The 8th Annual International Alsace Varietals Festival, held February 8-10, 2013 at the Mendocino County Fairgrounds in Boonville, celebrated the white wine varietals of the Alsace Region of France. Unfortunately these wines have largely fallen out of favor, with current tastes tilting toward full bodied Chardonnay and heavier red wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
Thank goodness there is still an appreciation for the dry white wines of the Alsace region, which includes Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Muscat and Pinot Gris, all noble (top quality) grape varietals, among others. Originating from a region of France known now as Alsace, it was previously known as Elsass when it was a part of Germany, having been exchanged between the two countries four times in 75 years. Due to this shared heritage varietals tend to favor typically German grapes including the aromatic whites. Some mistakenly think this translates to sweet wines but many of the wines are quite dry.
While a love of these wines might well inspire a trip to the Alsace region of France you need not travel that far, as the Anderson Valley Winegrowers Association holds an annual celebration of the noble white wines. You would be hard pressed to find another opportunity to taste so many of these varietals side by side—in most wineries it’s a lucky day if they offer even one.
Technical Conference & Tasting Seminar
On Saturday morning the frost lay heavily on the fields and participants attending the Technical Conference were bundled up against the cold as they filed into a chilly, cavernous structure to hear about grape growing issues specific to Alsace varietals and learn about food and wine pairing. The cold seeped up from both the concrete floor and metal folding chairs yet the crowd hung on to every word as mother-son chefs Joyce and Evan Goldstein enthralled the audience with a fast-paced cooking demonstration sprinkled liberally with tips on pairing food and wine, focusing on Alsatian wines. Both have food credentials a mile long and have collaborated on a cookbook, Perfect Pairings. Joyce held positions as chef at the Café at Chez Panisse and chef/owner of award-winning Square One Restaurant. Evan worked in kitchens in Paris before returning to the US to work at Auberge du Soleil and Café at Chez Panisse, and became the eighth American and youngest ever to pass the Master Sommelier examination.
As Joyce prepared a spicy Asian peanut sauce served over cod Evan ran through some basic concepts: wine is constructed with five, quantifiable building blocks of sweetness, acidity, tannin, alcohol and oak. Knowing which is predominant in a certain wine determines what kind of food to pair with. If the wine is tart, serve foods that are creamy to counterbalance. If a white wine is aged and has lost some acidity add some acid to the food in the form of lemon juice or vinegar. The tips were simple and straightforward with a minimum of fussy “wine-speak”.
The large structure where the Grand Tasting was held was thankfully warmer and was lined with 46 wineries from California, Oregon, Michigan, New York, Alsace, Germany and New Zealand, all pouring white wines whose origins stemmed from the tiny Alsatian region of France.
Some of the wines being poured at the festival were very light and subtle, while others were more robust. Most were dry but others did tend toward sweetness, and there were some fine examples of late harvest wines. There were quite a few standouts.
A long-time favorite for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, locally based Londer Vineyards didn’t let us down with the Alsatian wines. Manager Joe Webb and owners Larry & Shirlee Londer served a vertical tasting of their Dry Gewürztraminer, demonstrating the vastly different flavor profiles that develop over time, from 2005 (rich with pumpkin pie spices), 2006 (butterscotch and caramel notes), 2007 (a floral nose, heavy with spring jasmine), 2009 (neutral) and 2010 (pleasantly crisp and tart).
Brooks Wine from Oregon hit a home run with their 2009 Gewürztraminer, with an aroma of summer roses and flavor of stone fruit, along with a 2010 Terue Dry Muscat, a light, dry wine with a touch of sweet citrus and a beautiful Asian-inspired label.
A 2011 Weingut Johannishof Riesling was the favorite among a selection of German wines, with good acid, spice and tropical flavors that would pair well with food.
Thomas Fogarty, based in Santa Cruz, was pouring his eponymous wines, including a well-balanced 2011 Monterey County Gewürztraminer.
Food stations scattered around the festival served a variety of pleasing savory and sweet tastes. My vote for the top offering was split between the rich, meaty, sticky pork belly from Chef Marc Dym from the Little River Inn and the unique pizzas adorned with the thinnest pear slices, spicy sausage and caramelized onions from Piaci Pub & Pizzeria in Fort Bragg. The shuckers from Tomales Bay Oyster Company were kept busy with a steady line of noshers. A cheese course with a variety of cheeses was offered by Bontberry Farms of Boonville. The most unusual creations that needed some arm twisting to get some to try came from the high-end vegan Ravens Restaurant at the Stanford Inn in Mendocino—a smoked seapalm (a type of seaweed) strudel was shockingly good, outshining the (relatively) more conventional roasted mushroom pizzetta with tofu ricotta. To finish off a meal of snacks the handcrafted truffles by Nicole Gutzman of Essence by Chocolate were smooth, rich and creamy on the palate.
The 8th Annual International Alsace Varietals Festival brightened up the mid-winter doldrums with an exciting opportunity to compare the nuances of fine Alsatian varietals paired with a range of delicious, savory bites, along with an interesting and informative educational conference.
International Alsace Varietals Festival
Held annually in February
To reach Boonville from San Francisco by car (approximately 2.25 hours, depending on traffic):
- Take U.S. 101 North
- Take Exit 522 to Highway 128 west, toward Ft. Bragg and Mendocino
- Follow Highway 128 until you reach Boonville