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  • Jancis Robinson
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  • Jancis Robinson
31 Dec 2001
 

Whoever said 'the first duty of a wine is to be red' was wrong. There are times, particularly in high summer, when red wines are either too soupy, too tough or too heavy to contemplate - even with food. What we need then is a refreshing white wine with enough body to stand up to strong flavours.

White burgundy can rarely be accused of having not enough body or weight, but with the noble exception of Chablis, so many examples can lack the invigorating nerve needed in warm weather. White Rhône, like most New World whites, even more so. Loire whites are at the other extreme: lovely and crisp but a little light-bodied - and less educated palates can easily be horrified by the sweetness of many of them. Most German wines ditto.

Italy's new wave of razor-sharp, super-fruity whites could field any number of suitable candidates for the dinner table, as can Austria, but these sources may be too outré for more traditional drinkers.

For those who believe the first duty of a wine is to be French, Alsace is the answer. There are few more refreshing, serious, full-bodied dry white wines than a fine Alsace Riesling which arguably is a much more flexible food partner than most white burgundy.

Alsace wine producers, by the way, have developed the extremely annoying habit of bottling wines with wildly varying amounts of residual sugar in the wine from year to year so that we cannot tell from a glance at the label just how sweet the wine will be, or make any sensible decisions about how and when to drink it. This confusion seems to apply particularly to Gewürztraminer and Tokay Pinot Gris although Riesling bottlings are not immune. All of the wines recommended below are effectively dry.

The best 1997 Rieslings from Alsace are looking very good at the moment. This was a vintage with real definition and class (at the time some locals were predicting it would be on a par with 1959 or even 1947 - but then they would, wouldn't they?). The greatest of all, Trimbach's Clos Ste Hune, needs far longer than three or four years in bottle to show at its best, but most of the rest - specifically those with the words Grand Cru on the label - are already both charming and convincing.

(The Grands Crus are about 50 specified superior vineyards on which only certain, supposedly particularly suitable grape varieties may be grown. The big houses such as Trimbach and Hugel prefer their own brands such as Clos Ste Hune and Jubilee to entering into the free-for-all of Grand Cru vineyard ownership.)

One of the most impressive 1997 Riesling Grands Crus in a recent tasting was Josmeyer's from the Hengst vineyard which manages to combine delicacy with steely charm. (Can one think of a person who could manage that? Some French diplomat perhaps.) This is apparently available online from an outfit of which I have never heard called www.bringmywine.com (surely the only British online wine retailer NOT to have been in touch...) at £15.32 a bottle. That trusty selector Gauntleys of Nottingham (tel: 0115 911 0555) offer it by the case at a very reasonable £159, as well as the late harvest Cuvée St Martin 1997, which I have not tasted, at £225 a dozen. Bennetts of Chipping Campden (who have a particularly interesting list at www.bennettsfinewines.com) are charging £18.75 a bottle for the regular Hengst 1997.

Rather easier to find outside the UK are Schoffit and Zind-Humbrecht, both of whom fashion impressively concentrated wines from the Rangen Grand Cru way down south in Thann. Zind-Humbrecht's Clos St Urbain 1997 Riesling is a powerhouse, at least 14 per cent alcohol and very possibly the biggest wine ever produced from this grape. It stood up admirably to Cornish crab straight out of the sea recently, but has that very slightly oily finish that ultra-ripe Riesling can develop.

Schoffit's Clos St Théobald 1997 Riesling is a little sleeker, more polished and elegant although there is no shortage of richness. Good old Gauntleys have it a £235 a case and UK importers are Heyman, Barwell Jones on 01473 232322. Garnet Liquors of New York and the New Jersey-based online retailer Wine Library are offering single bottles at around £24 a bottle. Best value by far seems to be from Caro's, a thoroughly admirable wine store in Auckland, New Zealand. A bit far to go for most FT readers, I know, but according to WineSearcher, their price for this jewel is less than 15 pounds sterling a bottle without local taxes. If ever you find yourself in Auckland, you will find this tiny shop in Ponsonby stuffed with bottles you tried to get your hands on back home.

And if you can't find any of the above, try Ostertag's Muenchberg 1997 Riesling which is very fine and well-balanced with a delicious mineral undertow. Morris & Verdin of London SE1 are the UK importers and sell it for £194.40 a case or £18 for a single bottle.

All of these concentrated wines would be a treat for any diner, and could be served with a wide range of savoury summer foods.