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Matchmaker: Choucroute Garni and Alsace Riesling

What grows together goes together when enjoying two regional favorites

Nick Fauchald
Posted: January 11, 2005

One of the world's great regional dishes, choucroute garni is quintessentially Alsatian. Farmers ferment white cabbage with salt and juniper berries into a sauerkraut, then slowly braise it with wine, spices and any conceivable part of a pig, from shank to shoulder. Add a medley of sausages and smoked meats, and choucroute creates a platter-sized party of sweet, sour and salty that just begs for a crisp white wine. Luckily, those farmers don't need to go far to find one.

Wine Pairing

In Alsace the traditional pairing for choucroute garni is one of two locally produced wines: either the rich, spicy Gewürztraminer or the steely, fruity Riesling. I prefer the latter, finding the Gewürztraminer masks the dish's delicate herbal flavors and amps its sweetness up to an undesirable level, especially when used to braise the sauerkraut. It's best to save Gewürz for foie gras.

Bruce Sanderson, Wine Spectator senior editor and choucroute aficionado, agrees, favoring Riesling for its crisp acidity, which matches the acidity of the sauerkraut and balances the richness of the sausages and meats. He recommended a few of his favorite bone-dry Rieslings for this pairing.

Alsace Riesling appears to be a multicultural wine--many of its producers have German names and use those long, tapered German bottles and label the wines by grape à la America and other New World regions. But the wines themselves are unmistakably French: less sweet and more structured than their German neighbors, with weighty fruit and a racy, cellar-friendly acidity that helps them improve in the bottle for many years. Most Alsace producers blend grapes from several vineyards to make their standard Rieslings, but my list of recommended wines includes a vineyard-specific bottling from Paul Blanck.

By the way, a plate of choucroute is not unlike a grilled brat or hotdog with lots of extra sauerkraut--something to keep in mind when choosing wines for your cookouts next summer.

Recipe: Choucroute Garni
Serves 6

I've adapted this recipe to include only ingredients you'll be able to find at most grocery stores. If you know a butcher who carries specialty pork cuts, such as smoked jowls or salted shoulder, take advantage of your good fortune and add these along with the ham shank.

4 sprigs flat-leaf parsley
4 sprigs fresh thyme
10 juniper berries (or 1/4 cup gin)
15 black peppercorns
4 cloves
2 bay leaves
3 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 medium yellow onions, sliced thin
1/3 pound smoked bacon, cut crosswise into 1/4-inch-thick strips
7 cups sauerkraut (find a deli that makes it fresh, or use a good jarred variety), rinsed well and drained
1 smoked ham shank (if you can't find one, use less meaty ham hocks or knuckles)
3 cups Alsatian Riesling (or other dry white wine)
1 cup chicken stock
2 pounds waxy potatoes (such as Yukon Gold or red), peeled and cut into 1/3-inch-thick rounds
2 tablespoons canola or vegetable oil
2 pounds assorted smoked or precooked sausages (such as weisswurst, bratwurst, kielbasa, andouille, knackwurst or bauernwurst), cut into 1-inch sections
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Coarse-grained mustard and crusty French bread for garnish

Combine the first seven ingredients in a strip on cheese cloth and tie into a sachet.

Prepare the sauerkraut: Heat the butter in a large saucepan or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onion and bacon and cook until soft. Add the sauerkraut and toss well. Bury the ham hock and herb sachet in the mixture. Add the wine and chicken stock and bring to a simmer. Cover and braise gently over low heat for 2 hours. Even with the lid on, the scent of simmering sauerkraut will permeate your kitchen and most of your home. This is a good thing.

Heat the oil in a heavy frying pan over medium heat and brown the sausages, working in batches if necessary. Submerge the potatoes and sausages in the sauerkraut and simmer, uncovered, until potatoes are tender, about 30 minutes. Serve immediately with bread and plenty of mustard.

Wines

Wine Score Price
PAUL BLANCK Riesling Alsace Rosenbourg 2001 91 $23
An elegant, almost delicate white, dry and very firmly structured, offering apricot, peach and stone notes. It's subtle yet persistent, featuring a long, peach-infused aftertaste. Drink now through 2009. --B.S.
HUGEL Riesling Alsace Jubilée 2001 92 $40
Floral, apple, quince and stone notes mingle with the firm structure and juicy texture to create an appealing whole. Classic Alsace Riesling in the dry style. It really firms up on the finish today, so be patient. Best from 2006 through 2015. 800 cases made. --B.S.
TRIMBACH Riesling Alsace Cuvée Frédéric Émile 2000 91 $45
A compelling mix of apple and peach notes with a mineral underpinning gives this immediate appeal. Though from a ripe vintage, this has a coolness about it and a lively structure. Lovely length. To be released in the Fall of 2004. Drink now through 2010. --B.S.
LOUIS SIPP Riesling Alsace 2002 90 $18
An extroverted white, with peach and quince notes accented by beeswax. Full, round and dry, it's balanced and showing well now, but should develop over the next several years. Drink now through 2010. 8,900 cases made. --B.S.
PIERRE SPARR Riesling Alsace 2002 88 $10
Aromatic, offering floral, quince and ripe apple notes backed by a vibrant structure. It's almost glycerinlike in texture and beginning to show some maturity. Good, lingering finish. Drink now. 13,000 cases made. --B.S.

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