Back in the spring of 1997, I had the good fortune to work in the kitchen of Nöel Dontenville, the chef and owner of Restaurant Les Acacias. His cozy, elegant establishment, which he ran with his wife, Claire, overlooked the picturesque town of Niederbronn-les-Bain in France’s Alsace region. A contemporary of Paul Bocuse, Dontenville put me in touch with my inner Auguste Escoffier—the Elvis Presley of French cuisine.
From various styles of pâté de foie gras to coq au vin (Burgundy and Alsatian styles, of course) and everything in between, Dontenville patiently explained the techniques, ingredients and history of these famous dishes to me, a nervous, inexperienced culinary student. (Chef Dontenville, who was more likely to laugh rather than throw a plate at my frequent missteps, was not your typical French chef.)
The work was hard and the dishes, many of which were made just for my education, were rich, rich, rich. I learned a lot about the kitchen during my time at Les Acacias, which, alas, is no more. I also took away a fondness for les vins d’Alsace, especially pinot gris.
Not only were these wines crisp, clean and sophisticated, they made an excellent accompaniment to the food, even hearty Alsatian dishes that one might otherwise pair with a bigger, red wine. This is a lesson I refer to regularly, as my culinary career has taken me in a more wine-oriented direction.
I find the selection of Alsatian wines—generally white varieties, with riesling, gewürztraminer and pinot gris sitting at the head of the class—depressingly thin in Georgia. I recently opened a stunning 2006 pinot gris from Trimbach (did I mention that Alsatian wines age nicely, too?), which was a knockout with seared salmon filet served on a ragout of lentils, barley, flageolets and diced potatoes. (Even my wife and father-in-law, who are both somewhat quiet regarding such matters, made yum noises with this food-wine combo.)
I’d encourage you all to seek out the great whites of Alsace, but I’m not going to send you on a wild and somewhat pricey goose chase this week. While rieslings or gewürztraminers from anywhere haven’t exactly electrified the American wine market, Alsatian-style pinot gris seems to have struck a chord. The J Pinot Gris, which shouldn’t be too hard to find, is a great example.
The marketing research firm ACNielsen says sales of pinot gris in the U.S. grew by 10 percent in 2012 and have maintained similar double-digit growth for a decade. This statistic, of course, includes pinot gris’ incredibly popular Italian step-brother pinot grigio, which refers to a more tart, citrusy, simple style. Many winemakers in California, Oregon and Washington, however, take their cues from their Alsatian counterparts.
If you haven’t already, now is a great time to introduce yourself to pinot gris. It is just the thing to revive you as you suffer through the final throes of summer, but its intense flavors and relatively full body accommodate the heavy dishes of fall and winter. Is it too early to start talking about wines for Thanksgiving dinner? If you asked Chef Dontenville, or just about anyone else in food/wine-crazy Alsace, it’s never too soon to discuss one’s next meal.
Gil Kulers is a sommelier and maitre d’ for an Atlanta country club. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Note: Wines are rated on a scale ranging up from Thumbs Down, One Thumb Mostly Up, One Thumb Up, Two Thumbs Up, Two Thumbs Way Up and Golden Thumb Award. Prices are suggested retail prices as provided by the winery, one of its agents, a local distributor or retailer.
—Gil Kulers, AJC Drink Blog