Alsace is a gem of a wine region, well-known to sommeliers and the wine cognoscenti, but not yet well appreciated by the general public. The region makes some terrific wine, has a delicious gastronomy and is a stunning region visually. Alsace resides in north-eastern France sharing a border with both Germany and Switzerland. The key geographic features of this small, 15,000 hectare region are the Rhine River and the Vosges Mountains.
As the map shows, the region runs north-south with vineyards nestled up the Vosges Mountains to the east, facing the Rhine River to the west. Being on a mountainside means a hilly terrain, making it beautiful to look at and providing complexity and diversity to the region’s wines. Facing west captures the afternoon sun and results in ripe wines with rich textures. Proximity to the Rhine River provides a moderating influence on temperatures. Add to this a great diversity in soil types and you have the ingredients for a top-quality wine region providing a range of styles.
Alsace is France’s driest wine region, getting just 500mm of rainfall annually. Its northern location provides a cool climate so white grapes are predominantly grown here. Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, and Muscat make up roughly 75% of the grape varieties grown in Alsace. The region is warm enough to grow Pinot Noir which makes up roughly 10% of plantings. The remainder of the grapes grown in Alsace are Pinot Blanc, Auxerrois, Chardonnay and Sylvaner. Alsace makes both still and sparkling wine with 22% of its production being Cremant d’Alsace, a delicious and affordable sparkler that uses the traditional method of Champagne.
Alsace, like the rest of France and most other wine regions around the world, has set up a hierarchy among its vineyards to help consumers tell the best from the rest. That hierarchy was set in 1975 and there has been only one change made to it since that time. Currently that hierarchy has just two levels: Grand Cru and AOC (Appellation d’Origine contrôlée). There are 51 Grand Cru sites which together account for just 4% of production. At this time, there are discussions being undertaken to consider a third classification to sit in between the two to be called Premier Cru. This would divide the AOC classification and provide a further indication of quality, a move we think would greatly help consumers.
Alsace refers to their 4 main grape varieties (Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris and Muscat) as the Noble Varieties. The Grand Cru Vineyards can only grow Noble Varieties on their soil. There is one exception to this rule. In 2006, the vineyard of Zotzenberg was allowed to declare their wine made from the Sylvaner grapes as Grand Cru. This is the only vineyard to have this permission.
Alsatian wines have a distinctive character. There is a richness to the wines of the region which is quite unique. This characteristic makes it relatively easy to identify wines from Alsace in blind tastings.
Most of their wines are bottled as a varietal, not as a blend. When comparing a Riesling from Alsace to a Riesling from its neighbour across the Rhine in the Mosel region of Germany, several differences should be quite easily detected.
First, the Alsatian Riesling, if it is not a dessert wine, will be completely dry whereas most German Rieslings will have various levels of residual sugar. Next you will notice a greater viscosity in the Alsatian wine. The alcohol will likely be 1 to 2 degrees higher than its Mosel counterpart. The bouquets will be quite different as well. German Riesling can often be identified by a “petrol” note on the nose in addition to its primary fruit notes of green apple and citrus. Alsatian Riesling will show peach and tropical fruit notes in addition to the more common apple and lemon/lime.
While Gewürztraminer is grown successfully elsewhere on the planet, we would say that Alsace is the grail for this variety. Gewürztraminer from Alsace can be quite exotic and is likely to be a highly perfumed wine, especially if it comes from a Grand Cru vineyard. Expect notes of lychee nut, rose petals and exotic spices. Muscat from Alsace is usually a dry wine (different from the sweet Muscat made in the south of France) and while other varieties are often described as having characteristics of other fruits they evoke, Muscat gets straight to the point with tastes of biting into a crunchy grape!
Pinot Gris from Alsace is quite different from the Pinot Grigio of Italy and other Pinot Gris from around the world. Here Pinot Gris retains that Alsatian signature of ripe fruit that creates lush textures, exotic aromas and intense flavours. Think of it as Pinto Gris on steroids!
Pinot Noir from Alsace is lightly coloured and makes a pretty wine, lighter in body and not showing any of the unctuousness of its white grape brethren. Cranberry, strawberry and slight earthy tones are what to expect. Many aperitif drinkers like lighter style wines to have without food. Pinot Noir from Alsace fits that to a tee.
The sparkling Cremants d’Alsace are made with pretty much all the grapes grown in the region. This includes Pinot Noir which is used in their rose sparklers. As previously said, these wines are made using the same traditional method as used in Champagne. These wines on a comparative basis sell for a song. Don’t expect the same richness as Champagne, nor the autolytic or chalky characteristics. But what you will get is freshness, mineral and citrus flavours, and a lot of bang for your buck
Alsace also produces some wonderful, sweet wines. These wines come in two forms: Vendage Tardive and Selection de Grains Nobles. Vendage Tardive means “late harvest” and the grapes for these wines are allowed to get very ripe.
In addition, they are often, but not always, fermented not fully dry retaining a bit of residual sugar. These wines will have a viscous, honeyed texture and the sweetness will vary from -off-dry to sweet. Selections de Grains Nobles are similar to the dessert wines of Sauternes or the Hungarian Tokaji, where the grapes are allowed to be affected by the botrytis rot that desiccates water from the grape greatly increasing the resulting sugar to water ratio. Like Sauternes or Tokaji, these wines are decadently sweet and rich, a wonderful choice for after the meal.
One final feature of Alsace that should not be overlooked is the significant adoption of biodynamic farming principles being embraced there. (For more information on biodynamic farming, read our article here).
Biodynamic farming was developed by Rudolf Steiner in the 1930s and believes the farm is a complete system where all the ingredients to produce good crops naturally exist on the farm and nothing needs to be brought in. Alsace has many strong advocates of this system. The results they are getting in Alsace are showing the rest of the world how this is both an excellent way to make great wine but also, and maybe even more importantly, a great way to look after our planet.