If it’s variety and versatility you want from a wine region, Alsace is hard to top. French, of course, but with an undeniable German influence, the wines are wonderful and mirror some of the varieties across the Rhine. The wines are natural partners to the robust local cuisine that majors on full flavours, and they fit in right across almost any meal thanks to a range of sweetness levels. Here are just a few suggestions for foods that match the classic levels of sugar, from the driest to the lusciously sweet.
Riesling is a brilliant food wine in all its incarnations, and the versatility of the dry versions is legend. Match their zing and purity with smoked fish like salmon, trout or eel - riesling’s natural acidity cuts the silky luxury of the fish beautifully. Fish marinated in citrusy, herby cures are also a delight with dry rieslings, as are raw fish like sushi and sashimi or shellfish. Simply cooked fish fresh from the grill or pan is super too, as is Chinese dim sum. For dry rieslings with more weight and richness, fatty cuts of pork are excellent, with that natural acidity slicing through the fat – try the regional speciality choucroute garni. Coq au riesling is another classic of the region – use a glass or two in the sauce, and another on the side.
If you find yourself uncorking a pinot blanc, stand it shoulder to shoulder with a quiche, particularly one filled with unctuous onions, which is a classic match locally. Pinot blanc is, happily, a wonderfully versatile food wine, its body and clean lines allowing all sorts of dishes, from simply cooked fish to roast chicken, to speak alongside the wine.
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Dry pinot gris, on the other hand, is a different beast with a touch more spice and fatness to suit fragrant and full flavours, like a Thai green curry. Very good with delicate luxury shellfish like crab, scallops and langoustines, even in thermidor sauces, it also likes richer fish in sauces, unctuous risottos, and creamy chicken or veal concoctions. When it has a bit of weight behind it, pinot gris is a fine partner across a tricky cheeseboard too.
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Gewurztraminer’s heady spicy aromas and full flavour are a gift when smelly cheeses like the Alsatian Munster, Maroilles, Epoisses, or our own Stinking Bishop, are pungently doing their thing. Gewurz is also a gem with gingery flavours and richer birds like goose or turkey, particularly with spicy or aromatic stuffings. Lighter curries from across Asia are also fine partners. Finally, somehow, gewurztraminer works with tomatoes and their awkward balance of sweet and acid. The muscat grape, also aromatic but a tad more delicate than gewurz generally, is great as an aperitif but comes into its own when asparagus is in season and as fresh as a daisy.
Sylvaner, lesser known but often startlingly good with food thanks to its clean direct flavours and acidity, is brilliant with pork, hams and charcuterie, plus with the regional specialities of tangy choucroute or hearty, cheesy tarte flambé. And fish and chips crunchy batter is a good pairing here for sylvaner’s zing to cut through.
Off-dry (a modicum of sweetness but not fully sweet) riesling is a delight with rich pâtés and parfaits, especially when tricky-to-match chutneys or relishes are served alongside. Seafood curries or dishes with typically Thai or Szechuan influences are golden here, as are mild to medium south Asian curries. An old-school delight is a prawn or seafood cocktail that can wipe out lesser wines with its tangy dressing.
Pinot gris with a bit of residual sugar is also brilliant with curries and dishes in which fruit and savoury mix, like goose with apples or pork with prunes and so on. Rich chicken liver parfaits and pâtés are, as with riesling, excellent here, chutney and all. Tricky to meet on equal terms, sweet and sour dishes are worth trying with an off-dry pinot gris, as are curries like dopiaza or chicken tikka masala. And, as with the dry versions, pinot gris with some sweetness is a gem with the cheese course, especially blues and stinkies.
Off-dry gewurztraminer is a brilliant all-rounder when the spice heat is ramped up and aromatics get heady. With gewurz’s excellent track record with tomatoes, try it with a curry of the same with fragrant basmati rice (Simon Hopkinson’s version is a gem if you can track it down). Rich pâtés are, as with many off-dry wines, very good with gewurz, and here chutneys with big or spicy flavours can be accommodated. Try it too with butternut-squash or sweet potato-dominated dishes to match with their sweetness. And the opulence that such gewurz’s often show is great with fruit-based desserts like apple or pear tarts, tropical fruit salads and anything mango, including fruity salsas with savoury dishes.
Sweet rieslings from Alsace, frequently late harvested and/or affected by noble rot that intensifies the sweetness, generally have a wonderful acidity, enlivening and balancing the lush sugar levels. Wines like this are a treat with citrusy desserts like lemon tart, passion fruit coulis, lime syrups and tangy pineapple dishes. Apple tarts are great here too, as are baked Granny Smiths and Bramley’s that haven’t been over sweetened. It is also a classic with rich but controversial foie gras and consequently very rich parfaits and pâtés. There are those who would advocate such wines with spicy savoury dishes too.
Gewurztraminers with real sweetness are amazing; scented and rich but crucially, when well made, retaining freshness. Gewurz’s affinity with ginger is a wonderful thing here, so a steamed ginger sponge will be a joy. Sticky, very sweet south-Asian desserts are also a delicious match, marrying the aromatic spices with the aromatic wine. Mango, too, works beautifully with gewurz, solo or in syllabubs, on meringues, in fools and trifles, adorning rice puddings. It’s also lovely when rosewater, mango and ginger come into a dish. Traditional apple pies and crumbles are very good with sweet gewurztraminer, especially when a clove or two brings its fragrance and flavour to the party or added ginger spruces things up. And tropical fruit salads with syrups are a delight.
Pinot gris covers some of the same ground as gewurz, including apple pies and crumbles or pear desserts, fruit salads of all kinds. It is less headily fragrant and so can embrace desserts like crème brûlée or bread and butter pudding. Try it with apricot tarts or roasted peach desserts too.