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Alsace's wines take California's less traveled path

Call them Cal-satians, unique white wines, crisp and plump, perfumed, but not sweet. They're far off the beaten vineyard path.

They are part California and part Alsace, itself part France and part Germany. They are anything but chardonnay: pinot blanc, pinot gris, muscat, gewurztraminer and more.

Look 250 miles north of San Francisco, in the Anderson Valley of Mendocino County, between redwoods and gray whales, where independent streaks and '70s sensibilities run as deep as the vines.

"We've weeded out the people who want 'normal.' We all had to take a left turn somewhere to get here,'' says winemaker Milla Handley.

The tie-dyed trail took her to the tiny town of Philo. In 1982 she became the rare woman with her own label — in folk art motif. Today she has a certified organic estate called Handley Cellars.

A century ago Philo and nearby Boonville were so isolated that they invented a language, Boontling, with words coined by and for locals. In Boont, wine is "frattey,'' for an early winegrower.

It's an odd site for the Alsace of the Pacific, yet somehow perfect.

Elsewhere in the landscape,

Californians strove for the wines

of Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne. They planted san-

giovese and pinot grigio to make Cal-Italian wines. They borrowed the Rhone's shiraz and grenache; Portuguese and Spanish grapes, too.

Alsace is another region heard from. On France's eastern border, it uses German grapes in drier French style — or is it French wine with German balance? — great with foie gras, pork and sauerkraut.

Now Alsatian grapes grow in California's coolest regions, from Anderson Valley and Clarksville to Carneros and Arroyo Grande.

While odd hot spots in Anderson Valley grow fine zinfandel, low temperatures and Pacific breeze and fog make great pinot noir for fine bubbly at Scharffenberger and the Aermican vineyards of France's Roederer. Chardonnay's good too, when it can ripen.

What's good for Burgundy and Champagne is better for Alsace grapes and style.

That made sense to Handley, Husch and Navarro and other wineries that wanted to make trends rather than follow Napa. "We had no choice,'' Handley said. "No one asks for cabernet here.''

They took gewurztraminer and riesling seriously and made them crisp and dry. Instead of light, fresh pinot grigio, they turned the grape into pinot gris for fleshier, creamier drinking. In them you can smell and taste the Anderson Valley that nourished them: exotic spices, cool breezes, rocky wet slopes, chalky soil and a big bouquet of flower power.

As those Boont mavericks might say, it's fine "frattey.''

Chris Sherman can be reached at csherman@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8585.

Tasting notes

Wines made from Alsatian grapes made in the region's distinct style have been transplanted to California's coolest vineyards. They can be found as far north as Anderson Valley in Mendocino County and the Carneros region of Napa and Sonoma to the central coast near Monterey and Santa Maria.

Wines in the Alsatian style are crisp, very aromatic, but not truly sweet. They are medium- to full-bodied, not light. They match a variety of food, from sauerkraut and sauerbraten, to spicy Thai and Vietnamese.

Among my favorites:

Gewurztraminer, Handley Cellars, Anderson Valley, $20. It leads with orange blossoms, then melons, peaches and spices in luscious texture with clean finish. Grand food wine.

Gewurztraminer, Adler Fels Winery, Russian River, 2004, $13. All the spice and fun fruits of tangerine and pineapple in rich body, finished refreshingly like a racing stream. Best gewurz south of Boonville. Load up for summer.

Pinot blanc, Laetitia Vineyard, 2006, Arroyo Grande, $17. Smell melons and pears, and taste them in a lush liquid with slick acidity. This blanc's for you, and your seafood.

Pinot gris, Handley, Anderson Valley, 2006, $18. Luscious basket of fruit, with a few drips of honey, but fresh, not heavy. This is not Italy.

Riesling, Handley, Mendocino County, 2006, $20. Spicy nose, with a creamy mouthfeel and peaches slow-dancing on the tongue. Buy two.

Chris Sherman

Alsace's wines take California's less traveled path 06/03/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 4, 2008 1:54pm]

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