Imagine a buddy whispering a tip in your ear: "There's a killer wine region you got to check out, still mostly undiscovered, awesome value, and they make only good stuff. You can't go wrong." You'd never guess he's talking about France, where there hasn't been a wine secret since Thomas Jefferson bought Bordeaux en primeur. But Alsace, a region 250 miles east of Paris where Hitler's tanks duped and flanked the French army, also happens to be the world's most serious wine region devoted almost entirely to whites.
Alsatians are dry as a knife, with no oak to get in the way, and range in quality from plain wonderful to outright majestic. They come in those tall, tapered bottles that everybody associates with sweet dessert wines, so they're often overlooked, underappreciated, and, luckily, underpriced. The four main grapes are riesling, gewürztraminer, pinot gris, and pinot blanc, but chuck everything you know about these varietals, because the Alsatian versions are unique. German rieslings, for example, tend toward sweetness and low alcohol, while an Alsatian riesling is all about fruit, vibrant with peach and citrus, a bone-dry lack of sugar, and such bracing acidity that it's one of the rare whites that goes great with meat, especially pork, duck, and goose.
Then there's pinot gris, or Italian pinot grigio – the harmless white served by the forgetful glass in a zillion restaurants. Alsatian pinot gris, on the other hand, is a full-bodied party girl of pineapple and peach, smoke and earth, lime and honey that goes great with shellfish. Gewürztraminer is an even more special case; most of what you try stinks, yet the Alsatian stuff can blow your mind with honey, lychee nuts, gingerbread, and smoke – awesome with sweeter shellfish, as well as eggs. (Who says wine can't be part of a complete breakfast?) Then there's pinot blanc, an eminently lovable quaffer of baked apple and cream, like a mellow chardonnay. No matter the varietal, they're easy to find, since Alsace is one of very few Old World wine regions to put varietals front and center on labels, and for some reason, they only send Americans the good stuff.
Next time you're in your local wine shop, look for these four.
Domaine Ehrhart Gewürztraminer '04: Think hints of apricot, nectarine, and citrus with the Grand Cru Hengst, along with 10 different flowers that zip across the palate. [$15; getwineonline.com]
Domaines Schlumberger Pinot Gris '05: This Kitterlé Grand Cru is floral and fruity, with a smooth, mouth-filling viscosity. It's terrifically intense on the tongue. [$40; lacantinapinta.it]
René Muré Pinot Blanc Tradition '06: Mellower than the others, this one has a creamy, nutty quality, like a chardonnay that tastes good. [$14; finewineandgoodspirits.com]
Trimbach Riesling '06: Make this your go-to Alsatian white for the great price, plus all the clean fruit and bright acid that create a taste that lingers. [$65; wine.com]