Alsatian wine has never gotten the respect in the United States that it deserves.
It's from the Alsace region way out in Northeastern France, which contains the cultural DNA of both France and Germany, as the land has been the subject of a centuries-long dispute between the countries. The names of the grapes are hard to pronounce, and the wines they create even harder to understand—maybe they’re dry, maybe they’re sweet. Some Alsatian wines exhibit searing acidity, while others have all the tartness of hand soap. Consequently, they can be hard sells in a world dominated by uncomplicated, generously fruited alternatives.
But the wines are uniquely suited for the holiday table. They have so much more to offer, and your efforts to understand these wines will be rewarded with flavors that play perfectly alongside turkey, the trimmings, and those filling desserts.
I can’t give you a full rundown of Alsatian wines in such a short space, but I can give you a crib sheet for your Thanksgiving food pairings. The following are presented in order of the meal:
Before the Turkey
Crémant d’Alsace is a fantastic ringer for champagne and other well-known, dry sparkling wines. Pierre Sparr and Lucien Albrecht make some wonderful cuvées, and they're commonly available in local shops. For a crémant with more complexity, seek out Valentin Zusslin’s “Brut Zero,” made naturally but tasting clean as a whistle. Pétillant-naturel wines (or naturally sparkling wines) also shine in Alsace, and my pick is the cloudy, amber-hued La Grange de L’Oncle Charles Pet-Nat.
The Riesling, Pinot Blanc, and Auxerrois grapes are responsible for the most ubiquitous dry, refreshing whites the region has to offer, though sweet Rieslings are also made in the region. Trimbach’s Cuvée Frédéric Emile is one of the titans of dry Alsatian Riesling. Try it with salads and cold seafood dishes—like that shrimp cocktail Mom buys to keep your pre-dinner hunger pangs away. Jean-Pierre Rietsch’s Auxerrois is less painfully acidic, but it still refreshes if you demand natural offerings.
For the Turkey
Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, and Muscat are staple semi-sweet Alsatian wine varietals. None of these wines have very pronounced natural acidity, giving them an oily, viscous texture. If I had a dollar for every person in the world who loves sweet cocktails but despises sweet wine, I’d likely be a billionaire, so suspend your doubt, and realize that these wines are perfect with the main savory plate that runneth over. Weinbach’s Gewürztraminer Reserve Personnelle and Kuentz-Bas’s Muscat are two great examples of off-dry whites. Ostertag makes several stunning Pinot Gris wines.
Alsace is also famous for blending these grapes together to create a wine greater than the sum of its parts. Albert Boxler Edelzwicker is a great entry to Alsatian blends: rounded and fruity, with a barely perceptible hint of sugar and aromatic spice notes. To pump the gas, seek out Marcel Deiss. His Alsace blanc bottling contains all 13 approved grapes for the region, and maybe a few that aren’t.
Note that Alsace also has a thriving natural wine scene that is finally making its way to Texas. Many great natural winemakers in the region produce “macerated” or orange wines alongside their classic cuvées. Jean Ginglinger, Bruno Schueller, and Jean-Pierre Rietsch are all in the market, albeit their bottles are still quite rare. Seek out Christian Binner as well for a more polished expression of Alsatian natural wine in both dry white and red.
Pinot noir is the only red grape authorized for the region. Alsace’s take is more rustic and full bodied than what you’d expect from Burgundy or California. It also has a more merciful price cap than Burgundian reds. Pinot noir from Marcel Deiss, Ostertag, Binner, and Weinbach will work wonders with assertively seasoned turkey or red meats.
After the Turkey
The four noble white grapes of Alsace (Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, Muscat) are also made into heartbreakingly beautiful dessert wines. Vendange tardive (or late-harvest) bottles display the purity of the grape profile, whereas “Sélections de Grains Nobles” are even sweeter and laced with the ginger and honey notes of botrytis mold. They’re not exactly easy to find on retail shelves, but they are worth the hunt. They will make your guests weep with joy when paired with apple pie.
Finally, Alsace is also famous for its un-aged dry fruit brandies, also known as eau-de-vie. They make spectacular digestifs, which Thanksgiving practically demands. If you’re unable to find a true Alsatian bottling, Clear Creek in Oregon makes some delicious brandies from Williams pear, blue plum, and my personal favorite, the Alsatian yellow mirabelle plum.
No matter when you drink these wines, exclaim “S’Gilt!” to toast like a proper Alsatian.
Justin Vann is a sommelier who’s the owner and beverage director for Public Services Wine & Whisky. He also serves as wine buyer for Theodore Rex, Mala Sichuan Bistro, and Okra Charity Saloon. His message to you: It has never been more urgent to give support to bars, restaurants, and wine shops as the food-and-beverage industry is being crushed by Covid-19. Your dollars going toward a local, independently owned business in lieu of a national chain can be the difference between life and death for that business.