The best way to get to know Alsace wines is to visit this distinctive part of France, writes Christine Austin.
‘White wine with chicken and fish, red wine with red meat’. That’s the old-fashioned mantra for matching food and wine, but nobody does it any more.
Now everyone drinks pretty much what they like with all kinds of foods, and some of the most momentous meals I have enjoyed have been brilliant combinations of fish with red wine or roast meat with a nerve tingling white.
But last week I tried one particular food and wine combination and it was so sensational I thought you might like to try it. At the invitation of Jean Trimbach I ate at Roka, one of London’s smartest Japanese restaurants and we spent several hours matching Trimbach wines to the fabulous array of food that was so beautifully presented it almost seemed a shame to eat it – but we did.
Trimbach is one of the oldest wine producers in Alsace. Established in 1626, it remains in family hands with Jean and his brother Pierre at the helm, overseen by their uncle Hubert. A 13th generation is now working in the company – the delightful Anne Trimbach, daughter of Pierre, who hosted my last visit to the estate in Ribeauvillé.
For this marathon food and wine matching exercise we started with yellowtail sashimi with yuzu-truffle dressing, the gorgeous aromas of which preceded the dish by several metres. Riesling Cuvée Frédéric Emile 2007, (£32.99, Waitrose for the 2006 vintage) was selected to accompany this aromatic dish which it did to perfection, the bone-dry pineapple and citrus fruit with clean minerally crunch adding to the dish rather than dominating. Just to confirm how well it goes with sashimi, a selection of tuna, octopus, sea bass, salmon and prawn sashimi was brought to the table and we matched this to two older vintages of Frédéric Emile, 1998 and 1989. This cuvée is made from grapes harvested from old vines planted in the vineyard right behind the winery, a south and south-east-facing marl and limestone slope, and it is named after a notable 19th century Trimbach.
The older vintages showed well, with the 1989 still vibrant, full of peach and honeyed fruit, with a hint of nuts, yet bone dry. This was a fabulous combination with sashimi, so long as I avoided the smoked soy sauce which distorted the fish flavours.
Then came a selection of dishes each one with a hint of spice and Gewürztraminer was selected to accompany them. Soft shell crab tempura with roasted chilli dressing, wagyu sushi with fresh ginger and beef tataki all worked well with Trimbach Gewürztraminer Seigneurs Ribeaupierre 2007 and 2000. (£32, Hic Wines, Castleford for 2007 vintage). With bright floral fruit and minerally spice, these wines made a perfect match.
The Pinot Gris Reserve Personelle 2007 (£29, Hic Wins) was a revelation matched against black cod rice with piri piri and lemon, but the real surprise was the way it went with the following course of a simple wagyu steak with teriyaki sauce. I would normally choose a red for such a positive-flavoured meat, but the rounded perfume, edged with smoke and with a glorious mouth- filling texture was a perfect combination. The wine actually poured to go with the steak was Trimbach Riesling Clos St Hune 2005 (£165 per bottle, Harrogate Fine Wine), a top-of-the-range Riesling from one of the most picturesque vineyards in the region. This is an absolutely glorious wine, intense and vibrant, with honeyed apricots and sheer knife-edge acidity and has a long life ahead of it, but is wonderfully balanced even now. It really didn’t need any food alongside; it was magnificent on its own.
The real aim of this lunch was to show how well Trimbach Alsace wines go with Japanese food, and they performed magnificently but, given the fact that Trimbach wines have limited distribution in Yorkshire, the same partnership can work with other Alsace wines.
The best place to start exploring Alsace wines is with the supermarket own-labels. I was really impressed by Tesco Finest Gewürztraminer 2012 (£7.99) for its lovely spiced perfume and elegant length of flavour. It you are planning a Japanese, or even a Thai-spiced dish then this is the wine to pour alongside. The Waitrose pair of wines from Cave de Beblenheim are also well worth seeking out. Grafenreben Riesling 2011 has all the right floral and lime notes with a touch of richness on the palate. Pinot Gris Reserve 2012 from the same producer has the classic honeyed pears and smoky notes and can cope with bigger dishes, including spiced noodles with umami-rich sauces.
And now spring is in the air and we are all starting to think about holidays, the best way to really get to know Alsace wines is by going there. This is the part of France that looks like it has stepped straight out of the pages of toytown. Its narrow cobbled streets are lined with brightly coloured half-timbered houses, each one with steep pointed gables and decked out with window boxes overflowing with red geraniums. It is a place that could be just facade, a film-set of cardboard cut-outs but this is definitely real, not just a tourist trap. This region is also blessed with glorious weather.
Tucked away behind a range of hills in north-eastern France, Alsace is sheltered from wind and rain. This region has one of the driest climates in France and it has a different personality too. With towns and villages rejoicing in names such as Turckheim, Kayersberg, Kienztheim and Ammerschwihr you could be forgiven for thinking you had strayed over the border into Germany but that is the legacy of history. Situated at the crossroads of Europe, Alsace has been a valuable prize for endless invading armies, beginning as long ago as the Romans. Now the invading armies come in cars and coaches and leave with boxes of wine and many happy memories. Most wineries are open to visitors and proprietors are delighted to pour their wines for tasting. This is a region that is well worth a detour.