Christmas — as much as any time of the year — evokes nostalgia as no other holiday. Whether you think of childhood, family near and far, the old homestead, or a combination of all and more, Christmas is the perfect time for nostalgia, in spite of Yogi Berra’s belief that “nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.”
For me, Alsace is a major component in my holiday nostalgia. Yes, the Sweden of my heritage is especially appealing at Yuletide — but so is most of Germany, Paris, New York, Harrod’s, and much of New England. But I think of vineyards surrounding medieval towns with timbered houses, cobbled streets, and the most glorious window boxes on earth, except possibly during the Christmas season.
Perhaps it’s because this lovely province has adapted the best of German lore to French flair, creating since the Middle Ages a land attractive to Swiss, Germans, Tyroleans, and especially the French, most of whom from west of the Vosges Mountains still consider it part of Rhineland Germany. Above all, it represents the most stereotypical image of Christmas one can imagine. And don’t forget, the first recorded candle-lit Christmas tree was in Alsace.
In spite of being among the most northerly of major wine regions, Alsace also boasts one of the driest climates in Europe. Those Vosges Mountains block the normal cloud routes to limit rainfall to about two-thirds of that just across the Rhine in Germany. That means just enough winter snow to create a Christmas card scene and nurture the thin topsoils and reachable subsoils and produce grapes deserving of the title “noble.” So noble, in fact, the region was the first to to place the name of the wine’s grape varietal on the bottle’s label.
While their sometimes restive German neighbors vinify the same grapes, the Germans aim for fruitiness, lightness, and a touch of sweetness, while the French impart strength and body to their Rieslings, Pinot Gris, and Gewurztraminers.
The Olson Christmas trees are trimmed with ornaments from around the world and with miniature Swedish flags, but the wine selections will bear names like Albrecht, Humbrecht, Sparr, and Metz. German, you say? Probably yes, somewhere back in the 13th and 14th centuries but today proudly French and prouder still Alsatian.
It’s impossible to sip on a luscious Gewurztraminer and not visualize the Strasbourg Christmas Market, the Strasbourg Cathedral with a glorious star atop its steeple, and an alcool blanc afterward.
The first of the holiday invitations arrived this weekend and indicated a highlight of the event would be “mulled” wine. As a lover and respecter of both history and tradition, I appreciate the idea of “mulling” wine but not the mulled wine itself. In my dotage, I prefer the wine as made, restricting my mixing to the occasional kir as an aperitif.
Perhaps my appreciation of wines mulled would be greater if our wines today resembled those of the Middle Ages when mulling was born. The addition of fruit, spices, and sugar and/or honey to wine offset the unpleasantness of poorly made wine or its overlong storage and undoubtedly brightened many a festive event. So be it — and kudos to those who re-create Victorian or Tyrolean holiday get-togethers.
In Heidelberg, my German colleagues would serve Gluhwein on frosty nights, a red or white wine, often heated, highly sweetened with sugar and doses of cinnamon and other spices and explain that it would cure a cold or prevent the flu or both. To them, the preparation of a Gluhwein was a work of art, a personal concoction of mixtures traceable to their own families. Even so, to me it was just a wine distorted by additional flavorings.
When we were in our little place in the Roussillon, the neighbors often served Sangria, a spiced red wine in a large bowl with fresh fruit floating atop, some even including a dollop or two of brandy. Again, some families seemed to be known for their special Sangria preparation.
Strangely, specific recipes are hard to come by. Commercially mixed Sangria is available, but when you seek out a recipe you find only general guidance. There seems to be no specific amount of any one ingredient. One adds what the spirit (if I may) moves him to add.
Mulled wine, Gluhwein, and Sangria are not to be dismissed They occupy honored places in our history of wine consumption. As I make the rounds of this season’s festivities, however, I shall look for the odd bottle here and there somewhere near the common bowl in hopes of finding a tasty white or red, as my palate prefers, but I will not refuse to place dipper in the bowl and pour the mulled juice in my glass. After all, there is always the chance that some host or hostess has stumbled across the perfect mull.
On a recent flight to New Orleans, I had it in mind that I’d find something blog worthy in the trip. The topic fell right into my lap as soon as I picked up the Southwest Airlines magazine, “Spirit.” New Orleans: A Cocktail Tour was a well-written, engaging article about the history and current trends of alcohol in New Orleans. You know a city where the best known street is named “Bourbon” has quite a “spirited” history! Rather than wines, though, the locally produced beverages are bourbon, rum, whiskey, beer and herb-based liqueurs like Herbsaint and Peychaud’s bitters.
This article made reference to several of the best bartenders in New Orleans, including Nick Dietrich, a Bloomngton native, who moved to New Orleans in 2008, with some other Bloomngton friends. Nick got his start working at some the Bloomington bars and restaurants. He is currently at a newly opened bar called Cane and Table, which is so popular that it doesn’t even have a sign out front!
Leave it to Louisiana to have a state cocktail! The Sazerac is arguably America’s first cocktail. The ingredients are variable, but are basically a potent blend of rye, Peychaud’s bitters and Herbsaint. This is not a drink for beginners. In fact, the first time I asked for it, the bartender talked me out of it and into a fruity girlie drink. However, I was determined to order it the next day and drank it down like a sailor!
NOLA folks also retain their love of anything French, which brings me to their love of Champagne. One of the more popular cocktails was created at Arnaud’s restaurant: the French 75, a blend of cognac, fresh lemon juice and Champagne. Michael’s Uptown serves a nice French 75, just in case you want to savor a bit of The Big Easy in Bloomington!OLDER POSTS »