unit covers a different portion of the wine world or other alcoholic beverages and wine management. At the end of each unit the students take an exam. At the end of the course students will take a final written exam, a blind tasting of 2 wines and be tested on service. They will also undergo the Certified Sommelier examination and upon completion they will be a Level 2 Certified Sommelier by the Court of Master Sommeliers.

In Unit 1 we had eight 4-hour lessons in which we covered the basics of viticulture, viniculture, still and sparkling wine service, decanting service and tasted numerous wines while learning the wine grid. We then had a summary overview of the entire world of wine. At the end of Unit 1 we had an exam which consisted of 27 questions and a blind tasting of 2 wines, one red and one white.

In Unit 2 we study France for 10 lessons, 4 hours per lesson. It is an enormous amount of information and we are tasting a large amount of wine, it is like wine tasting from a fire hose. As we go through the course I’ll share my notes about the regions and the wines we are sampling.

The Facts on Alsace

Alsace is located in northeastern France along the German border. Culturally it is a blend of German and France as the region has changed hands several times after the Franco-Prussian War to Germany (1871–1918), after World War I to France (1919–1940), during World War II back to Germany (1940–1944) and afterwards back to France (1945 - Present).

Alsace is the only region within France that does not label wines according to the region. Rather, Alsatian winemakers label their wines like German winemakers, by the grape varietal.

The majority (90%) of Alsatian wine production is dedicated to dry, white wine production. But they also produce small amounts of red wine, sparkling wine and late harvest or botrytised dessert wines.

There are 8 grape varieties legally allowed to be grown including Auxerrois, Chasselas, Gewürztraminer, Muscat, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir (the only red grape), Riesling and Sylvaner. But the top white wines in Alsace are Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Pinot Gris. To have one of these grapes listed on the bottle the wine must contain 100% of that grape. If an Alsatian wine is labeled “Edelzwicker” this means “noble wine” and it indicates a blend of the allowed white wine grapes.

Alsace has 50 grand cru vineyards designated throughout the region. In order to have the designation they must be grown in one of these vineyards and they can only be made from Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris or Muscat. Less than 5% of the wines produced in Alsace receive this designation.

Alsace has three different Appellations d'Origine Contrôlées (AOCs):

(1)  Alsace AOC: for white, rosé and red wines

(2) Alsace Grand Cru AOC: for white wines from certain classified vineyards

(3)  Crémant d'Alsace AOC: for sparkling wines.

They also produce two other interesting wines:

Vendange Tardive (“VT”), which means “late harvest” in French. It is a wine made from ultra ripe, late harvest grapes that have very high sugar content and fully developed flavors.

Sélection de Grains Nobles (SGN) which is French for “selection of noble berries” which is a sweet dessert wine made from fully ripened grapes infected with botrytis.

The Terroir of Alsace

There are 2 major factors that affect the climate of Alsace: the Vosges Mountains to the west and the Rhine river to the east. Alsace is one of the driest regions in France due to the “rain shadow” affect of the mountains. 

A rain shadow is a dry area on the lee side of a mountainous area (away from the wind). The mountains block the passage of rain-producing weather systems and cast a “pencil” of dryness behind them.


One of the aromas you will read in my wine descriptions is the note of petrol which is sometimes described as kerosene. We didn’t discuss this much in class but I have always thought that this unique trait in some older Rieslings, or those from very sunny regions, to be interesting. So, what causes this aroma in some Rieslings? It is caused by a terpene called Trimethyl-dihydronaphthalene (TDN).[1] I’m not a chemist so I won’t go on to talk about what causes this trait.[2] The issue I am more interested in is whether this trait should be considered a flaw. I recently talked to a chemist about TDN and when I told him it made the wine smell like petrol he said “I’m not surprised, because naphthalene is what goes into making mothballs.” Of course many things we eat are naturally composed of chemicals that may sound odd so we can’t immediately label it a wine flaw. Some people don’t like Brettanomyces (“Bret”), a non-spore forming genus of yeast in the family Saccharomycetaceae, in their wine as gives wine a very distinct aroma of “poop” or “barnyard” and yet it is commonly found in minute amounts in many high-quality Burgundies. In small amounts some people think it adds an element of complexity. I would argue that TDN in small amounts likewise gives some Rieslings an interesting layer of complexity than can be enjoyable so long as it doesn’t dominate the profile of the wine.

The Wines

We tasted the following nine wines in class from various producers. I enjoyed all of the wines and for the most part it was my first time experiencing Alsatian wines so even if some may have seemed a bit odd, they were a great learning experience.

