In the final weeks of summer, there’s nothing more relaxing than a good book and a glass of wine, the perfect lazy afternoon to blissfully postpone thoughts of a busy fall ahead. In our glass is an Alsatian white from one of France’s easternmost regions, which borders Germany (between 1870 and 1945, Alsace changed hands between France and Germany no less than four times).
Recently, we reread “Wine & War: The French, the Nazis & the Battle for France’s Greatest Treasure” by Don and Petie Kladstrup (2001), which tells the riveting story of wine-growing families from Bordeaux to Burgundy, who struggled to preserve their wines – and their lives – from the Germans in World War II. Sons of the Hugel family of Alsace were inducted into the German army while the Gestapo blocked the family from selling wine, even to German merchants, as punishment for anti-Nazi sentiments.
The book renewed our interest in their bottles, made in a compellingly beautiful area. Alsace, with its villages of half-timbered houses and expansive vineyards, is dotted with castles and medieval fortresses that hint at the history of this much-disputed border region. Our exploration led us to pinot blanc and riesling — excellent value for the money.
Nestled on the eastern slopes of the Vosges mountains with a view to Germany over the Rhine River, Alsace enjoys a long growing season. The mountain range shelters the region from rains coming from the west, so grapes ripen in a sunny, dry climate. This is white wine country; 90 percent of the wines are white. Pinot blanc, the light-skinned mutation of pinot noir known for producing dry white wines with moderate aroma and acidity, is often blended with the auxerrois grape. Together, these varietals comprise 20 percent of land under vine. Riesling — the noble, late-ripening grape, known to be fussy about the sites on which it grows — is the most widely planted varietal, representing more than 20 percent of vines. The best hails from Haut-Rhin, the southern half of the region. These rieslings can range from steely, bone-dry pours to a few sweet ones, like the late-picked vendange tardive wines and the selection de grains nobles.
In the last dozen years, many entry-level Alsatian winemakers have left increasingly higher levels of residual sugar in wines. Yet labels don’t reliably indicate sweetness, leaving the consumer unsure of what style is in the bottle. Knowing styles of producers is key. The wines below, all from long-established winemakers, are all dry, each in tall, long-necked bottles called flutes. At around 12.5 percent alcohol with a lively tartness, they are good for sipping on their own or paired with dishes featuring summer’s bounty.
When WWII broke out, the Hugels were preparing to celebrate their 300th anniversary as producers. The fete was canceled, then reorganized in 1989 on their 350th anniversary. Quoted in “Wine & War,” Papa Jean Hugel wrote movingly to his family about how wines at the celebration should be enjoyed. He talked about paying “homage to the skill and honesty of the winegrower, and equally to Nature, without whom the production of such jewels would be impossible.” Today, Hugel & Fils remains a family business, run by five members of the 11th and 12th generations. Their wines truly shine, offering refreshing purity and finesse.
We turned the last page of the war book and set a bottle of their lovely riesling on the dinner table.
Trimbach Alsace Pinot Blanc 2009 Taut and sophisticated with minerals, green herbs, and snappy apple. Smooth on entry, it blooms with appetizing tartness that complements food. Around $18. At Kappy’s Fine Wine & Spirits, Medford, 781-395-8888; Whole Foods, Dedham, 781-329-7100.
Domaines Schlumberger “Les Princes Abbes” Alsace Pinot Blanc 2011 A well-crafted white with aromas of apple blossom, citrus peel, and mineral. Offers a soft, yet lively, impression with Bartlett pear and green apple in the mouth. Around $22. At The Wine Press, Brookline, 617-277-7020; Atlas Liquors, Quincy, 617-472-1573.
Hugel & Fils Alsace Riesling 2011 Appetizing aromas of petrol and mineral stoniness are layered on top of green apple and citrus peel. Clean, precise acidity on the palate with attractive bitterness and a crisp, citric finish. Around $25. At Shubie’s, Marblehead, 781-631-0149; Martignetti Liquors, Brighton, 617-782-3700.
Willm Reserve Alsace Riesling 2011 Generous fruit undergirded by minerality and a touch of petrol. Aromas and flavors of Bosc pear, lemon, and green apple, with pleasing, zippy acidity. Around $13. At Berman’s Wine and Spirits, Lexington, 781-862-0515; V. Cirace & Son, North End, 617-227-3193.