Alsace produces some of the most opulent, rich, and luscious wines in the world. These wines are often misunderstood, overlooked, and underpriced.

The vineyards of Alsace are nestled into a unique valley between France’s Vosges Mountains and Germany’s Rhine River. While unquestionably French, many of the wines of Alsace reflect the German influence created by years of struggle over the border - more than once the area was a part of Germany, with France beginning at the natural border provided by the impressive Vosges range.

The greatness of any region is ultimately a reflection of the climactic potential and aspect of vineyards. So many harvests in France's classic wine regions are compromised by the arrival of rain before the grapes are optimally ripe. This is less of a problem in Alsace thanks to the location of vineyards along a narrow strip stretching 60 miles north to south along the eastern foothills of the Vosges Mountains. The Vosges Mountains act as rain shelter from the moist Atlantic air, allowing for a long, balmy ripening season with harvest in late September to early October. Washout harvests are rarer in Alsace than Bordeaux or Burgundy and this is directly reflected in the quality of the wines produced in this corner of France.

All wines fit neatly into one of five classifications: Alsace AC, a blanket appellation covering the whole region, Cremant d’Alsace AC for sparkling wine, Alsace Grand Cru AC for special vineyard designated wines, Vendanges Tardives for late harvested wines, and Selection de Grains Nobles, sweet wines produced from super-ripe grapes affected with Noble Rot or Botrytis Cinerea.

Unlike many New World Cabernet Sauvignons, Merlots, Pinot Noirs, and Chardonnays, Alsatian wines are fruit straight up, without a chaser of new French or American oak. Remember that the rain shadow allows for some serious ripening here, so the wines achieve incredible richness on their own. At the same time their cool climate origin instills a heady, exotic perfume into the blend that would be lost with overt oak influence.

The noble varieties of Alsace are (Tokay) Pinot Gris, Muscat, Riesling, and Gewürztraminer. Other grape varieties grown include Sylvaner, Pinot Blanc (you might encounter Klevner and Pinot Auxerrois: These are cousins of Pinot Blanc and often show more finesse), and Pinot Noir.

Alsace is a region of predominantly dry white wines. Sweetness only becomes a serious factor with Vendanges Tardives (late harvest) wines, which can vary from off dry to markedly sweet depending on the vintage character. In exceptional years nectarous Selection de Grains Nobles are fashioned from individually selected, Botrytis-affected berries. SGNs are dessert wine rarities and can be extraordinarily expensive.

Consumer confusion can arise in discerning whether a Gewürztraminer (and occasionally a Pinot Gris) not labeled as late-harvest is dry or off dry, a factor that will be influenced by the winemaker's preference and the vintage character. Unfortunately, there is no helpful indication on the label to help in this instance, though dry styles are becoming more prevalent in Alsace.

Wines from Alsace transcend French regional chauvinism in that they will be found on most restaurant lists throughout the Gallic nation. This is an acknowledgment that Alsatian wines compliment a wide variety of foods. To look at the table possibilities one need look no further than the gastronomy of the region. Pork based dishes are a central theme in a region that gave the world choucroute: an unpromising sounding but outstanding combination of cabbage and pork sausage. Alsatian wines are not limited to Pork and Alsatian Riesling; anywhere where a white wine might work Alsace will come up with a convincing alternative. An alternative to Grand Cru white Burgundy? Try Alsace Grand Cru Pinot Gris. Looking for a seafood partner? How about a crisp, clean Alsace Pinot Blanc. A foie gras starter? Dust down an off dry Alsace Gewürztraminer. Using Alsace wines at the table is often an intuitive task as they are not marked by the use of oak maturation (extremely rare in Alsace) and retain fresh malic acids unlike too many Chardonnays whose malic acidity has been rendered soft and buttery by conversion to lactic acid. (Wine/Appellations)