1. 2011 Domaine Ostertag, Pinot Noir, Rouge E

The is a clear day-bright ruby red wine at the core of medium intensity with a tinge of pink at the rim. On the nose it is clean with moderate intense aroma of fresh cherries and cranberries, under ripe strawberries, dried roses and a hint of funky earth. On the palate it is dry with medium+ acidity, medium- tannins and medium bodied with flavors of tart red fruits and a medium length finish. It is a quality wine that lacks the finesse of a fine Burgundy or the deliciousness of a New World Pinot of comparable price. This wine sells for about $25 retail.

2. 2011 Meyer-Fonné, Gentil

This wine is a blend of Muscat, Pinot Blanc, Riesling and Gewurztraminer. It is clear star-bright straw-yellow wine of medium concentration and medium viscosity. On the nose it displays aromas of orange blossoms, ripe oranges, canned fruit salad, honey dew melon, with Botrytised notes of honey and a hint of marshmallows from a kid’s breakfast cereal. On the palate it is dry but fruit forward with medium+ acidity, medium alcohol, and moderate complexity with a long finish of canned pears. This wine sells for about $14 retail.

3. 2010 Kuentz-Bas, Pinot Blanc

This is a clear white wine, straw-gold and star-bright of moderate intensity. On the nose it is clean with subtle aromas of pears, melon, persimmons, subtle notes of tarragon, a hint of bready yeast but a prominent character of white chalk. On the palate it is a dry moderate bodied wine with medium+ acidity and a medium length finish of lemon rind and chalk. The minerality of this wine is the central player. This wine sells for about $16 retail.

4. 2011 Domaine Osterag, Gewürztraminer

This is a clear white wine with minor fluctuation, star-bright, golden-yellow at the core with moderate viscosity. On the nose this wine is clean with moderate+ intense aromas of canned pears, lemon-lime, honey-suckle, candied ginger, honey-crisp apples and lychee. On the palate it is clean, off-dry, with medium+ acidity, medium bodied with a viscous texture and a medium+ length finish with lingering notes of canned-pear juice. I have experienced numerous Gewürztraminer from California and none of them were this complex. This wine sells for about $27 retail.

5. 2010 Albert Boxler, Pinot Gris

This is a clear white wine, star-bright and golden-yellow with moderate viscosity. On the nose it is clean and yet with subtle notes of mustiness and moderate aromas of bruised and over-ripe apples, canned pears, and orange blossoms with yeasty notes of graham crackers, honey and oranges. On the palate it is off-dry, medium bodied with medium+ acidity and a medium+ length finish. This is unmistakably an Old World Pinot Gris. I have tasted numerous Pinot Gris in California and Oregon (it is their #1 white wine) and none of them are this complex as most of them seem to be fairly light-weight summer-drinking wines. But if that is what you are accustomed to drinking, this one may take some time to recognize as a Pinot Gris. This wine sells for about $28 retail.

6. 2010 Meyer-Fonné, Kaefferkpf, Pinot Gris

This is a white wine that is clear star-bright with low intensity golden colors at the core with minimal rim variation. On the nose it displays medium intense aromas of honey crisp apples, canned pear syrup and honey. On the palate it is clean and sweet with medium+ acidity, medium body and a medium length finish. This wine sells for about $30 retail.

7. 2011 Meyer-Fonné, Pfoeller, Riesling

This is a clear white wine, with low intensity golden hues with medium viscosity. On the nose it has aromas of golden delicious apples, lemon-lime margarita mix, golden raisins, apricots and minor notes of petrol. On the palate it is dry with medium+ acidity, medium+ alcohol, medium body and notes of dried apricots and dried peaches on a medium+ long finish. This wine sells for about $30 retail.

8. 2010 Domaine Weinbach, Riesling, Cuvée Theo

This is a clear golden wine that is star-bright of moderate+ intensity and viscosity. On the nose it is clean with moderate aromas of melon rind, bruised apples, graham crackers with underlying notes of white pepper and petrol with a metallic minerality. On the palate it is dry with medium+ acidity, medium+ alcohol and a lingering medium+ finish of moderate complexity. This wine sells for about $35 retail.

9. 2009 René Muré, Clos Saint Landelin, Riesling

This is a clear white wine that is star-bright and golden, youthful with moderate intensity. On the palate it is clean with aromas of bruised apples, lemon-lime, canned pears, graham crackers, and quince with minor notes of petrol. On the palate it is clean and dry with medium+ acidity, medium bodied with a medium+ length finish with additional notes of apricots, dried peaches and ginger. This wine sells for about $31 retail.

[1] Chemists actually label it: 1,1,6-trimethyl-1,2-dihydronaphthalene.

[2] For more information see:

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