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The grand cru whites of Alsace are among the world’s greatest white wines, and certainly among the best values in terms of quality for price.
The Riesling, Pinot Gris, Muscat and Gewürztraminer grapes that go into these tall, tapered bottles are grown on historic and well-tended plots that most agree are the best sites for delivering the region’s unique terroir. Perfumed, vivacious and surprising—holding up nicely to spicy dishes and Asian cuisine—they are a magnificent rebuke to the idea that white wine is boring.
And yet many wine lovers are not familiar with them. Perhaps their long names are to blame. Or maybe Alsace’s unusual history—traded between France and Germany as a war prize, occupied by the Nazis, ravaged by economic upheavals—put it behind other French producers in terms of development and recognition.
“We’re a very old wine region, but we missed 80 years of history,” says Séverine Schlumberger of Domaines Schlumberger, the largest holder of grand cru vineyards in Alsace.
Since the 1950s, the region essentially rebooted its wine industry from scratch, led by centuries-old, family-run producers, and it now has the highest percentage of biodynamic and organic vineyards in France.
In the 1980s and ’90s, 51 vineyard sites were officially designated as grand cru—the best of the best—and perfectly fit how producers viewed their winemaking. It is possible to make bad wine from great grapes, but most of Alsace’s grand cru sites are in very good hands. “Grand cru represents only 5 percent of the production, and it’s a guarantee of quality,” says Catherine Faller of Domaine Weinbach, the estate that she runs with her mother and sister.
These wines can be challenging to find. Not every grand cru bottling is designated as such on the label, and rare is the person who knows the names of all 51 vineyards. Getting to know and trust certain producers is key. And while the top finds generally come from the smaller domaines, some of the most venerable négociants—firms that buy grapes from multiple sources and blend them—make delicious options.