There is a retail liquor store owner in a middle-sized Hoosier city who groups her wines from Alsace with her German wines. She has a very fine selection of wines representative of most production areas and grape varietals. But when I go looking for a Trimbach or an Humbrecht or a Hugel, I have to leave her impressive French section and go the German section. She says she likes to keep her Rhine wines together.
True, the wines of Alsace are Rhine wines. They are grown in vineyards directly opposite vineyards across the river on the German side. They are mostly the same varietals. The climate is roughly the same on both sides, though the German vines tend to get more rainfall than those on the French side. (Hard to believe, but the Rhine Valley near Colmar is the driest part of France in terms of annual rainfall. Such rains as do get over the Vosges Mountains that separate Alsace from Lorraine have to get so high they just blow over the river where they are stopped by the Black Forest. Rains from the east just seem unwilling to make the effort to cross the river the other way.)
But the production styles differ. For generations, German wines were produced more for enjoying on their own rather than with meals, thus tending to be somewhat sweeter than their French counterparts, which have always been created for consumption with food. That’s changed a lot in recent years, as wine produced in Baden and the Rheingau especially have become more elegantly dry, and the French have discovered the great joys of very late-harvest vintages. Still, it’s fair to say the wines of Alsace tend to be more dry than those of Germany.
My Indiana retailer, however, was in good company with the WINE SPECTATOR one evening years ago when I registered for The Wine Experience. Air Inter had got me to Paris from Strasbourg on time, but Delta was delayed leaving Charles De Gaulle, so I was several hours late getting to New York. I signed in to the Experience about thirty minutes before closing time, and the registrar said I should hurry because the Grand Tasting was shutting down.
As I entered the hall, the first person I met was Hubert Trimbach on his way to dinner. We compared notes on our respective flights from Strasbourg, and he told me of a deli he had discovered not far from the Marriott. (We had had lunch together a few days earlier in the Chateau de Pourtales where he had met with some of my hotel management students.) A look of shock came across his face when he read my name badge stating I was from Strasbourg, GERMANY! In my rush to get to the tasting room, I hadn’t noticed.
“What! Have they come again?” he asked, “I’ve been gone only two days and here the Germans are once more.” Between 1870 and 1945, the Trimbachs had been alternately French and German several times, and if we looked back far enough they had been German before Louis XIV annexed Alsace. Next morning, I returned to the registrar to explain that the Rhine has two banks. (I found no need to explain also that the Swiss and the Dutch also lay claim to a bank of the Rhine.)