WEEK 1. ALSACE
I am in a profession (Marketing/Sales) in which I spend a lot of time with other people, important people, who make big and important decisions that drive not only my company's business, but I also meet with people who hold high positions at my customer's companies as well. We talk about tough topics, sometimes we don't agree on matters worth millions of dollars to our bottom lines, and I seldom if ever get nervous.
I also speak in front of a room frequently. They say that most adults would rather die then speak in public. I don't get that, I am not that guy. In fact, I don't really know what it means to be nervous. I don't feel those feelings often. Some of you may be thinking, weird... I know right. I am not sure why it is, but it is. I have been that way since I was a kid. I played a lot of sports, and frequently thought about being the guy with the ball at the end of the game with a chance to win it all. (Maybe I would have even done better then the Packers last night against the Seahawks; had to, I am a Bears fan).
Why all of this strange background to start an article about Alsace you might ask. Fair question I suppose, It comes down to this, I was starting school for the first time in 9 years, and I was legitimately nervous. It took me a couple of days leading up to the first class to realize just what this strange feeling that I had was. Indigestion? Excitement? Just Gas? No, it was definitely nerves. But why? What I realized is that I had been drinking wine, and a lot of what I thought was good wine for years, thinking that I really liked it, but was I right? Am I a fool? Did I really know the difference between a Cabernet, and a Merlot. I cook too, is my palate really as good as I think it is? WHAT IF I CAN'T DO THIS?
Geesh, This nerves thing is exhausting. I don't know how nervous people do it. (Might I suggest more wine).
So I drive to class at a campus I have never been to, approximately 30 minutes from my house. For those of you familiar with Chicago traffic, I would say it was fairly good that day, and yet...30 minutes it was, adding minutes to my Thursday for the foreseeable future. When I finally arrive, I come to find out that Harper Collage has A LOT of different buildings spread across many miles. Who knew? So it was a bit like that dream in which you are going to class and you can't find your room, only it was the first day and not the night of your final exam.
I finally found the room W213, and I walked in...Perfect, first one there, except for the teacher who was sitting in the room with 6 places set at a table. Each place had 4 wine glasses a plate with a butter knife, a glass for water, and a spit cup (Classy I know, but an essential wine tasting tool since I had to drive home). There were two pitchers of ice water in the center of the table, and a screen pulled down with a slide that welcomed us to class.
My teacher introduced himself in a thick french accent (Appropriate) and I did the same. (Without the accent of course)
Teacher's first question: "Are you in the industry?"
ME: Trick question? "The Industry" as though there is only one? Nope. I am not in the industry, I am in healthcare. I like food and wine, and am doing this to gain better knowledge of a subject near and dear to me.
Am I in the right place? Should I be here? This was made worse by the fact that at this point another student walks into the room his name was Carlos, and he has been in the industry for a long time working at some of the top restaurants in Chicago and Las Vegas. Oh, and the guy has an exceptional knowledge of food and wine, and many years of tasting experience as a server. GULP, What have I done to myself. A few more trickle into the room, but none of them have experience in "THE INDUSTRY." They do however have 1 semester under their belts. Grrrrr. I am the NOOB.
So the class begins and we start learning about Alsace. It is a French town that borders Germany, however the Germans have had this plot of land many times as well. The Romans made wine here too, although all of the grapes have been ripped out and re planted post 1945. It was the last AOC to be recognized, and it was not officially an AOC thing (different then a G thing) until the late 60s.
The region is broken into two parts, the Haut-Rhin, and Bas -Rhin, with most of the best wines coming from the Haut-Rhin. Over two thirds of the region's Grand Cru (Grand Cru wines are vineyards recognized for their continued excellence over the years and command a price accordingly) wines are located in this sub-region.
This is a RARE wine making region that is known for WHITE WINE (Make snobby white wine comment here, like I DON"T LIKE WHITES). These are not boring white wines. They are bold, aggressive whites that are built to age. A Riesling from Alsace can age for decades, and pick up a depth of flavor and a deepening of texture as they do. What I learned is that, probably because the Germans make their Riesling sweet, Riesling from Alsace tends to be dry to off dry. (No sugar is left when the yeast is done fermenting the grapes) This means that you are left with a higher alcohol level, and decent acid making these wines great for pairing with most foods. Likely not the dessert wine that many think of. Other important grapes, also called noble grapes, from the region include Pinot Gris, Muscat, and Gewurztraminer (Extra points for spelling correctly..I failed). The region butts up to the Vosges mountain range making it very dry, and in fact one of the driest regions in all of France. The vines are planted on the East side of the mountain, while the rains usually hit the west side. It is also cold in the winters, but due to the location of most of the vineyards, grapes get sufficient sunlight to ripen fully.
Pinot Gris called such because gris means grey in French, has pinkish skins leaving the wine with a bit of color. It is frequently smokey and spicy with good acidity. Even if you don't like Pinot Gris (Pinot Grigio) from other parts of the world, these are greatly complex wines and worth another look.
Gwerztraminer tends to share tropical fruit (Mango, Lychee, and the like) and some say spices, although my teacher was strongly opposed to the spices idea). It is a wine that shares its nose easily (Smelly) and the ones from Alsace tend to be dry or off dry.
Finally Muscat is another aromatic grape and it shows floral and grapy notes. Imagine that, a grape wine that FINALLY smells like grapes. Go figure.
Two other things to know about the wines of Alsace, most of them are single variety. They put a lot of effort into making the wines taste like they should, and to taste Terroir is to ensure that the wines are single variety wines. There are a few exceptions. Sparkling are made from a field blend, and Edelzwicker (Noble Blends) are usually mediocre blends from the region, along with Gentil which is also a blend, but they must have 50% or better of the 4 noble grapes.
Finally in years in which late harvest is possible, there are two wines that are usually VERY expensive that can be made. The first is called Vendages Tardives (VT), and the other even more rare, and thus more expensive is called Selections de Grains Nobles. (SGN) Both despite being late harvest are usually dry to off dry.
The soil is like a patchwork quilt, so soil is less important then the grapes and the spot on the mountain in order to achieve great enough sunlight.
These wines were all new to me, so when we did the blind tasting, I was a bit overwhelmed. A good aged Riesling smells a bit of motor oil.. yep, and that is a good thing... Huh. Not sure what to make of that. It is similar to people telling you that some Sauvignon Blanc smells of cat piss, or barnyard followed by as it should. I am not sure anything you eat should, but whatever floats your boat.
We tasted a BAD and I mean bad Riesling and Pinot Gris to kick things off, and it was a good illustration that even the French can admit that they make some bad wine, because the teacher said it was like dog food. We enjoyed that. Next we tasted the Gwurztraminer and a grand cru Riesling, and quickly I understood what great food wine they can make in Alsace. I will be trying many more. I even came home and drank the only dry Riesling that I had in the house. It was an Australian Riesling made in the Alsace style from the Pewsey Valley. (YEP!) Did not get it, say it out loud. (Got it now?) Seriously? do I have to spell it out for you? I may be a bit sick in the head.
So in conclusion, for homework, I think I need to DRINK MORE WINE! Woo hoo. If I knew back then what I know now, I would have majored in this earlier. Wine drinking for homework doesn't suck. I am excited to continue exploring. I am a NOVICE in this area of the world and have a lot more to learn, so I look forward to doing so. Fortunately the only way to do so is to drink, or as we say in the "INDUSTRY", taste more wine. I intend to.