In these depressing times, let’s ignore monumental truths flattened by prejudice and a nation riven like a traitor in a medieval torture chamber, open a bottle of good Riesling and consider Alsace. Given that there is almost no straightforward aspect to this sliver of eastern France, this will take at least the time required to drink the wine, an exotic and potent blend of perfume and fine-laced acidity.
No amount of Brexiting can compare to the fissures in the Alsatian psyche. These unfeasibly pretty slopes below the Vosges mountains have been tussled over by two nations and have sheltered Catholics from Protestant Germany and Protestants from Catholic France. Here, dry Rieslings are so aromatic and fruit-laden they can seem sweet and “acidity” has nothing to do with the burning peevishness that English word suggests. On the contrary, it is the trellis up which the flavours climb. Good acidity allows age to mellow and soften a fine Riesling, such as the 1997 Kreydenweiss I inherited, into something far more complex and beautiful than is dreamt of in any short-termist’s philosophy.
Alsatian winemakers understand history. Many here are the tenth or 12th generation, and the landscape is as layered with their families’ influence as with the crumbled, ancient shells that make up the Muschelkalk, a soft, deep limestone that gives distinctive flavour to patches of vines including Clos Sainte Hune, on a Grand Cru known as Rosacker. The Clos sits below a pretty little church, clock-hands decorated with metal vine leaves, noticeboard announcing Protestant and Catholic services at different times. Like the wonderful, aromatic wine Trimbach makes from this famous vineyard, the church has a surprising level of complexity. As for Saint Hune, she never existed. Nothing in Alsace is simple, and after a while you relax into that truth as into a second glass from a great bottle, and stop worrying.
The Alsatians would like us to understand their complications, but this project, like drinking itself, should be approached with moderation. The winemakers can offer great clarity and fascinating insights into their wines, as I found first-hand when Sophie Barmès of Barmès-Buecher conducted a winemaker takeover at the 28-50 bar in Marylebone. She talked charmingly about soil and vintage, and suggested dishes to match the lovely wines she poured. Nonetheless, this is a region where, according to Jean-Michel Deiss of Domaine Marcel Deiss, nobody knows quite who they are, and the last three generations of a family like André Ostertag’s have had three different mother tongues: French, in his case, Alsatian in his parents’; their parents spoke German.
It is the land that speaks for them all, and translating that into a clutch of grape varieties or untangling the difficult pronunciation of 51 Grands Crus shared by various winemakers should be as much a choice as converting French to German or, for that matter, English. Find great winemakers: any mentioned here, or Julien Schaal, Bott-Geyl, Paul Blanck, Agapé.
Trust your taste buds, not your tongue. The world is infinitely complicated, as every Alsatian knows, whether we’re discussing soil or politics or anything in between, but without complexity, life would have no texture. It’s the refusal to confront it that gets us into trouble. Whoever claimed that ignorance is bliss was a fool – unless he had ignorance confused with Riesling.
This article appears in the 04 Jul 2018 issue of the New Statesman, England in the age of Brexit