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Alsace's Aromatic Summer Whites

Why not start this month -- smack dab in the middle of picnic season -- with white wines from Alsace? With their spring-fresh aromas and flavors, they're about as picnic-perfect as wine can be.

American wine buyers tend to buy their wines by grape -- Riesling, Merlot, Syrah, for example. However, as every wine lover knows, that tells only part of the story. Soil, climate, local winemaking traditions and tastes can make a California Syrah, for example, different from a Chilean Syrah, an American Sangiovese different from one bottled in the Chianti region of Italy, and a California Pinot different than one from Burgundy, France. And the list goes on.

But how do you start getting to know the vast wine regions and subregions of the world? By opening a few bottles and paying attention -- sip by sip. Alsace is a great place to start, and summer is the perfect time.

Stop and Smell the Roses

The Alsace region of France has a worldwide reputation for excellence in aromatic white wines. Of course, most all wines have aromas, but when a wine is specifically referred to as "aromatic," this means its natural perfume strikes particularly vivid floral and fruity notes. Alsatian whites are flush with seductive scents -- one generous whiff of a Gewürztraminer can carry you away to a lush patch of wild roses after a fresh summer rain. Breathe in the aromas of an Alsatian Riesling, and suddenly you can be in a blooming citrus grove, with both flowers and citrusy scents in the air. Honeysuckle, apple, white peach, apricot, pear, toasted almond, lychee fruit, honey, allspice -- so many romantic and voluptuous scents can spring forth as you sniff and swirl Alsace’s famous whites.

What's wonderfully surprising, however, is that no matter how much fruit these wines exude in the sniff, most all of them carry a nice acidity in the sip, allowing them to pair perfectly with a variety of foods. These wines are rarely one-dimensionally sweet; add to that some mineral nuances (think of the pleasing aroma of wet stones after a fresh rain) and a suppleness in the mouth, and you can see why these wines are often referred to as elegant.

Where to start

Try packing these quintessential Alsatian whites in a picnic hamper with the suggested serve-alongs, and you'll soon discover why Alsace deserves its reputation:

  • Riesling. Think all Rieslings are sweet? Fruitiness can be a hallmark, but Rieslings from Alsace surprise and delight with a backbone of tangy acidity as well as a rich, fleshy body. Bring on the chicken salad with this one or try simple ham sandwiches and potato salad.
  • Pinot Gris. While Pinot Gris is the same grape as Pinot Grigio, Alsace’s take on the grape brings more lush flavors as well as a richer, rounder finish. Give roast pork sandwiches and a creamy pasta salad a go with these bottles.
  • Gewürztraminer. Yes, it's a mouthful to pronounce, but just say "guh-VERTS" for short. This wild card of a wine brings lots of fruit, but also rose petals, honey and spice. Nibbling on hearty salamis and strong-flavored cheeses would be just the ticket here.

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