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An Essential Guide to Alsace Wines


  • The winemaking area is a thin, north-south rectangle (2 to 5 kms by 70 kms) in NE France, close to the Rhine and just over the border from Germany’s Black Forest. 15,600 ha in production over 119 winemaking communes
  • Produces 30% of France’s still whites
  • 92% of production is white - mostly dry or sweet (75%), but significant proportion of sparkling (25%). 8% red and rosé….

An Essential Guide to the Wines of Alsace

  • Most wines produced from one of a range of grape varieties whose name appears on the label (unlike most of the rest of France)
  • Most important varieties by area of plantation: Riesling 22%; Pinot Blanc 21%; Gewurztraminer 20%; Pinot Gris 15%; Pinot Noir 10%.

And if you want to know more…

This sliver of land is in a seriously strategic location. From the 1600s onwards it was fought over during the 30 Years War, the Franco-Dutch War, the Franco-Prussian War, and the two World Wars: tugs-of-war with sovereignty changing between France and Germany four or five times (I lost count). Hardly conducive to the peaceful development of vineyards. It hadn’t always been so: from Roman times through to the Middle Ages (with the help of monasteries) wine production thrived, and from the 1960s to the present quality and discernment have been re-established.

Geography and soil
Alsace is in the rain shadow of the Vosges mountain range, making it one of the driest regions in France. The geological transformations that made the Vosges also gave Alsatian winemakers a mosaic of at least twenty soil types, often in close proximity to one another. The best vineyards lie on the south or south-east facing foothills, where the semi-continental climate – cold winter, mild spring, warm summer, humid autumn – makes for a long, relatively cool growing season, perfect for individual grape varieties to give a full account of what they have to offer.

The grape varieties

produced on the French side of the Rhine is noticeably drier than its German neighbour. Pale yellow, aromas of fruit (citrus, peach, pear) and white flowers. With age, better examples express minerality and a tinge of gasoline. Dry, yet fresh and rich. Great with fish, shellfish, and white meat. Pinot Blanc is mainly a workhorse for the sparkling wine which is why so much of it is grown. Pleasant and simple. Gewurztraminer has an intense gold colour influenced by the light red skin of the grape. There’s no mistaking this guy when you inhale – lush, intense waves of exotic fruit (lychee, mango, passion fruit), rose, orange peel, and spice (cloves, pepper). Gewurz = spicey in German. The go-to wine for Indian and SE Asian cuisine. Pinot Gris has a yellow-gold colour with complex, often smokey aromas: undergrowth, mushrooms, moss, honey, wax. Well rounded and fresh in the mouth, sometimes with a hint of sweetness. Can stand up to game, veal, pork, kidneys, mushrooms, even with rich sauces. Kind of an autumn wine. Pinot Noir is the only authorised red grape variety, much of it used in the white and rosé sparklers. The still version is light and fresh with cherry and raspberry aromas. Good for picnics, barbecues, and Middle Eastern and Moroccan cuisine. The word ‘Edelzwicker’ on a label indicates a blend of grape varieties, the exception to the rule of single grape (still) wines. An inexpensive option, but can be surprisingly pleasant.

Wine varieties and classification
Apart from the single varietals I’ve mentioned above, which come in varying degrees of dryness, there are two particularities in the Alsatian wine-making canon: Vendanges Tardives (VT) and Selection de Grains Nobles (SGN). VT wines (literally ‘late harvest') are made in exceptional years and only from one of the four ‘noble’ grape varieties – Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris or very rarely Muscat. As the grapes are packed with sugar, you would expect a sweet wine, but in fact VT range from dry to medium sweet. Strange but true. SGN wines are a further refinement of VT where the grapes have been affected by noble rot (the infection that makes Sauternes Sauternes) and here you can definitely expect lush sweetness.
The classification system, pretty meticulous elsewhere in France, is a tad messy in Alsace. OK, there’s the basic
AOC Alsace, but on top of that can be added on the label commune names, which represent an extra level of quality control, and place names which are even more closely regulated. In theory, the more words on the label the more complex the wine and the more you pay. A bit infantile and not very helpful for the consumer. The AOC Alsace Grand Cru, of which there are 51, is also a mixed bag, some being worthy of the name others not. There is no Premier Cru level which has got to tell you something about how discombobulated the system is. At least with the third type of classification, AOC Crémant d’Alsace, you do know what you’re getting, ie. fizzy wine made in Alsace. And actually it’s not half bad.
So, all things considered, all the more reason to know some…

Reliable producers
The southern end of the Alsace strip, in the Haut-Rhin département, produces better quality wines than the Bas-Rhin to the north. Look for Léon Beyer, Albert Boxler, Marcel Deiss, Hugel, Josmeyer, André Kientzler, Albert Mann, Ostertag, Marc Tempé, Trimbach, Weinbach, and Zind-Humbrecht.

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